Improving Access to Books through Public Spending

I’m not sure what it says about the social web that I’m writing a blog post about an exchange I had on Twitter. It feels a bit self-indulgent but that aside I wanted to expand briefly on some comments I made around accessibility of printed books.


I’ve written here previously about Bookshare.
Basically the organization takes advantage of a 1996 change in U.S. copyright law to make accessible copies of books available to people with print disabilities. The simplified explanation is that I can scan a book, upload it to Bookshare and other people who are blind can read the book without having to invest the hours it takes to scan the same book. This makes sense to me because it seems incredibly wasteful to have multiple people converting the same printed pages to an accessible format.


Bookshare recently celebrated the fact that 50,000 books were now available on the site. I’m a big book fan and part of me is thrilled to see this milestone reached.


Yet this 50,000 number falls far short of the 300,000 books Amazon currently touts as being available for the Kindle. The point here isn’t to talk specifically about Kindle accessibility (the device isn’t accessible today) but rather to say that current best efforts at book accessibility fall far short of what the marketplace is doing when it comes to the number of books being made available in electronic formats.


I’ve not done all the research yet but one thing I frequently (You have a lot of time to think when turning pages to scan a book.) wonder about is what would happen if all the libraries and other book buyers spending public tax dollars told the publishing industry the checkbook was closed until the book accessibility problem was solved. For example, suppose no public money could be spent on books unless an accessible copy of the book being purchased was made available through Bookshare or the National Library Service. I know some of this has happened for some educational categories of books in theory.


Today across the U.S. we spend hundreds of millions, if not billions, supporting the publishing industry through public purchases of books. I know when I looked into what my own property tax dollars to the King County library help support, it was something around $10 million annually spent on material acquisitions. Sure, not all of this buys printed books but I’m sure even today the vast majority goes for books on the printed page. What changes in accessibility are we getting with all this public spending? Little to none from what I experience.


These books bought with public money are the same books that I or someone else still has to spend countless hours turning page by page on a scanner to make accessible. I say close the public checkbook until this isn’t needed. My guess is that the public dollar isn’t a dollar the publishing industry wants to lose and they’ll take book accessibility much more seriously.

2 thoughts on “Improving Access to Books through Public Spending”

  1. Thanks for your enlightened post on the subject of book accessibility and public spending. Our lawsuit against ASU is one tiny effort to close ASU’s public checkbook on Kindle books until such time as the content and the device become accessible. May I rightly consider your post as support for this case?

  2. Darrell,
    Without knowing all the specifics of the arrangement between Amazon and the various Universities, I’m not able to comment comprehensively on the specific legal case. As I’ve mentioned in a couple different forums, I find it hard to imagine how a university could go forward with this kind of a trial though without the Kindle being accessible and in my opinion comply with the spirit, if not the letter, of the ADA and Rehab Act.
    I’m sure part of the response to this situation would be that the universities will make the texts available in alternative formats and such. But the Kindle is more than just about putting the book in a different format. It is about the full text consumption experience, that is, taking notes and everything else you are supposed to be able do with the Kindle.
    So in general yes I think the action happening around the Kindle is one step in the right direction.
    To be clear though, my comments here, as rough as they are, are about the full range of public money being spent on books. To me part of what public spending should be about is encouraging/requiring attributes of products that market forces might otherwise not make happen. Ask yourself why we have a Section 508 of the Rehab Act for example that has driven accessibility requirements of software purchased by the feds.
    Great, if publishers do not want to address accessibility that is their choice. But then we as the tax paying public have a choice of where we want to spend our money and if we are not going to get accessibility as part of the deal when it is obviously something that’s more than technically possible today, as I said turn off the cash machine.

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