By Bernard K. Means
Tuesday, October 23, 2017, I had the privilege to join a panel at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. My fellow panel members and I talked about ways of increasing or enhancing access for the visually impaired and the blind to the world around us using various techniques focusing on the sense of touch. The four members of the panel included: Tamara Rorie, Braille Development Officer, National Library Service for the Blind at the Library of Congress; John Hessler, Curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas at the Library of Congress; Giulia Adelfio, Chief of the Library of Congress’s Visitor Services Office; and, myself, director of the Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University. Kristin Doherty, Chair of Organization of Employees with Disabilities at the Library of Congress was the panel’s moderator and opened the panel with a few brief comments as well as biographical sketches of each panel member. As Kristin noted, the panel was inspired by the 2017 theme of National Disability Employment Awareness Month set by the Department of Labor which is “Innovation Drives Inclusion.”
Tamara Rorie opened the panel. She talked about the 3D printed Braille maps that are developed for use by the blind to navigate life, including maps of the Washington, D.C. metro system and even floor plans for the Library of Congress itself.
John Hessler followed and discussed his work with the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas at the Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/kislak/kislak-overview.html) including 3D scanning of various artifacts. Ten Maya artifacts from the Kislak Collection are available on Sketchfab (https://sketchfab.com/kislakcollection) and one of these is downloadable. John also discussed his work with documenting and 3D reconstructing the Palmyra Arch that was destroyed by ISIS.
I followed John and considered the work of the Virtual Curation Laboratory in 3D documenting the past and, especially, focused on 3D printing. This discussion includes our efforts to create tactile objects to bring the world’s past to the blind and visually impaired.
Finally, Giulia Adelfio, Chief, Visitor Services Office at Library of Congress, discussed the new touch tours of the Library of Congress designed to highlight important architectural features of the Jefferson Building. These tours have proven popular with blind and visually impaired visitors.
After the panel, there were numerous questions from the 75 or so people in the audience. One concern raised about 3D printing–and one that I have heard several times before–is that 3D prints do not give the true feel or, especially, weight of an object. This is especially true for objects 3D printed in plastic which, for economic reasons, is the material most used by individuals–including those of us in the Virtual Curation Laboratory. Tamara had probably the best response I have ever heard to this comment. She noted that most exhibited materials are behind glass and cannot be touched by any museum visitors, whether sighted or not. While not a perfect duplicate, 3D printed replicas do allow all people to feel the shape and dimensions of items to which they otherwise would not have access. And accessibility is why we have populated our Sketchfab site with hundreds of 3D models that anyone can download for free (https://sketchfab.com/virtualcurationlab).
Following the Q&A, all the panel members went up to a gallery location in the Library of Congress where we set our various materials out for all to see, including general members of the public. I had with me a few hundred objects from across the globe–something I easily carried with me in a small orange suitcase. The light weight of these accurately painted 3D printed replicas made this possible. Fortunately, Paul Hogroian was available to take pictures of our public displays, as we were all busy interacting with the engaged public, as can be seen in the following slide show.
I look forward to taking the lessons I learned from this day and applying them to my efforts to use 3D scanning and 3D printing technology to make the past more accessible to all.