The Forgotten Room of the association Valentin Haüy in Paris, or How to Build an Inclusive Digitisation Project on the History of Blindness
By Céline Roussel & Marion Chottin
Rediscovering Maurice de la Sizeranne’s Cultural Project
As Marion and I were exploring for our academic research – for CNRS-projects on the one hand, for a doctoral thesis at Paris-Sorbonne on the other – the field of disability studies, with a focus on blindness related to philosophy, literature, and other arts, we made the acquaintance of Noëlle Roy, curator of the museum and library in the Association Valentin Haüy from 2000 to 2017. She led us into a very special room, the “salle Heimann” (“Heimann room”), which houses the great oeuvre of Maurice de la Sizeranne (1857-1924): a huge, rich, unique collection of books, writings and all kinds of documents reflecting on blindness throughout the centuries.
Maurice de la Sizeranne was a blind intellectual who, in the year 1889, founded the Association in the memory of Valentin Haüy. Haüy (1745-1822) was a French polymath who had founded the first school for blind young people, the Institute for Blind Youth ((INJA) in Paris in 1785. Maurice de la Sizeranne belongs to an influential generation of French blind people who became conscious of the importance of culture as a powerful way of achieving greater integration in the dominant sighted society. The museum and the library, both created just before the Association was born, were the fundamental pillar of this vision. They aimed at the intellectual emancipation of blind people by their own means, in accordance with Haüy’s teachings. Marion and I soon felt how much the library was inhabited by the spirits of both men and was the crossroads of countless others who were only waiting to be discovered, read, and heard again. Amongst them were Milton, Maria-Theresia von Paradis, Helen Keller, Borges, Taha Hussein; or Louis Vierne, Axel Munthe, Marie Lenéru, Cécile Douard, Olga Skorokhodova…
Our visits in this library, which began in 2016 and are ongoing, has gradually revealed to us what marvellous the treasures the library contains, and how many different fields are represented - humanities, medicine, cultural and institutional history, pedagogy, literature, theatre, poetry… Every document deals with blindness, and they have been written by both blind and sighted people, by academics and laypersons. The number of languages represented is similarly impressive - documents not only in French, but in many foreign languages form part of the collections. But our visits had shown how even those familiar with the Association were unaware of the treasures contained within this library, and sometimes even unaware that it existed at all! When Noëlle Roy retired in 2017 (and was awarded the “grade de Chevalier de l’ordre national du Mérite” in June 2018 for her commitment in the Association), the future of these precious collections suddenly became uncertain, and Marion and I proposed our services as volunteers to keep them accessible to international researchers.
The Paradox of the Forgotten Room
Overview of the Digitisation Project and of Three Collections in The Library
Achievement of a First Pilot-sample: A Future for The Forgotten Library?
Websites dedicated to digitised blind archives:
- Periodicals (Le Journal des Soldats blessés aux yeux ; Le Mutilé des yeux…)
- Catalogues (Katalog des Museums des Blindenwesens in Wien…)
- Registers (Les Établissements généraux de bienfaisance placés sous le patronage de l’Impératrice…)
- Institutional correspondence (AVH, INJA, institutes abroad in Europe and accross the Atlantic…)
- Historical books (Léon Legrand, Les Quinze-Vingts depuis leur fondation, 1887…)
- Essays (Jacques Lusseyran, Ce que l’on voit sans les yeux, 1958 ; Valentin Haüy, Essai sur l'éducation des aveugles, 1786…)
- Biographies (Pierre Villey, Maurice de la Sizeranne, aveugle, bienfaiteur des aveugles, 1932…)
- Press clippings (Georgette Leblanc, « Hellen Keller, le miracle vivant », Candide, n° 688, 20 mai 1937…)
- Novels (Jacques Lusseyran, Le Silence des hommes, 1954...) Poetry (Jean-François Revoil, Souvenirs, Poésies, 1909…)
- Autobiographies (Jacques Arago, Souvenirs d’un aveugle. Voyage autour du monde, 1844 ; Martin Franquel, Comment je devins aveugle. Épisode de ma vie, 1910…)
- Published diaries (Marie Lenéru, Journal de Marie Lenéru, Précédé du Journal d’enfance, 1945…)
- Collected works (François Coppée, Œuvres complètes, 1886-1888, en 6 tomes…) Plays (Marie Lenéru, La Maison sur le roc, 1927…)
- Manuscripts (Edgar Guilbeau, Ma vie d’élève. Souvenirs sincères d’un octogénaire, 1890…)
Goggin, Gerard, Newell, Christopher, Digital Disability: The Social Construction of Disability in New Media, Maryland, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003.
Williams, George H., "Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities", in Gold, Matthiew K., (ed.), Debates in the Digital Humanities, Minneapolis/London, University of Minnesota Press, 2012. (https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/read/untitled-88c11800-9446-469b-a3be-3fdb36bfbd1e/section/2a59a6fe-3e93-43ae-a42f-1b26d1b4becc)