Learning Ally began as Recording for the Blind back in 1948, as a small organization that responded to an unusual need: servicemen wounded in World War II who returned blind or visually impaired.
Unlike those who were born blind and were able to grow up with books in Braille, these veterans had no clue about Braille and needed someone else to read aloud the books that would be key to continuing their education under the GI Bill of Rights and advancing in their occupations.
The Women’s Auxiliary of the New York Public Library, led by Anne T. Macdonald, rose to the challenge. Macdonald had been an Army nurse and a Red Cross volunteer during the war and was well aware of the needs of the wounded veterans. In 1948 she established nonprofit Recording for the Blind, housed in the New York Public Library, and recorded onto dictating machines that were then transferred to six-inch vinyl disks. Their capacity: 24 minutes of reading.
Thanks in large part to the outreach of Macdonald, volunteer readers were soon reading books in soundproof recording studios (microphone technology of the day required the soundproofing) at locations across the country. A studio on Hibben Road in Princeton opened in 1958. To enlist experts who could skillfully read challenging textbooks, the organization allied itself with colleges and universities. And it raised its profile by enlisting celebrity readers: Ed Asner, Anne Bancroft, Mel Brooks, Rita Hayworth, and Walter Cronkite, among others.
By 1957 recording technology allowed RFB to record its first book on tape — which still had to be subsequently embossed on a seven-inch disk that could hold 60 minutes of recording. While paltry by today’s standards, that nevertheless increased production by 300 percent.
One of the big challenges for the Manhattan-based organization was storage of all those disks and tapes. It moved from the Public Library to its own offices on 58th Street but in less than 20 years outgrew that.
At that time the organization already had some strong Princeton ties — in addition to its recording studio in town. The president of its board of trustees for many years was Peter B. Putnam, the 1942 Princeton alumnus who — in a battle with depression — had blinded himself in a failed suicide attempt. A Princeton resident who could often be seen walking around town with his seeing eye dog, Putnam also was a supporter of the Seeing Eye in Morristown. The executive director was Stuart Carothers, Princeton ’45 and a Borough resident who would later help found the Princeton Area Community Foundation.
Recording for the Blind opened at 20 Roszel Road in 1983. The new headquarters was named after Anne T. Macdonald. Within a few years Recording for the Blind made a 10,000 square foot addition to the headquarters and purchased 10 acres of adjacent land.
In the 1990s RFB joined an international consortium developing the next generation of audio books. Users of audiocassette books could only navigate the text by winding and rewinding and counting beeptones noting page and chapter designations. New digital books could be contained on a single CD and the users could navigate with search and bookmarking features. The users could also speed up the reading without raising the pitch of the voice — what college student preparing for an exam hasn’t hurriedly scanned a book?
In 1995 the organization faced its first major identity challenge and changed its name to Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic to reflect the increasing number of clients with learning disabilities.
The 2011 change to Learning Ally reflects the continuation of that trend. According to an online profile, the organization now serves more than 300,000 K-12, college, and graduate students, as well as veterans and lifelong learners. Their learning challenges include many disabilities, including some that simply prevent them from holding a book. The organization has more than 65,000 digitally recorded textbooks and titles that are delivered via Internet and various assistive technology devices. More than 6,000 volunteers help in the recording.
What’s next? The organization often quotes Anne Macdonald, who said that “education is a right, not a privilege.” That opens a lot of possibilities for clients and the organization that serves them. As Macdonald, who died in 1993 at the age of 96, also said: “The quest for knowledge has no limits, and RFB has a forever expanding future.”