Wednesday, April 22, 2009

National Library Week and Bookshare

Guest Blog from Amy McNeely, Bookshare Librarian

This past week, April 12th through April 18th, was National Library Week. Every year, the American Library Association picks a different theme for the occasion. This year’s theme was “Worlds connect @ your library.” Bookshare is a unique library. When as the Bookshare librarian I fill out membership forms for different library organizations, I want to check all the boxes, as Bookshare is at once a school library, a public library and an academic library. This is one way Bookshare brings worlds together.

My name is Amy McNeely and I am pleased to be the new librarian at Bookshare. I’ve been working in libraries for nine years. Over that time, I’ve seen a lot of different libraries, from both the back room, where I normally work in technical services, and the front in public services. I have worked in a bustling public library, a small governmental department library, a huge federal medical library, a small specialized library for a film studio, a huge archival special collection for a university, a medical school library, and the library for the school I got my Master’s Degree of Library Science from, UCLA. I have done research on hallucinogenic toads. I have held the Manzanar High School Year Book. I have cataloged pamphlets from the olden days of medical science when ether was high technology. I’ve walked through a few libraries, but I can say that Bookshare is unique within my experience.

All libraries bring people together in ways that no other institution does. The library is a unique, neutral social and cultural space. It’s free, secular, and encourages people to linger. People interact in the library in ways they never would at coffee shops. They get chances to meet that they don’t because they attend different places of worship, or because they go to different schools, or didn’t attend school at all. Bookshare is no different. Our volunteer list is long, but the active volunteers get to know one another virtually very quickly. The vast majority are members as well as volunteers; it’s the “virtual” neighborhood library. We have people proofreading books from their homes who might never get to interact with one another were it not for Bookshare. The Bookshare staff get to know the volunteers, too. It’s like every library I’ve ever worked in, as it should be.
All of this makes me think back to what I’ve learned about the creation of Bookshare. Bookshare started as the sharing of copyrighted and public domain books in a central repository authorized by the Chafee Amendment by people with print disabilities for their own use. It is the first library I have worked at that is a social, virtual library—this is library 2.0 at its core. Web 2.0 is what we call social computing, when the content is contributed by the users, like YouTube or Wikipedia. Library 2.0 is what librarians call it when we apply these ideas to libraries. Bookshare takes the idea of building a collection from the users up instead of from the institution down—talk about worlds connecting. We do collection development in both directions now. Because of the nature of Bookshare, many of our most prolific volunteers are also members, and they shape our collection in a marvelous nexus of needs and services that few libraries can boast of.

We also have outsourcers in different countries on different continents doing proofreading for us now. Digital Divide Data and Worth Trust are two of our outsource partners who make a difference in many people’s lives by providing opportunities for training and employment to disabled and other job seekers in third world countries. That global connection is a huge way that worlds connect at Bookshare.

Bookshare is also picking up steam in India. We have members all over the world, but Bookshare India is the biggest outside of the United States right now. We are very proud of that program.

What’s more, Bookshare allows for individuals to grow and change. Like every library, members can check out all sorts of books, allowing them access to new worlds for themselves in whatever direction they choose to turn. We are a library for people with print disabilities. Our goal is to make the world of books accessible to people who so often find those doors closed. The door is open a crack: five percent of the books needed by people with print disabilities are now available in digital formats, including digital text and digital Braille. Among those books are the ones that Bookshare members have decided they want to read. It is my hope that all readers with print disabilities will join this community. The staff, advisory board, publishing partners, dedicated volunteers, and all of the contributors to Bookshare are working to push the door wide open, so that someday soon everyone can read whatever they want whenever they want. What better way for worlds to connect at the library, than for all of the kids to be able to read the next J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman or Stephenie Meyer book at midnight? No one should have to wait for that!

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