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One-Hundred-Thirty-Nine Proof! She Read the Braille Encyclopedia--and Corrected It

by B. T. Kimbrough

Knowledge by the Roomful

In 1959, the 150th anniversary of Louis Braille's birth, a publisher and a braille printing house decided to pool their considerable resources to take on an immense and unprecedented challenge--reproduction of the entire contents of the WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA in braille. Much of the financing was supplied by WORLD BOOK's publishing company, and the massive production project was handed over to the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky.

In this age of computer-driven embossing and software-enabled braille translation, it is easy to underestimate the scope and complexity of this historic project. Each page of the more than 20 print volumes had to be translated into Grade Two braille by a skilled transcriber and mechanically embossed directly onto a plate using technology invented back in the 1890s. When proofreaders found needed corrections in the thousands of braille pages, each corrected page had to be fully re-entered on a manual platemaking machine.

As the federally designated producer of braille textbooks for the US, APH had some experienced and highly competent permanent staff for the project, including Braille Editor Marjorie S. Hooper and legendary transcriber Grace Branham. But there was a shortage of experienced proofreaders, who would have to methodically check each page at least twice and carefully prescribe needed corrections.

Since the quantity of proofreading work fluctuated wildly as production demanded, most braille proofreaders viewed their proofing work as a side job for evenings and weekends. The WORLD BOOK braille project would require fast and skillful proofreaders who could work under pressure and deliver both quality and quantity--a plum assignment for someone with experience and ambition. As it happened, about half of the proofreading work on the braille WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA was done by someone who had only a few months of proofreading experience and never thought of applying for the job. This is her story as much as it is the tale of the nearly 40,000 pages she read and corrected.

Staying After Class

When Louise Rogers Kimbrough was a 14-year-old student in 1950, the superintendent of the Kentucky School for the Blind made a decision which changed her life in ways she could never have imagined. Paul J. Langan had been asked by a colleague at the nearby American Printing House (APH) to recommend a student who might help fill a temporary need for braille proofreaders. He suggested Louise for the job, even though she was too young to legally become an APH employee and had to arrange for her mother to sign up on her behalf.

Louise remembered little about the books she proofread as a tenth-grader except that they were novels she would not have chosen to read on her own. "One was about Antarctica, I think, and another one was some kind of western, but it wasn't your usual one, it had some scifi connotations--some really boring stuff. I didn't like any of it."

There may be some modesty tied up with this memory, considering that she was a full-time high school student then, and had to find her own copyholder, not to mention the time to get it all done by the assigned deadlines. Based on what happened later, it's easy to see that her work left a memorable impression on her employer. At the time, though, she thought of it as a one-time thing--interesting and unexpected, especially for a newcomer who had just transferred to the Kentucky School from Ohio--but certainly nothing to affect a person's career plans. "I guess I just thought they only had the one opportunity and they'd never want me back," she said. She did apply for summer APH proofreading work following her graduation from high school, and got some interesting assignments relating to the then-brand-new Nemeth braille code, but she still didn't expect the proofreading connection to last.

Louise's ambition in those days was to be a secretary--answering phones, typing letters, organizing information and arranging it in the proper folders. She got plenty of experience in that line, as she worked part time while attending Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky. "All the summers in college I was the world's longest-term substitute secretary for churches, I guess, because I went from one to the next one as the secretaries went on vacation."

Once she graduated from Transylvania, Louise took advantage of an opportunity to earn a master's degree in social work from Ohio State University in Columbus. She was finishing up her classwork requirements in Columbus in 1959 when she heard that her former supervisor at APH had received a prestigious award, and she wrote to Marjorie Hooper to congratulate her. That was when Louise learned that Miss Hooper had been trying to locate her because she had some challenging proofreading projects in the works. One of these turned out to be the WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA, in some ways, the proofreading assignment of the century.

