Boston-based National Braille Press remains a top publisher for the blind
At more than 700 printed pages, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” is a very big book to convert into Braille. “The Joy of Cooking” is even bigger, topping out over 1,000 pages.
But never in its nearly 90-year history had the National Braille Press undertaken a project as large as the one it completed in 2011. Creating a Braille edition of the 1,600-page “New American Bible,’’ with its freshly approved revisions by the US Catholic Bishops Conference, was something else entirely.
It took nearly 4,500 two-sided zinc plates for the National Braille Press to make that Bible — each edition composed of 8,846 thick pages in 45 volumes. Commissioned by New York’s Xavier Society for the Blind, the full run, destined for private homes, consisted of 150 copies.
To mark the occasion, a set was presented to Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in 2011. The nonprofit publisher, tucked away in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood, had never before drawn so much attention. Its current president, who had worked in the local business world for 25 years, had no idea of the organization’s existence before he was recruited a half-dozen years ago.
Upon completion of the massive Bible job, the NBP had the metal plates recycled. Though the company is located in a four-floor building big enough that it once housed a piano factory, storage of so many stamped plates would’ve been a major headache.
So NBP president Brian MacDonald could only shake his head and smile when the Xavier Society requested a second printing of 100 copies. The company would have to re-create the plates.
“We kick ourselves now,” he said recently, sizing up the last days of the monumentally labor-intensive, two-month-long print run for the Bible. This time, said Jackie Sheridan, vice president of production, they’re hoping to store the plates.
For the National Braille Press, facing challenges has become a way of life. Amid a decline in Braille literacy and shifts in technology, the company remains one of the oldest and largest printers for the blind in America. Besides printing Braille editions of hundreds of titles available to the sighted, NBP specializes in publishing works written by blind authors for blind readers.
Kim Charlson, director of the library at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, says NBP is one of the top five Braille presses in the country. Whereas Perkins itself produces about 200,000 pages of Braille a year, “they’re doing in the millions of pages. They’re a major producer.”
Given the methodical process of setting printing plates and the fact that Braille coding, with its cells of raised dots on heavier paper, takes up so much more space than the printed word, the percentage of books that get printed in Braille is “a drop,” says Charlson. Of an estimated 300,000 books published annually in the United States, “we’re lucky if we can add 500 new braille titles to our collection every year.”
Perkins had a distinct role in the founding of the National Braille Press. After losing his eyesight in a boyhood accident, Italian immigrant Francis Ierardi attended the school. Two decades later, he founded the Weekly News, a Braille newspaper, and the National Braille Press was born.
The NBP is well known in the blind community for its own Braille primer for parents of blind children, “Just Enough to Know Better.” For decades the company has published Our Special, a Good Housekeeping-style periodical for sightless homemakers.
In recent years, said MacDonald, they’ve moved into more lifestyle-oriented books, such as “Wine for Dummies” and books that provide useful knowledge such as how a sightless person can use her iPhone camera or Twitter.
Last week, a long wooden table was stacked with pages from “Froggy’s Day With Dad,” the next monthly release of the Children’s Braille Book Club, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Out front by the reception desk, visitors can thumb through copies of a Red Sox 2014 season schedule.
All told, the company has about 45 employees. Many are proofreaders whose painstaking tasks would perhaps rival those faced by the legendary copy editors and fact-checkers at The New Yorker magazine.
In one dimly lit office room, four proofreaders sat quietly at their respective desks, each scanning Braille proof sheets with their fingertips. Filling the shelves of two bookcases were all 72 volumes of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.
Most of the press’ revenue comes from various types of Braille material. The firm also raises about 30 percent of its operating budget through fund-raising, said MacDonald, a large chunk of which comes from its annual A Million Laughs for Literacy gala, headlined in recent years by comedians including Jay Leno, Lily Tomlin, and Dana Carvey.
Last fiscal year, the nonprofit posted nearly $4 million in operating revenue.
In addition to its commissioned work, the company donates some of its materials to advocacy groups, many in Third World countries.
“Sometimes [the press sends] inventory that isn’t moving,” explained MacDonald. “They don’t ask for specific titles. They’re starving for material.”
The Xavier Society paid about $1,400 per copy to produce “The New American Bible,’’ says Margaret O’Brien, the organization’s operations manager. The books are given away to families with a certified sightless person in the household.
“There was a waiting list of people who were interested” after the initial printing ran out, O’Brien said in an interview. “We have people all over the country, clients who’ve been with us for many years.” In June, the National Braille Press will be honored at the annual Xavier Awards dinner in New York.
Businesswise the press is holding its own, said MacDonald. The company was in the red when he arrived six years ago; he has since made adjustments to get it in the black, “and I don’t mean a lot in the black.”
NBP has successfully weathered both the economic woes that affected all nonprofits in recent years and the declining demand for Braille. The mainstreaming of blind children into public schools, which began in earnest in the 1970s, served an undeniable social benefit, said MacDonald, but it also hurt Braille literacy.
“The literacy rates for blind students went from 50-60 percent to about 12 percent today,” he said. Meanwhile, with technological advances such as talking books and screen-reader software, students were being told they would no longer need to read Braille.
“We know today that was a big mistake,” said MacDonald. Seventy-four percent of blind adults are unemployed, he said. Of those who do have jobs, the vast majority are Braille readers.
“There’s such a strong correlation,’’ he said. “Investing in kids understanding Braille is an investment in them becoming taxpayers, ultimately. That’s a big deal.”
NBP production relies on two archaic-looking plate-embossing devices located in a small room on the second floor. With their boxy particle-board frames and switchplates covered in old duct tape, they look like something out of the earliest days of punch-card computer technology.
The company runs two kinds of presses in the basement — three Heidelberg printing presses modified for Braille production, which are the industrial warhorses, and the more modern-looking electronic embosser, which is essentially an oversize computer printer for Braille.
Most of the press’s revenue comes from its traditional printing business, but it faces some pressure to adapt to the digital age. Readers of traditional paper Braille publications face limited choices and problems of access to material. Newer technologies that can convert regular text into Braille for individual readers hold great promise.
“The overall intent of the mission is the same,” said MacDonald, who came to NBP after years at the New England Aquarium and a stint with the Audubon Society of New Hampshire. “What’s different is the technology.”
Refreshable Braille displays (devices with round-tipped pins that rise and fall to form Braille letters) have enabled the sightless to read text from a computer monitor for about 25 years, he said. But they’ve always been pricey, running into the thousands of dollars. NBP is working on developing a cheaper prototype, as well as technology that would allow users to read tactile graphics, such as maps and charts.
“Better mousetrap, basically,” said MacDonald. “Our production of paper Braille is starting to decline. We need to go into the e-Braille world.” Yet he thinks the Braille printing industry may have hit its “trough.”
“Globally, we’re a small community. It’s an uphill battle, but I do think it’s getting better.”
Though he was unaware of the NBP’s work before he was invited to interview at the company, he grew up with a grandmother who lost her eyesight in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
She was a Christian Scientist from Hawaii, “always reading Scripture in Braille,” MacDonald recalled. When he traveled into Boston to interview for the president’s position at the NBP, he passed the Christian Science Plaza on his way.
“My goodness,” he thought. “That’s good karma.”