Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Bookshare.org Turns 4 One Book at a Time

On February 21, 2002, we publicly launched our first Benetech initiative, Bookshare.org, www.bookshare.org, an accessible online digital library with just over 6,000 titles for print-disabled individuals, persons who are either blind or otherwise visually-impaired, have learning disabilities such as dyslexia, or have other physical impairments that preclude their access to the printed word. While the cornerstone of the initiative (a website composed of member-contributed content) was not new, the intent and audience were revolutionary: provide a centralized clearing house for legally sharing the thousands of books that print-disabled individuals across the country were scanning, OCRing and converting into accessible formats at home for themselves. With currently over 25,750 books, Bookshare.org has become the national repository of member-contributed scanned accessible books.

Scanned books? Accessible books? What's the difference here? If you're not print-disabled, you can stroll into your favorite bookstore or library, browse the shelves, pick a title you like, open it up, and jump right in. It's just not as easy for somebody who's print-disabled. There are a few extra steps involved: scan the book (take a digital picture of every page), OCR it (use software to convert the picture of letters back into letters stored in a digital file), clean up the text to get rid of scannos (that's when the OCR software guesses incorrectly and mistakes things like "S" for "5"), and then finally take that digital file and run it through assistive technology hardware or software to access the digitized text.

Aren't there options out there already that aren't as difficult? There are some options, but the selection is limited: fewer than 5% of books are available in accessible media. To get that book in large-print or as an audio book somebody else (the publisher, in most instances) had to decide to make the book available in alternative formats. Since publishing is a market-driven enterprise, that's great for high-interest titles/best sellers, but it makes the chances of finding less-popular books nearly impossible. And Braille is not a format publishers can make money on. If nobody bothers to make a book accessible, then it's of no value to the print-disabled. If the book is available in "regular" print, a print-disabled person's best recourse is to make it accessible himself or herself. That's a good solution for one person to gain access to a book. Bookshare.org then allows the efforts of one person, when legally shared through our online collection, to benefit countless other print-disabled individuals.

Why is this important? Roughly speaking, every year for the past 4 years, some 5,000 newly-published or existing books that were previously inaccessible to members of our print-disabled community have become accessible through Bookshare.org. If you consider just how many books get published any given year, and how many books have ever been published, 5,000 books a year over 4 years doesn't seem like a lot. But when you realize that those 5,000 accessible books per year are the critical titles that the print-disabled community relies upon for education, information, and entertainment. The great majority of books on Bookshare.org are there because somebody took the personal initiative to make that book accessible and share it. And now publishers and authors are starting to pitch in by sending us content directly, such as the nearly 600 titles donated to us directly by O'Reilly Media, Inc., www.bookshare.org/oreillybooks.

Every time we meet with out Bookshare.org subscribers we hear about the positive impact Bookshare.org has had in their lives. They have a reliable and accessible source of information and entertainment that they did not have before, and they understand the benefits of working collaboratively to build an internet-based accessible library. We did a little research into what our subscribers download most, and the results were thought-provoking. What our subscribers read reflects the diverse interests of our online community. In fact, if you're print-disabled and are a sci-fi or romance novel fan, you really need to join now, www.bookshare.org/join (when prompted, use registration code "BDAY" to receive a $25 discount), but aside from that, the list of the top ten most downloaded books should be familiar to just about anyone. That book you or someone you know purchased from a bookstore or borrowed from a library, read from cover to cover, talked about with friends, that book, may be the same book that a print-disabled person also read. From Bookshare.org.

Bookshare.org Top Ten Downloads for our First 4 years:

Rank, Title, Author
1. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J. K. Rowling
2. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J. K. Rowling
3. The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown
4. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (British Edition), J. K. Rowling
5. My Life, Bill Clinton
6. The Broker, John Grisham
7. Holy Bible, New International Version, International Bible Society Editors
8. The Last Juror, John Grisham
9. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (British Edition), J. K. Rowling
10. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J. K. Rowling

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