Corrections Unlimited

Over the next two years, beginning in the summer of 1959, Louise would carefully examine 139 of the encyclopedia's 141 braille volumes. (Two were read by someone else while Louise was in Columbus taking the oral exams for her master's in social work.) Her assignment was the second reading--the last one before publication. First readings were mostly handled by Roy Haynes, who taught English by day and proofread at night. Haynes had warned her that he sometimes had a tendency to miss mistakes when they involved the bottom two dots of the braille cell. Did this situation make her nervous? "Not really. I was always nervous working on anything; that's my nature. And I tried so hard to always abide by all rules. I'm not a person who memorized every rule; some proofreaders I've known could quote you chapter and verse, and I never could do that. I could look it up and knew where to find it."

As Louise waded through all those 200-page braille volumes of encyclopedic knowledge, there wasn't much time for learning or remembering as the alphabetized topics went flying by. "When you just read for correctness, you read unrelated subjects and try as you might, there's not a whole lot that you're going to remember."

The thing she remembered most vividly was a braille translation train wreck in an article on a medical subject. Theoretically, the word "electroencephalogram," which appeared frequently in the article, contains the braille contraction for "ence," but because these letters impact two separate syllables in pronunciation, the contraction can't be used. The transcriber failed to take this into account with grievous results. Without going into laborious detail, let's just say that removing the contraction led to extra characters, and without automatic computer reformatting, which wouldn't be invented for more than a decade, extra characters meant redoing many, many pages.

Ideally, of course, one would want to arrange a calm, stable existence as a backdrop for perfecting a braille version of the WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA, but life refused to cooperate. As she began the assignment, Louise had just married and moved back to Kentucky from Ohio. Moreover, she was just recovering from a failed cornea transplant operation, and the resulting loss of her small remaining vision. This made travel difficult, and caused her to place a high value on the WORLD BOOK project which could be done at home, at any hour of the day or night she could get a copyholder. And the skills of her copyholders played an important role in getting all of those volumes out on time. Louise recalled that many times, she would develop throat problems, and copyholders had to do all of the reading aloud for long stretches of time.

Not all of the errors Louise encountered originated in the braille transcription process. Some of them were clearly factual errors which had appeared in the published encyclopedia. Although the job was supposed to be making the braille totally match the print, Louise noted those content errors when they could be documented and passed them on to the proper authorities, although she never learned whether they resulted in changes to later editions of the WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA.

The Bottom Line

Once all those volumes were read and corrected, and the finished braille edition was published in 1961, the story took a rather anticlimactic turn. Evidently, the encyclopedia's publisher had expected a brisk business in braille customers and found the number of sales seriously disappointing.

In the end, all of the 141-volume sets of the braille WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA, along with annual supplemental volumes covering five years or so, were donated to institutions serving blind and low vision students. Although a copy went to the Kentucky School for the Blind, Louise never had the chance to visit the room where it was housed. DIALOGUE Publisher Emeritus Carol M. McCarl recalled that a set was housed in the Oregon School for the Blind. At one point, some volumes were damaged by smoke from a small fire, and there was some talk about disposing of them. McCarl said she wouldn't hear of it, considering all the work that went into producing that braille encyclopedia.

So where did it lead Louise --all the reading and correcting for all those volumes that gave a few fortunate students the WORLD BOOK at their fingertips? Well, for one thing, it gave her the confidence and the opportunity to proofread a 72-volume braille dictionary a few years later. And there were other amazing projects such as the set of BARTLETT'S FAMILIAR QUOTATIONS, a book of scriptures in an African dialect, and Oliver Groute's exhaustive HISTORY OF WESTERN MUSIC, complete with numerous examples requiring braille music notation ... But that is a different story for another time.

As many DIALOGUE readers will remember, Louise Kimbrough's working life had other aspects. For instance, in the 1980s she served as the Editor of DIALOGUE, and she wrote for the magazine on and off for close to 20 years.

Summing up her feelings about the contrasting roles of proofreader and editor, she said, "I loved editing; it was like polishing diamonds. I never loved proofreading. It was a job, and it was important that I have a job. I did it the best I could, but that was always how I did everything. I think I have dealt with just about every format that you could. It was very interesting; very seldom did I enjoy what I read, but that wasn't the point."

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