Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic History

Address:
20 Roszel Road
Princeton, New Jersey 08540
U.S.A.

Telephone: (609) 452-0606
Toll Free: 800-221-4792
Fax: (609) 520-7990

Website:
Nonprofit Company
Incorporated: 1951 as National Committee for Recording for the Blind
Employees: 324
Sales: $45.3 million (2001)
NAIC:611710 Educational Support Services

Company Perspectives:

We continue to be guided by Anne T. Macdonald's simple declaration that "Education is a right, not a privilege."

Key Dates:

1948:
Recording for the Blind is established in 1948.
1951:
The organization is incorporated as National Committee for Recording for the Blind.
1953:
The name is shortened to Recording for the Blind.
1965:
National headquarters opens in New York City.
1967:
Cassette tapes are introduced.
1983:
A new headquarters opens in Princeton, New Jersey.
1995:
The name is changed to Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic.

Company History:

Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D) is a national nonprofit organization based in Princeton, New Jersey, dedicated to recording textbooks for people who are unable to read standard text because of visual, learning, or other physical disabilities. Although the organization was originally established to help individuals who are blind, now more than 70 percent of the people it serves are diagnosed as having dyslexia. Students from kindergarten through postgraduate work, as well as professionals, are served by RFB&D, which offers 102,000 members more than 91,000 titles. The organization has especially strong collections on science, medicine, environmental issues, law, women's studies, Jewish studies, literature, and fiction. RFB&D is heavily dependent on its volunteers, numbering more than 5,400, who staff its 32 recording studios located across the United States. Over the last half-century a long list of celebrities as well as experts in every academic field have lent their voices to RFB&D recordings.

Need for Recorded Books Grows Out of World War II

In 1944, in the midst of World War II, Congress passed the GI Bill of Rights, which provided financial assistance to war veterans who wanted to go to college. Many soldiers who lost their sight in the war sought to take advantage of the program but, unlike students who had been blind since birth, they were severely hampered by their inability to read Braille. The clear answer to their needs was the audio recording of textbooks, a task taken up by the Women's Auxiliary of the New York Public Library. One of the women who joined the Auxiliary and became involved in the recording program was Anne T. Macdonald, who would go on to become the driving force behind the creation of RFB&D. The wife of a Wall Street financier, she had served as an Army nurse as well as a Red Cross volunteer and had already worked with wounded veterans. At first she attempted to serve the auxiliary program as a reader, but when her voice proved unsuited for the job she focused her energies on administration. Because the demand for recorded materials grew, in 1948 she established a separate organization, Recording for the Blind, to better carry on the effort. In the beginning the textbooks were recorded in an attic studio of what is now the New York Public Library's Humanities and Social Science Library branch, one of the world's great research libraries, located at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. The organization relied on SoundScriber dictating machines to do the original recordings. The material was then transferred to six-inch vinylite disks, which only had a 24-minute capacity. Despite these technical limitations the recorded material proved invaluable to the veterans.

The organization was incorporated as the National Committee for Recording for the Blind, Inc. (RFB) in 1951, expanding its mandate beyond veterans to include everyone with disabilities that make reading challenging or impossible. Although staffed by volunteers and using New York Public Library facilities, RFB still required funding for equipment and supplies. To purchase its first soundproof recording booth it relied on a Wall Street broker to pass the hat on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, an effort that succeeded in raising $800. A more formal and more important source of funding came from The Fund for Adult Education, which awarded RFB with a three-year $75,000 grant that enabled it to become a national organization. Anne Macdonald served as the chairman of the organization's board of directors from 1951 to 1953 and with approval from The Fund for Adult Education was instrumental in spreading the RFB operation across the country. She traveled extensively, setting up recording studios in Phoenix, Arizona; Denver, Colorado; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Louisville, Kentucky; Chicago, Illinois; and Los Angeles, California. In 1953 a studio located in Athens, Georgia, opened. Also in 1953 the official name of the organization was shortened to Recording for the Blind and Anne Macdonald ended her term as chair, although she remained active in RFB for the rest of her life.

