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

A visit to the United States in the autumn of 2017 in connection with my doctoral research led me to several of the most important institutions for the education and history of blind people in America: the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, near Boston, the American Foundation for the Blind in New York, the Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky. All these institutions were engaged in digitising and publishing their archives at different scales (subsidised projects; in-house digitisation according to the needs of readers; or publications on see the links and references below). Their collections convinced me that Marion and I should take charge of the digitisation and scientific edition of the library of the Association Valentin Haüy in Paris.

Another issue also troubled us. This library houses cultural treasures, unique and essential to the understanding of blindness, written by both blind and sighted people: correspondence, press clippings, magazines, manuscripts, valuable books… But all this material is typed or handwritten in ordinary script and not in Braille. How can it be accessible to blind or partially sighted people who wish make use of it without the support of a reader or guide? This library builds up a history page after page – that of access to culture for blind people, that of their full participation in society and their autonomy – but this is contradicted and undermined by the fact that the material contained in the library is in a format inaccessible to blind people, even though it is such an important resource for learning about the history of blind and visually impaired people. This is a paradox that we now have the material and technical possibility to resolve. It is vital that we do so:

“When I started to lose my sight due to congenital glaucoma, I felt the need to know how people who had become blind before me had been able to adapt to continue to read, work and participate in cultural or leisure activities, without forgetting the main thing, the adaptations to daily life. When I wanted to consult sources of information on blindness and testimonies of blind people, I only found a few published books, whereas precious testimonies exist in the heritage collection of the Association Valentin Haüy. Only digitisation can make them accessible, via the screen-reading software used by visually impaired people who cannot read so-called black writing, whether handwritten or printed. Thanks to this colossal work, we will finally be able to access writings never read by blind people or even by the general public. Moreover, the publication of this unique heritage collection online will help to raise awareness of visual impairment among the general public.”

Catherine Grimaud, retired, former employee for accessibility in the disability mission of a large company and volunteer in the actidv employment club of the apiDV association.

By the end of her career, Noëlle Roy had already succeeded in having the two most important reviews for the social and cultural history of blindness in France (the Louis Braille and the Valentin Haüy) digitised and published online on the Gallica website (Bibliothèque nationale de France). The result was nevertheless impaired by the unfortunately poor quality of the OCR (Optical Character Recognition) and by the lack of correction for the voice synthesis, which represents a significant barrier to accessing these documents if one cannot read text on a screen. This is a point that a digitisation project, as we understand it, has to improve in order to be fully accessible – even if it may still exist some language barriers (one has to understand German to read a source written in German!). Such a project would not only contribute to safeguarding some of these old and fragile collections (the big, brittle volumes which contain the press clippings for instance are an urgent priority); it would both benefit partially and non-sighted persons and contribute to preserving the heritage and cultural legacy of blind people.

Another precedent led us to think our aim was realistic: in France, the ArchAT project (2018-2021) led by Aude Déruelle, Professor of French literature at the University of Orléans, and with which the CNRS, among other institutions, is associated, digitised, digitally edited and put online the archives of the blind historian Augustin Thierry (1785-1856). The aim of the project was to provide a better understanding of, for instance, the working techniques of this major nineteenth-century blind intellectual figure (see the link below). I had the chance to participate to it, and Aude Déruelle herself recognized the value of the archival collection of the Bibliothèque patrimoniale Valentin Haüy as she paid a visit to the library, in order to find material about Augustin Thierry. The digitisation project of the collections of the Bibliothèque patrimoniale Valentin Haüy finally began in 2018 and now comprises around twenty people, including members of the Association Valentin Haüy, French and foreign scholars, and staff from the adaptation company L'Atelier de la Villette.

Overview of the Digitisation Project and of Three Collections in The Library

This project has been a challenge. Based on a partnership between the association Valentin Haüy, the ENS of Lyon and Sorbonne Université (Observatoire des textes, des idées et des corpus and Centre de Recherche en Littérature Comparée), it involves a long and demanding processing chain: indexing the collections according to a universal model as the one usually used in libraries and archives, proceeding with digitisation, OCR processing and structuring, upgrading to official digital accessibility standards (in France, the RGAA 4), writing academic explanatory notes… It will offer an academic presentation perfectly understandable by laypersons, and easily accessible to blind and non-blind readers, since each document will be screen-reader and Braille display compatible.

A numeral estimate of the contents of the library resulted in a figure of about 29500 items. Many of them had not been indexed – and none of them to international standards – before the project began. In addition, readers who want to search in the library are still compelled to come in Paris und use the on-site computer, as the library has no online catalogue. The digitisation project will eventually provide online search possibilities. Because of the large number of documents contained in the library, we first decided to focus on three collections : press clippings, periodicals and the collections dedicated to soldiers blinded in the First World War (because the anniversary of the conflict was then being commemorated).

