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How the Library of Congress Is Digitizing Its Braille Music Collection

It’s not as simple as putting it through a scanner

While on tour in the 1980s and 1990s, Ray Charles played this Yamaha KX88 electronic keyboard MIDI controller, customized with Braille. (NMAH/SI)
smithsonian.com

Since Louis Braille first developed a raised system of dots in 1820, braille has given visually impaired people the means to read, write and play music. The largest collection of braille music in the world is currently housed at the Library of Congress, and for the past few years, archivists have been working to digitize its holdings. However, processing sheet music that is meant to be felt is much more difficult than simply scanning a print page, Allison Meier reports for Hyperallergic.

Like literary braille, musical braille uses a code of raised dots to indicate musical notation. However, instead of using the letter names that most sighted people use to learn notes, Braille devised his system based off of the names of musical tones, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. So, D is written as “do,” E is “ray,” F is “mi,” and so forth. 

Because the Library of Congress’ National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has a collection that dates back decades, if not centuries, the age as well as the wear-and-tear of some of the pages makes it difficult for even the specialized software that librarians at the NLS use to digitize the scans to register what notes go where. That means that for every page of braille music scanned, an archivist has to sort through it and make sure every dot is in just the right place, or else the software won’t be able to read it, Meier writes.

“When the software does not accurately pick up the braille cells, the reviewer has to manually fill in the dots cell by cell with the computer mouse,” Donna Koh, a Music Reader Services Librarian at NLS, writes for the Library of Congress. “There could be a few cells here and there that have to be filled in or there could be 4-5 lines, page after page that require manual corrections.”

Any given scanned page of braille music could have dots that were squished flat over time, typos that were flattened out to correct the error, or unevenly spaced printing that can throw off the software. While a clean, high-quality scanned musical braille book can take as little as six hours for a librarian to proofread, a worn-out piece of music can be much more challenging and time consuming, Koh writes.

The Library of Congress’ braille music collection contains everything from symphonies to Motown, and it adds more transcriptions and scores all the time. Currently, there are more than 30,000 braille transcriptions of musical scores and instructional texts, not to mention large-print scores, librettos, reference works and biographies, instructional recordings in music theory, appreciation and performance and talking books and magazines, in the music collection. So far this year, librarians have digitized about 8,000 pages in 116 books of braille music, Koh notes. 

"It is a daunting task that we are undertaking," writes Koh. "However, I see the Music Section as The Little Engine That Could, chugging along steadfastly and single-mindedly, looking forward to the day we can proudly say, 'We thought we could. Yes, we knew we could!'"

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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