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UBC's Crane Library a treasure trove of Braille, digital audio, large print and electronic text

"I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library."    -- Jorge Luis Borges

Libraries are one of the saving graces of civilization.  They imply, as Victor Hugo said, an act of faith.  And for people like me, who's knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep, they're a godsend.

As a high school dropout, I patched together my education on the fly, using the library.  As a print journalist and current affairs radio host, I had to absorb a lot of information in a short time, then distil it so it made sense to the reader or listener.   Libraries saved the day more than once.

Now that I’m retired, I continue my scattergun approach to learning by, among other things, narrating books at the Crane Library at UBC.  The library was established in 1968 with a gift of thousands of volumes of Braille books from the estate of Charles Allan Crane.

Despite having his sight destroyed by meningitis at the age of nine months, Charlie Crane grew up to be a voracious reader.  He was also a competitive wrestler and a reporter for both The Ubyssey and The Province.  And he translated books into Braille for other blind students.

As Chuck Davis wrote in The History of Metropolitan Vancouver: 

S.G. Lawrence, principal of the School for the Blind in Vancouver, in 1926 told an interviewer a story about his star pupil...  "Charlie’s sense of touch is nothing short of marvellous...  (n)ot one of our pupils has even approached him in this respect.” 

Crane imagined his legacy to be a sort of informal reading room.  In the four decades since, the Crane Library has become much more than that.  Now, students, faculty or staff who need alternatives to print can request any course material they need, with an expectation of having it by the next semester, and often sooner.

The Crane is part of the Access and Diversity department at UBC, and includes collections of Braille, digital audio, large print and electronic text. There are computers that can synthesize voices and convert text to voice.  There are eight recording booths in which more than 100 volunteers a week narrate everything from doctorate-level textbooks and learned papers to fiction and biographies.   


 Mary Taitt has been reading at the Crane for more than 41 years.


I’m one of the more recent volunteers.  For a couple of hours every Wednesday morning I read whatever needs reading.  This week it was The Interface Between The Written and The Oral  by Jack Goody (Cambridge University Press 1987).  I learned that it was the Canaanites who whittled down more than 200 symbols used in cuneiform or hieroglyphics to 21 consonants, while the Greeks contributed five vowels to our modern alphabet.  That's an over-simplification of course, but then I only read about 20 pages.  

I finally read Proust at the Crane.  Or at least, a sentence of his, which seemed to go on for more than a dozen pages, full of subordinate clauses, asides, perigrinations and ruminations and (where warranted) parentheses, all of which made reading it difficult, er, challenging, and rendering it understandable to the listener even more so.

Years ago, I read all of Jack Munro’s autobiography Union Jack (D&M 1988) for the Crane. Having interviewed the plain-spoken IWA leader many times, I was familiar with the way he spoke, especially his liberal use of profanity.  So it was pure delight to put on his persona and speak his words for a couple of hours every week.

One book that burned itself on my memory was The Naked (Hidden) Face of Eve by Nawal El Saadawi (Beacon Press, Boston 1980).  The book begins with her account of being circumcised at the age of six.  She describes how rough hands grabbed her one night and held her down while a  " metallic edge seemed to drop between my thighs and there cut off a piece of flesh from my body.’"  She called out to her mother for help, only to see her among the men holding her down, "...talking to them and smiling at them, as though they had not participated in slaughtering her daughter just a few moments ago.’'  

Nawal El Saadawi went on to become a medical doctor, a novelist and the Director of Health Education in the Ministry of Health in Cairo.  Her 27 books are mostly about Arab women, their sexuality and their legal status.  Her work was considered dangerous, and was banned in Egypt.  And I’m embarrassed to admit that, until I read part of her book at the Crane, I had never heard of her.

But I think of her every time I hear about Rumana Monzur, who was blinded in an attack a few weeks ago when she was home visiting her family in Bangladesh.  Ms Monzur is working on her Master’s degree in Political Science at UBC.  She is now back in Vancouver and there is some small hope that surgeons here can save the sight in one of her eyes.  The president of UBC, Stephen J. Toope, said options are available whenever Ms Monzur wants to resume her studies.  It makes me feel just a little bit better about her situation that one of those options is the Crane Library.   

Thanks, Charlie. 


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