Innumerable press clippings relating to blind people and blindness were collected between 1856 and 1928 and are preserved in large volumes. The articles come from various newspapers (French and foreign) and are grouped under various headings (serials, information on blind people's associations, events, meetings, charity work, history…). This is one of the library's most precious collections, fully representative of the comprehensive approach that has governed the constitution of the collections of this library since its emergence: to constitute an international database on blind people and on blindness. Turning this paper database into a digital one was both important and in accordance with the library’s original aims.

Photograph (© Céline Roussel) showing one of the volumes of press cuttings devoted to blindness (1856 and 1928), on which can be seen an article illustrated with portraits of Valentin Haüy and Louis Braille, as well as a reproduction of the tactile alphabet developed by the latter.

Long before the periodicals Le Valentin Haüy and Le Louis Braille (which were created in 1883 by Maurice de la Sizeranne), several journals set out to bring together the available scientific knowledge on blind people and their education in specialised establishments - while also relaying the personal stories and literary productions of some of them. France was a pioneer in this, but other European countries soon followed suit, and examples include the Messager suisse des aveugles and L'Asile des aveugles de Lausanne. The Bibliothèque patrimoniale came to possess a large collection of periodicals, some of which are in foreign languages (such as Der Blindenfreund and Die Blindenwelt, both published in Germany). The symbolic and historical importance of these works are makes them a priority for the digitisation project.

The library also houses entire collections of periodicals designed to inform soldiers blinded in the First World War about the social networks and rehabilitation centres that were set up at that time to facilitate their reintegration into civilian and working life, and these provide us with an invaluable testimony to this pivotal period in the history of blindness. This is why our first pilot-sample centred on one of the journals in the "Blinded in War" collection of the Bibliothèque patrimoniale: Le Journal des soldats blessés aux yeux. This journal also had the advantage of already being available in digital form on the Paris-Nanterre library website L’Argonnaute: This not only saved us time, but it also showed us how much more ambitious our project was than simply putting a document online – because it involves an XML-TEI structuring and an academic presentation of everything will be published online.

Achievement of a First Pilot-sample: A Future for The Forgotten Library?

Photograph (© Céline Roussel) of the cover of the final issue, dated June 1919, of Le Journal des Soldats Blessés aux Yeux. It states that it was founded by Eugène Brieux, of the Académie Française, that it is monthly, free, and is the 'Organe de l'Œuvre pour les Soldats Blessés au Yeux'.

With the support of the Association Valentin Haüy, and especially of their project manager Hugues de Roquefeuille,, and the expertise of the ObTIC (Observatoire des textes, des idées et des corpus) of Sorbonne Université, in close collaboration with Motasem Alrahabi and Glenn Roe, the academic year 2019-2020 was devoted to the realization of this pilot project. Le Journal des soldats blessés aux yeux, a free monthly magazine founded by Eugène Brieux (1858-1932), a writer, journalist, and member of the Académie française, appeared from November 1916 to June 1919 and was aimed at the soldiers blinded in the First World War. It also gave them a voice in allowing the publication of many of their letters. With this journal, we had the opportunity to test and, when necessary, improve the processing chain on which the whole digitisation project depended. This journal was first indexed according to the Dublin Core and Library of Congress standards, while the researchers of the ObTIC drew up a set of specifications, as well as a first style sheet, necessary for the XML-TEI structuring of the document.

But we encountered some difficulties in establishing a satisfying overview of the logical structure of this document, since the headlines and the chapter-divisions varied from one year (or even from one month!) to another. Many elements (such as quotations, advertising, pictures, and mathematical equations) were widespread in this shape-shifting item and complicated our approach. After many attempts to integrate all these specificities into a stylesheet, we realised that a compromise had to be found, in order to produce a stylesheet general enough to be applicable to other documents. Two employees of L'Atelier de la Villette (which is linked to the association Valentin Haüy and employs people with disabilities), directed by Renaud Lemaire, Isabelle Risco and Rosine Loïal, were then responsible for proofreading and formatting the document according to the style sheet, which lead to satisfying results. We were very keen to work with L’Atelier de la Villette, as this would give disabled people the opportunity to take part into a project dealing with visual disability, The digitisation project would thus become not only accessible, but also inclusive. Finally, three researchers, Gildas Brégain (CNRS-Arènes/Université de Rennes 1), Corinne Doria (The Chinese University of Hong Kong – Shenzhen) and Rebecca Scales (Rochester Institute of Technology), one of whom was personally concerned with disability, wrote scholarly notes on the journal, on Eugène Brieux and on assistive technologies. The purpose of these texts is to provide all necessary information on background and context of this review, making any research on it easier.

