Most folks who drive up and down Frankfort Avenue in Louisville’s Crescent Hill neighborhood likely have never paid much attention to the imposing campus comprised of the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) and the Kentucky School for the Blind (KSB).
Chartered in 1858, the APH is an institutional powerhouse with a legacy hardly matched in the state of Kentucky. This is modestly indicated on the state placard out front that reads: “American Printing House for the Blind, oldest nonprofit agency for blind in U.S. and largest publishing house for blind in the world.”
The APH website states it in bolder terms:
Before the Civil War, a Louisville company was formed to provide products for people who are blind … Before airplanes … Before telephones … Before the Louisville Slugger bat … Before the Kentucky Derby, there was the … American Printing House for the Blind.
In the years leading up to the creation of the APH, there were not enough tactile, or raised letters and images, books for students who were visually impaired.
“Students had exhausted all the books by the time of their graduation,” explained Rob Guillen, APH’s special programs coordinator, who led Insider on a tour of the facilities on a recent cold January morning. “If you didn’t have books, you were kind of out of luck.”
In 1858, the APH was created outside of the city center in the basement of the KSB that had been at the location since 1855. The school was chartered and opened in 1842 on Sixth Street in downtown Louisville, and following its immediate growth, it was relocated several times until it found a home on Broadway in 1845.
That building burned in 1851, and the decision was made to move it outside the downtown area to its current location on Frankfort Avenue.
The printing house started with one press and one volunteer, and the school’s superintendent provided oversight of the operations. The advent of the Civil War diverted promised funds for the APH before it could begin embossing books.
“The legend is that the printing press was melted to use for the war effort,” Guillen noted.
Following the war, the APH struggled financially and was on the brink of termination when Congress, recognizing the invaluable service the institution provided, intervened and passed the Act to Promote the Education of the Blind in 1879 that provided funding to the printing house for embossed books and apparatus for blind students throughout the country.
It also allowed the APH to move out of the KSB and build its own facility next door. This funding continues today through the Federal Quota Program and is managed through a board of trustees made up of educators, consumer service agents and other citizens with a common mission.
Guillen has been working at the APH since 2013. The APH has approximately 330 employees, 10 percent of whom are visually impaired, and about a dozen guide dogs are part of the team as well.
“Many of the staff have been here upwards of 40 years,” said Guillen. “People have been here for decades, and there’s good reason for this — they want to stay.”
Guillen worked in higher education in California and at the University of Louisville before accepting an administrative position at the APH. He said he initially saw his new job as a good career opportunity, but he has found a passion in his work and sees it as a life-changing experience.
In addition to conducting tours, he oversees the APH InSights Art competition and exhibition for artists who are visually impaired and blind. The annual juried event takes place at the printing house in October in coordination with the annual board of trustees meeting.
The tour of the expansive 279,000-square-foot facility acquaints the visitor with the fascinating journey of a segment of our population that aspires to navigate society and gain information as any other member of the mainstream. The visitor is introduced to the conception, production and quality control of educational materials, such as books written in Braille and large print, and support materials like maps, globes, graphs, images and other learning manipulatives.
The “Talking Books” brand of recorded books also are produced in the printing house studios for the National Library Service at the Library of Congress. The APH creates between 500-900 of these encrypted audio books per year in all genres and produced by trained narrators and editors.
“We take great pride in making sure everything is accurate and well done,” said Guillen. “The final product is the best we can do — not always perfect, but the best we can do. We try hard — we really try hard.”
The APH Museum is a well-curated and up-to-date collection of hands-on interactive exhibits that focus on the story of education for the blind. It is designed to generate an appreciation for learning, for industry and invention, and for the recognition that all people can learn at high levels.
Admission to the museum and tours of the American Printing House for the Blind are free. Guests can visit Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Tours for the printing house facilities are Monday through Thursday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Special arrangements can be made for group visits.
On Saturday, Jan. 20, the museum is hosting a special celebration to recognize National Braille Month. It’s free and runs from 1-3 p.m.
Here are a few more photos from our tour of the headquarters and museum: