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Digitizing the World’s Largest Braille Music Collection

A pianist playing with one hand and reading Braille with another (1917) (via La Bibliothèque des Aveugles/Wikimedia)
A pianist playing with one hand and reading Braille with another (1917) (via La Bibliothèque des Aveugles/Wikimedia)

Digitizing braille music isn’t as easy as just scanning the page. The tactile notations require multiple steps for accurate transcription, and their history of touch means the dots are sometimes smashed or otherwise unreadable. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) at the Library of Congress (LOC) is in the midst of a huge project to digitize their braille music collection, with 8,000 pages completed as of last month.

“Basically, the braille music collection — the largest in the world —was the only collection not digitized at NLS when the Library initiated its business continuity plan,” John Hanson, head of the Music Section at NLS, told Hyperallergic. The initiative assures that all aspects of LOC could be sustained even if there was a major disaster, whether a building fire or other catastrophe. “With digital files archived safely, services to patrons wanting music scores could be continued by embossing a new copy of whatever was wanted, or sending the digital file itself to a patron with the hardware and software to read it.”

Illustration from 'Braille Music Notation' (1930) by the American Braille Press (via Internet Archive)
Illustration from ‘Braille Music Notation’ (1930) by the American Braille Press (via Internet Archive)

Braille music relies on the same six-position dot system developed by Louis Braille in the 19th century, with symbols corresponding to notes rather than letters.

The NLS braille music is part of a free library program for those who are unable to read regular print scores. Whether Motown, showtunesJimi Hendrix, Ravel, or Django Reinhardt, every area of music is covered in the over 30,000 transcriptions and scores at NLS, with new additions regularly arriving, such as a large donation of classical music last December. The Music Section is chronicling their work on the NLS Music Notes blog, with a July update delving into the details of how they digitize braille music.

Gilbert Busch, Braille music specialist, proofreading a digitized score (courtesy Libray of Congress)
Gilbert Busch, Braille music specialist, proofreading a digitized score (courtesy Library of Congress)

A DotScan scanner paired with OBR (optical braille recognition) software generates an initial digital copy, yet for each piece they need to determine the measurements between dots in order to precisely translate the physical copy to the digital. Even then, the NLS team reviews the scan manually for errors, comparing it to the original and filling in gaps where needed. And each score has its own challenges, such as graphic scores that don’t follow standard notation, or weathered paper worn down over time as part of the circulating NLS collection.

“All digitization has been in priority order,” Hanson explained, with “patron requests first.” Following are the “master collections,” which they plan to complete in the next few years. Much of the masters have a score on one side, but others use what’s called “interpoint,” with braille on both sides, something that’s harder for scanners to pick up. Complicating the process further is the wear on old paper, which comes from over 20 publishing sources around the world, in varying formats. According to Hanson, NLS has “contracted with a software developer to create a piece of software that will read interpoint and be easily editable,” although its success remains to be seen.

Digitized music is available on the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) site. The NLS motto proclaims “That All May Read,” and this project secures that access for braille music into the future.

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