This achievement, completed by the success of the ObTIC in generating and designing a website, was all the more encouraging as the association decided to recruit three people, Véronique Harouel, Angelica Herrera and Marie-France Hourcadie, and one person working full time in the library (as part of a sponsorship of competence offered by BNP Paribas), Marie-Bernadette Aubry, whose task is now to index the whole content of the library. We had not expected to reach this stage so early, but it is necessary to conceive the project not only at a small, but at a large scale. The global indexing also draws our attention to documents which, for copyright issues, should be excluded from the final project – even if their reference will be integrated in the online catalogue. With the jurist of the Association, we will debate whether to digitise or not sensitive documents such as personal files, which are undoubtedly interesting for the project, inasmuch as they could allow genealogical research. The website, it is still in construction; how to shape an accessible version of it is constantly debated with the Association and with blind and visually impaired people. Most recently, our project has been associated with another ongoing project, that of Maria Romeiras Amado and her team (Universidade NOVA de Lisboa). This project consists of the transcription, translation (into Portuguese if necessary) and critical edition of 165 letters (in French, English, Spanish and Portuguese) written in the 18th and 19th centuries between several institutions dedicated to blindness in different countries of the world. The objective of this project is to highlight, from these letters between pedagogues, doctors and administrators, the phenomenon of globalisation of the discourse on pedagogy and material adapted to blind pupils as well as their practical effects on the latter, not only through the digital and critical edition of these letters, but also through the constitution of a digital cartography of these circulations As these letters are located in the Valentin Hauy heritage library and are owned by the AVH, Maria Romeiras and her team have very generously agreed to integrate their work into our project, in exchange for permission to publish these letters on the NOVA University website.

Our academic experience in the field of both Disability Studies and Digital Humanities has shown that there is a huge interest for these archive materials. The link between both research fields has already been mentioned in several articles, for instance by Mulka Kurkarni, George H. Williams and Vandana Chaudhry. We are aware that our project has limits – it could be argued that a digital access to archives is no substitute for an exciting discovery of the object itself. The general stylesheets may miss some important and valuable information on the design of a document – selection, per se, is never a fully satisfying solution. We are nevertheless confident that our project will contribute to the fight against what Goggin and Newell (Digital Disability, The Social Construction of Disability in New Media, 2003) called “digital disability”. We truly believe that “by working to meet the needs of disabled people — and by working with disabled people through usability testing but also, and more importantly in our view, through their active participation in editorial choices — the digital humanities community will also benefit significantly as it rethinks its assumptions about how digital devices could and should work with and for people” (George H. Williams, Debates in the Digital Humanities, 2012).

Targeting an audience will be our next challenge: There could be various ways of doing - advertising in our academic networks as well as in the associative structures for blind people the association Valentin Haüy is in contact with. Or, as it is often the case for digitisation projects, by elaborating a newsletter giving words to the team responsible for the project, but also to readers, blind or sighted, to reflect upon the documents they would have access to. A tight collaboration between our academic institutions and the association Valentin Haüy has already opened up hopeful paths in preserving and giving a new life to the cultural and intellectual project of its founder, Maurice de la Sizeranne. Marion and I truly hope it will at length make accessible to anyone the unexpected cultural richness of blindness.

Websites dedicated to digitised blind archives:

We would like to thank the librarians and curators Jennifer Arnott, Susanna Coit and Jennifer Hale from Perkins, Justin A. Gardner from the American Printing House for the Blind and Helen Selsdon from the American Foundation for the Blind, for having inspired us and even supported us in our project.

Overview of the collections from the library Bibliothèque patrimoniale Valentin Haüy:
  • 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. (

Photograph (© Jacques Fournier) showing one of the corners of the Bibliothèque patrimoniale, whose two walls on either side house tall wooden cupboards, solid at the bottom and glazed at the top. Some of the library's books can be seen in these glass cabinets, as well as numerous blue files containing brochures, articles and manuscripts on blindness.

Céline Roussel is scholar at Ludwig-Maximilians University München, Germany. Marion Chottin is scholar at CNRS/Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon, France.

Recommended citation
Céline Roussel/ Marion Chottin (2023): The Forgotten Room of the association Valentin Haüy in Paris, or How to Build an Inclusive Digitisation Project on the History of Blindness. In: Public Disabilitiy History 8 (2023) 5.

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