First Tape in 1957

RFB remained closely allied with the New York Public Library for a number of years. In 1957 a Central Embossing Studio was set up in the 58th Street branch to duplicate and ship the recorded texts. Prior to this time each unit was responsible for mailing tapes to students. The new studio was funded by grants provided by the James Foundation, the New York Foundation, and the American Foundation for the Blind. With the new facilities RFB was able to take advantage of advances in technology. In 1957 it made its first recording tape, which was then embossed on seven-inch vinylite disks capable of holding 60 minutes of recorded material. As a result, production increased by 300 percent. In general it was the ability of the regional studios and national organization to coordinate their activities that allowed a growing number of textbooks to be recorded and distributed to a growing number of disabled students each year. RFB also improved its ability to record new materials in 1957 when The United Nations loaned the use of six soundproof recording booths and some 60 UN staff members became RFB volunteers. Throughout the rest of the 1950s, even as it relied on the New York Public Library, RFB continued its nationwide expansion, mostly by establishing local studios in college communities. In 1957 new facilities opened in Lenox, Massachusetts and Orland Park, Illinois. The following year, additional studios opened in Charlottesville, Virginia; Winnetka, Illinois; Princeton, New Jersey; Detroit, Michigan; and Miami, Florida. In 1959 New Haven, Connecticut, established a recording studio. Affiliation with colleges and universities allowed RFB studios to recruit volunteer readers who were experts on the textbooks they read aloud. Years later an organization senior vice-president, Barbara Vandervolk, explained to the New York Times, "I've listened to volunteers read art books. Imagine being able to describe a Renoir to someone who can't see it." RFB also turned to celebrity readers to help raise the profile of the organization. Some of these early volunteers were Walter Cronkite, Loretta Young, and Alistair Cooke. In the years that followed other notable people lent their time and talents to RFB, including Steve Allen, Ed Asner, Anne Bancroft, Mel Brooks, Cher, Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, Mary Tyler Moore, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Barbara Walters, and Robert Young.

By the early 1960s the national RFB office had outgrown its patchwork network of studios and offices provided by the largesse of the New York Public Library. In 1963 a central operations facility was purchased in New York City, allowing RFB to consolidate its ever-growing library of recordings and to more efficiently duplicate and ship recorded texts to students. Also in 1963 the organization launched a $950,000 national fundraising campaign to finance the establishment of a national headquarters in Manhattan. RFB's new home, located at 215 East 58th Street, opened in 1965. A year later a new master library in the building began to house the book collection as it was converted from vinyl disks to reel-to-reel tapes. In short order, reel-to-reel became supplanted by a newer technology, the cassette tape, each of which was capable of holding as much as four hours of recorded material. Several new regional recording studios were established during the 1960s: Upland, California, in 1963; the University of Chicago in 1966; Palo Alto, California, in 1967; and Williamstown, Massachusetts, in 1968.

In the decade of the 1970s new studios were established in Naperville, Illinois, and Peoria, Arizona, in 1972; Austin, Texas, in 1973; and Santa Barbara, California, and Washington, D.C., in 1976. During this period the demand for textbooks on tape grew even greater, due in large part to the passage of the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, which mandated that a free and appropriate education was a right for all children with disabilities. Over the next decade the number of RFB members and the amount of books in circulation doubled. To help meet the challenge RFB installed a computerized ordering system that by 1980 was able to process 500 book orders a day. By now all of the books were distributed on cassette tape.

With the accumulation of titles and an increase in demand for RFB's services, the organization after less than 20 years in its 58th Street location found that it had once more outgrown its space. With the price of Manhattan real estate prohibitively expensive, RFB's board decided to move out of the city, opting to build a new headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey. The new working facility opened in 1983. It contained administrative offices, duplicating and shipping operations, a master library of all of RFB's titles, and housed a staff of librarians to assist members in finding appropriate titles. Of more importance, it was able to triple the number of books the organization could ship each year. Unlike the prior headquarters in Manhattan, the Princeton facility also had the luxury of available real estate to accommodate future expansion, which in a very short time became a necessity.

