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Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Precious Blindness Archive and Museum Under Threat!

I began Blind Spot Blog immediately after my first research trip to the Valentin Haüy library and museum in Paris in February 2012. My first post is full of excitement at the rare and precious books which I discovered there thanks to the archivist and curator Noëlle Roy. Noëlle retires next month and she learnt recently that she will not be replaced. This raises worrying questions about the future of the books and artifacts in her care.

It is impossible to over-state the significance of the Valentin Haüy collections. The library's founder, Maurice de la Sizeranne (1857-1924), began collecting copies of works of French literature either written by blind authors, or referring to blindness in some way, in 1886. Since then, the library has continued to acquire both fictional and non-fictional material relating to blindness and blind people in French (and to a lesser extent English) and is thus quite simply the single most important collection of literature on blindness in the world. Presumably acquisitions will cease without an archivist to manage them. Many academics, students and general readers have used the collection in their work. Zina Weygand's crucial history of blindness in France owes a significant debt to the collection as does my own forthcoming book Reviewing Blindness in French Fiction. Many of the speakers at the 2013 History of Blindness conference and the 2015 Blind Creations conference referenced the Valentin Haüy collections directly and most of my conference presentations since 2012 draw on material I discovered there.

The collections are a crucial resource for researchers but they also have huge symbolic value. They are housed at the heart of blindness history, next door to the Institut national des jeunes aveugles where Louis Braille was educated and where he developed his eponymous writing system. In addition, Sizeranne's decision to collect works by and about blind people transformed blindness from an affliction into a valuable means of cultural production. His collection legitimized and validated blindness as a life experience and crucially gave a voice to a group of people who had been - and continue to be - silenced by mainstream culture. Any threat to the Haüy collections is a threat to the ongoing exploration of the history of blind people. It is also a threat to research into disability history more broadly. Most importantly though, the threatened loss of access to this collection risks an erasure of the history of a marginalized and under-represented group. If people can no longer access this collection of materials by and about blind people, this history could disappear. Sizeranne began his collection to celebrate and empower blind people. It is deeply sad and shocking that a resource that has been growing for more than 130 years is now under threat.

It feels particularly poignant that I am writing the blog post from the Association canadienne pour les études sur le handicap (Canadian Disability Studies Association) conference in Toronto. Tomorrow I present a paper on Québécoise writer Marie-Claire Blais whose work I first encountered at the bibliothèque Valentin Haüy. Without the Haüy collections I would not be here.

If you want to save the Valentin Haüy collections please e-mail the two directors of the Association Valentin Haüy using the addresses here and here.

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