How Libraries Missed on Accessibility of EBooks

Several years ago I had the good fortune to take a trip to London. I recall how exciting it was to be able to walk around the city using an electronic copy of a travel guide I had downloaded while on my trip from my local library back in Washington State. For someone who has tried probably every method of accessing books around, this was an exciting time. True, the books were in the PDF format but by and large things worked to the point where you could access the books and libraries were just starting to really get into the online book world.


All I can say is that it is a good thing I’m not taking that same trip today. Libraries, largely living off public tax dollars, have ruined this opportunity. While libraries continue to make electronic books available, by and large they do so by supporting what has become a completely inaccessible platform with books made available in Adobe’s Digital Editions. The library staff I have talked to say this really isn’t their fault and they are just buying services and books from OverDrive. OverDrive passes the buck and blames Adobe. Adobe promises accessibility in the next version of Digital Editions.


Based on reports from the recent National Federation of the Blind summer convention, I’m lead to believe that Adobe is close to delivering on some level of accessibility in Digital Editions. Reports from those in attendance indicate Adobe gave demonstrations of something working here. However, even if Adobe released a 100% accessible and feature-rich version of Digital Editions today, I believe the situation libraries have allowed to exist is an important public policy question deserving of greater examination. Further, searching of Adobe’s web offerings still shows no firm info about anything official on an accessible Digital Editions.


Libraries should be held accountable to answer for what they are doing spending public money on such an inaccessible book platform. Based on the little financial data I’ve been able to obtain, I’m guessing OverDrive makes a healthy living off of the money libraries spend. According to representatives from the King County Library System, that institution will spend approximately $150,000 for books that end up being in the Digital Editions format in 2011. The Seattle Public Library was unwilling to detail spending on strictly eBooks but indicated the library would be spending a total of $600,000 with OverDrive for online books in all formats. Imagine the public dollars spent across the United States given what these two libraries are spending as just two examples. Obviously much of the income OverDrive takes in pays for the book content and such but by all impressions I have the company is in no danger of going out of business.


At one point the Los Angeles Public Library took a stand and said enough was enough and indicated they’d stop purchasing inaccessible books. So far I’ve been unable to determine any updates on that stand aside from seeing books with copyrights newer than the announcement of such a policy being available on the library’s web site. I welcome any updates people have because at least in theory I think the stand the Los Angeles Public Library took is what every library should have done. Instead all seem to have simply passed the buck and largely missed an opportunity to address the accessibility of eBooks.


Sure there is blame to go around and as I say maybe Adobe will finally deliver. One can only wonder how things would have turned out if libraries had turned off the public money faucet to OverDrive when this problem first appeared though. I’d be willing to bet OverDrive would be pressing a lot harder for Adobe to do something. Instead they seem to find it easier to pay $50 for Bookshare memberships for the few people who stumble on the fact that some libraries who have OverDrive services are taking part in a program from OverDrive for such subscriptions.


We have choices where our public dollars are spent. The platforms used for electronic books by libraries regressed from something that was working. Libraries should not have tolerated this in the least. They should stand up now and turn off the money. That is what gets companies to listen. It takes enough time and effort to make something accessible that when we reach that milestone we need to guard against steps in reverse. Public spending is one tool we should be using. Companies have the choice as to how they want to invest in accessibility but we then too have the choice where to spend our tax dollars. Libraries really blew an excellent opportunity to stand up for accessibility.

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