Bookshare and the Power of We
Blog Action Day is today, October 15, and the international community of bloggers is blogging about this year’s theme, The Power of We. I’m excited to contribute to this topic in honor of the multitudes who work together to make a difference in the world through Bookshare, a global asset we have built with joint efforts of education, technology, publishing, student, parent, and volunteer communities.
By partnering with all these stakeholders, we reinvented the traditional library for people with print disabilities and brought modern ebook technology to this underserved community. We blew up the old approaches to converting inaccessible books into accessible equivalents. When Bookshare was first created, most people with print disabilities read printed material via books on tape or hardcopy Braille books delivered through the mail. Converting and delivering these accessible books was expensive and time consuming. With the old approaches, only a fraction of print materials was made available in accessible formats. Indeed, six years ago, experts estimated that merely 5% of print materials worldwide were produced in accessible formats. As a result, people with disabilities were left behind, facing insurmountable barriers to opportunities in education, employment, and social inclusion.
With support from the Bookshare community, we changed that reality. The Bookshare breakthrough was to put our users in charge of the collection; we created a crowd-sourced library built by and for the people it serves. Instead of deciding what people with disabilities should read, we let our users decide which books to scan and share with each other under an exception in the U.S. copyright law. Instead of people without disabilities helping people with disabilities, most of our books came from people with disabilities helping each other! Our lower cost model allowed us to invert the power structure. As a result, we quickly became the world’s largest online library for people with print disabilities.
As we celebrate Bookshare’s 10th Anniversary this year, we are grateful to all the individuals and groups who have joined us over the past decade and made these tremendous accomplishments possible. Together with our members and partners, we scaled Bookshare to serve over 200,000 members nationwide (the majority of whom are students) with a collection of over 150,000 (and counting) accessible titles. Each month, we add more than 2,000 new books to the Bookshare collection, and we now deliver an accessible book to a student for less than one-fifteenth of the cost of the previous approach. It is the nature of technology to realize immense economies when scale is achieved, but it is the Power of We that drives scale and makes success possible for ultimate social impact.
Valuing partnership over going alone is one of the Seven Benetech Truths that I shared in a recent blog post. This core value means that we include our partners and user communities in planning our products, collaborate with them as we develop our technology solutions, and therefore provide services that are responsive to the real world needs of real people. Succeeding through partnerships is a recurring theme that runs through all of Benetech’s programs and that informs our activities as we work to deliver the next generation of innovative software solutions for social good. For example, through our DIAGRAM Center, we are now advancing tools and best practices to tackle the next big challenge in book accessibility: making the increasing numbers of pictures and graphics accessible. Leveraging the strong community of Bookshare volunteers, we are building a crowd-sourced platform for creating affordable, high-quality image descriptions and tactile graphics in accessible textbooks.
We look forward to sharing in future blogs the success stories of this and other partnerships. Here’s to the Power of We, and Happy Blog Action Day to all!