May 6, 2010

Digitized Books For The Visually Impaired

The number of book titles accessible to people who are blind or dyslexic is small, even though audio versions of best-sellers fill store shelves and new technology fuels the popularity of digitized books.

The nonprofit organization Internet Archive in San Francisco is attempting a new service that will change that.  The group has hired hundreds of people to scan thousands of books into its digital database, which will more than double the available titles for people who are not able to read hard copy.

Brewster Kahle, the founder of Internet Archive, says the project will start off making 1 million books available to the visually impaired, using money from foundations, libraries, corporations and the government.  He said he hopes a subsequent book drive will add more titles to the collection.

"We'll offer current novels, educational books, anything. If somebody then donates a book to the archive, we can digitize it and add it to the collection," he told the Associated Press (AP).

Digitized books sold commercially are seen as expensive and are often abridged.  They also do not come in a format that is easily accessed by the visual impaired.

The collections are also limited to popular titles published within the past several years.

The Internet Archive is scanning a variety of books in several languages that can be read by software and devices blind people use when converting written pages into speech.  The group has 20 scanning centers in five countries, including one in the Library of Congress.

"Publishers mostly concentrate on their newest, profitable books. We are working to get all books online," Kahle told AP.

President of the National Federation of the Blind Marc Maurer told AP that getting access to books has been a big challenge for the visually impaired.

He added: "Now, for the first time, we're going to have access to an enormous quantity."

Maurer, who is blind, said that when he was in college, he hired people to read books for him out loud because the Braille and audio libraries were so limited.

"That has been the way most students have gotten through school," he said. "This kind of initiative by the Internet Archive will change that for many people."

Maurer said only about 5 percent of published books are available in a digital form that is accessible to the visually impaired.  He also said that there are even fewer books produced in Braille.

The Internet Archive's new digitized copies will be available for free to visually impaired people through the organization's website.  Kahle said the group does not run into copyright concerns because the law allows libraries to make books available to people with disabilities.


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