Today I had the opportunity to answer some of my questions about how Amazon’s Kindle eBook lending program done in partnership with OverDrive and libraries would work. The program announced several months ago entered a beta stage with at least two libraries offering Kindle ebooks to library users. I have accounts with both the Seattle Public Library and the King County Library and opted to try some books from King County’s library. For the Kindle reader I used Amazon’s Kindle for PC with Accessibility Plugin.
If you have used other book formats for materials made available through a libraries OverDrive services, obtaining Kindle ebooks is just an extension of the same service. Search for the titles you want, add them to an electronic book bag and then check out. At that point a link named Get for Kindle will appear. Following the link opens a new browser window or tab, depending on browser configuration, to the eBook in Amazon’s Kindle store.
You are then subjected to whatever accessibility experiences Amazon offers. For example a button to send the book to the Kindle device of your choosing uses a graphic without alternative text so ends up being read as some variation of “get-library-book-lg-pri._V152369908_.gif” if you are browsing with a screen reader. There are several other instances of missing alternative text on the pages as well. A combo box allows you to choose between Kindle devices you have registered with Amazon in terms of where to send the book.
I’m not a regular user of Amazon’s Kindle pages yet so will qualify my experiences with that background. That said from what I can tell it is important that you pick the device at this stage of the process. Amazon has a Kindle management page as well where you can manage all your Kindle materials, including books obtained from libraries but that page seems to suffer from some serious accessibility problems. Each title listed on the management page has a graphic named action that opens options for the title such as selecting where you want to send the book. However, success at interacting with this graphic is highly dependent on how the screen reader or other assistive technology you are browsing with handles graphics with OnClick attributes. There are better practices Amazon could be using here for web accessibility.
Once you’ve indicated where to send the book, sync content on the device and your library book will be available. I do not have a physical Kindle and the iPhone Kindle software does not seem to support VoiceOver. So my reading was limited to the accessible version of the Windows Kindle software. This is as I described previously a less than desirable reading experience. Further, given the number of portable reading options available, sitting at a PC is not the way I want to do most of my reading.
The King County Library currently offers more than 13,000 books in the Kindle lending program. I do not know if all books are also offered for Adobe’s Digital Editions but of the roughly 30 titles I looked at, all offered both kindle and Adobe editions of the books. You can learn more about Adobe’s efforts on an accessible Digital Editions in an earlier blog post.
My overall opinion here is mixed. While I’m pleased to see that the Kindle book lending program does not seem to detract from whatever level of accessibility exists in Kindle Ebooks, it is my hope that as libraries expand offerings in this program, the hard questions will get asked of OverDrive and Amazon about when we will see improved accessibility. Platforms where some accessibility exists have ample room for improvement and there are clearly platforms where Amazon has done nothing to offer an accessible Kindle experience that libraries are now supporting by joining this program. I understand the challenges faced by libraries and recognize the multiple priorities they are working to satisfy. Still, as I mentioned earlier, how we spend public money on technology and the accessibility implications of that spending are public policy questions worth asking.