Fundraising efforts, as a result, were forced to keep pace. In 1985 RFB received a $1.5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to upgrade the computerized delivery system and establish more studios. A Boston studio opened that year and in 1988 recording facilities were established in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and El Segundo, California. Distribution was greatly enhanced by the 1985 purchase of high-speed duplicating machines that were four times faster than the previous models. The math and sciences collections were strengthened by a $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation in 1988 that funded the recruitment of volunteers with backgrounds in the math and science disciplines. By the end of the decade, however, RFB's financial needs warranted the launch of a five-year $30 million fundraising campaign called "A Vision for the Future." The money was earmarked to help support the growth in the organization's operations and expand the headquarters, as well as contribute to an endowment to provide ongoing funding. With the completion of the successful campaign, RFB was able to add 10,000 square feet in a major addition to the Princeton headquarters. A year later, it purchased ten acres of adjacent land to accommodate even larger expansions in the future.

Testing Digital Technology in the 1990s

Much of RFB's need for increased funding was the result of the organization's need to take advantage of new technologies to better serve its membership. In 1990 RFB established an electronic text operation to make textbooks available on computer disks that could be accessed with adaptive computer equipment. Volunteers soon began coding books for conversion to the new E-Text format. In the mid-1990s the organization took steps to prepare for the rise of multimedia technologies, initiating a pilot program to make digital recordings of textbooks in CD-ROM and other formats. The first of these digital books were demonstrated at the World Blind Union international assembly in Toronto in 1996. A year later the organization became an instrumental part of an international consortium committed to developing the next generation of audio books. For decades users of audiocassette books not only had to deal with a large number of tapes devoted to each book, they could only navigate the text by winding and rewinding and counting beeptones noting page and chapter designations. The new digital books could be contained on a single compact disk and the players offered voice-identifying buttons as well as searching and bookmarking features that were a major advance over cassette technology. Moreover, the players had the ability to speed up the reading without raising the pitch of the voice, an attractive feature for many users who preferred to cut down on the amount of time required to listen to a textbook read aloud.

In 1993 RFB's founder, Anne Macdonald, died at the age of 96. Three years later, to better reflect the large and increasing number of members with learning disabilities it served, the organization to which she devoted so many years of her life changed its name to Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic. By the time of its 50th anniversary in 1998 the changes that had taken place in the organization over the preceding decades were striking.

Membership topped 50,000 and the number of books in circulation exceeded 200,000, and the technologies available to serve its constituency were incredibly advanced over the vinylite disk first relied on. Anne Macdonald always maintained that "Education is a right, not a privilege," and more than ever RFB&D was doing its part to make that belief a reality. She also once said, "The quest for knowledge has no limits, and RFB has a forever expanding future."

In the late 1990s RFB&D continued to grow to meet an ever-increasing need. Improved microphones led to the introduction of boothless studios in 1995, which was also an important factor in allowing volunteers to begin setting up home recording studios to relieve the organization's work load, an initiative launched in 1997. Local studio facilities continued to open as well: West Windsor, New Jersey, in 1993; West Hills, California, in 1995; and Santa Ana, California; and Boca Raton, Florida, in 1998. Moreover, the organization launched a web site and continued its transition from analog to digital recording, which offered the possibility of consolidating all of the textbook files into a single computer archive. As a result RFB&D could decrease its need for storage space and devote freed-up resources for other uses.

To meet these future needs a three-year $35 million fundraising campaign was launched as part of its 50th anniversary in 1998, raising a total of $40.5 million. The move to digital technology was especially costly, and while many nonprofit organizations saw a significant drop in contributions after the events of September 11, 2001, RFB&D's funding remained strong, allowing it to be ever-mindful of its mission to serve the evolving needs of its membership.

Principal Divisions: Program Services; Support Services.

Further Reading:

  • Greenman, Catherine, "Books for the Blind Go Digital," New York Times, July 12, 2001, p G4.
  • The Now and the Future: A Sound Educational Investment for 50 Years, Princeton, N.J.: Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, 1998.
  • Sharkey, Joe, "A Quiet Place Where Sounds Becomes Sight," New York Times, April 21, 1996, Sec. 13NJ, p. 1.
  • Taber, George M., "Bringing a Businessman's Eye to Setting Priorities," Business News New Jersey, May 13, 2002, p. 11.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 51. St. James Press, 2003.