Braille version of 'Harry Potter' weighs in at 13 volumes

Most days, each reconditioned Heidelberg cylinder press churns out 8,000 pages an hour as National Braille Press workers collate magazines, manuals, and popular children's books by hand.

These next few weeks, however, the staff of 49 is producing an unusually high volume of pages from this converted piano factory near Boston's Symphony Hall. They hope to ship 500 braille versions of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" within three weeks of the book's June 21 release date.

A first printing of 500 copies will fill the needs of 10 percent of the entire K-12 market of braille readers in the US, and the work involved is no small task.

After the text is transcribed into the correct notation - which involves spelling out words that don't contract in braille, such as "Hermione" or "Hogsmeade" - pages are punched, proofed, and pressed through the old Heidelberg cylinders. Volunteers then help the staff collate, fold, and staple the books by hand (machines would smash the braille). Finally, the 500 copies, each of which amounts to a 13-volume stack of paper more than a foot high, are shipped.

In the end, the books will be priced the same as nonbraille versions - just under $30. "The cost doesn't even cover the paper," says Diane Croft of National Braille Press. "But we're a nonprofit, and it's our job to raise the difference. No one should be penalized for having to read braille."

Braille literacy has declined since the 1970s, but National Braille Press President William Raeder believes it is on the rise once again. The most commonly cited figure - that 10 percent of blind people can read braille - is slightly skewed, he says, as it counts the visually impaired, many of whom see well enough to read print, and the "prereaders," who are too young to read. The actual literacy rate, he estimates, could be as high as 70 percent.

Thanks to books such as Harry Potter, that number will continue to climb, Mr. Raeder says. "When compelling literature comes out, it gets children back on the bandwagon - and that's as true for blind children. [These books are] full of magic and intrigue."

Although, adds Ms. Croft, her chuckle taking on a serious tone, "It would be nice if J.K. were a little less verbose in the next one."

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