Bringing Millions of Books to Billions of People: Making the Book Truly Accessible

I believe in the power of books to change the world.

A bookseller at a table, making an ok sign.That is not a particularly radical belief among librarians, but I hope to make you believe even more in the power of books. Literacy and access to knowledge underpins just about every social good, from education, to economic development, to health, to women’s empowerment, democracy and respect for human rights. Today, we are poised at a moment in time where we can transcend the limitations of past book technologies and bring the power of books to all humans.

To bring the power of books to everybody on this planet, we must make books truly accessible.

Love of the print book. It made me who I am.

I’m a big fan of the printed book and always have been. However, as a technology, printed books come with serious challenges for some communities (like blind people) that technology can unlock.

A book chained to a computerConsider the issues with printed books. First, they are place-based. In order to read a printed book, you must have physical access to it.  What if you live in a place without physical books or can’t get to where the books are? Second, producing a physical book is expensive. Many books are never published because of the costs. Those that are published don’t actually reach many of the people who might want to read them because of affordability. Third, the print book is not universally accessible. The print book doesn’t work for people who are blind, partially sighted, dyslexic, have physical limitations, people who haven’t learned to read, or people who can’t read the particular language of a specific book is written in.

Lack of access to the knowledge in books perpetuates ignorance, generates poverty and squanders human potential.

We can do better!

The miracle of ebooks

boy reading a tablet outside
What if we had the ability to overcome these accessibility barriers, barriers that affect most of humanity, not just people with identified disabilities, wouldn’t we have the moral obligation to act? Fortunately, the ebook has made that possible:
Ebooks are easy to produce: authors now write books almost exclusively in a word processor program, and that’s an ebook;
Ebooks are easy to distribute: making millions of copies costs almost nothing, and technically they can reach almost all of the places where potential readers are;
Ebooks are flexible in consumption: you can read it the way you want, where you want, keep it digital, make it physical.
Fingers on a braille page, with ink writing along the braille lettersIt’s of course this last capability, flexibility, that is so powerful for people with disabilities. We can use the same ebook file to deliver the content ten different ways. With a press of a virtual button, an ebook can be printed, displayed in large print (on a page or on a display), made into braille (on a page or on an electronic braille display), or read aloud as audio. The killer app for many people with dyslexia is karaoke-style reading, where the word is visually highlighted (follow the bouncing ball) the moment it is spoken aloud.
This adaptability isn’t just for people with disabilities: personalized content helps everyone. A physical book is a one-size-fits all solution, where the individual needed to adapt to its limitations, availability, and cost. Ebooks are adaptable, meeting the reader where and how they want to read, and more likely, within their means.

The missing pieces

So, knowing the limitations of the print book, and the miracles made possible by the ebook, what else do we need to enable this potential? I believe it is a combination of copyright exceptions and business model innovations.
Book with a pen across the open pages, with a candle in the background
I love to hark back to Thomas Jefferson’s take on ideas. “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature…” These great qualities of ideas led to our legal system regulating the propagation of ideas differently than physical objects. The ebook, as an intangible representation of the book, lends itself well to this different approach. It creates an opportunity to have public benefit being balanced with business interests.
For the content of books, this flexibility is expressed in ideas like public domain, when the copyright owned by the author or publisher ends at some point. We have an array of copyright exceptions that cover the activities of archives and libraries, especially fair use and the copyright exception that benefits people with disabilities. Other people at this gathering are far better versed in fair use, and especially the buy one lend one concept.  This concept has been pioneered by the Internet Archive with its Open Library can lend a digital copy of a book for a period of time as long as it (or a partner library) owns a physical copy of that book which it holds back from being lent to someone else. My particular expertise is in using the disability copyright exception (also known as the Chafee Amendment or Section 121 of the Copyright Act in the U.S.) to end the book famine for Americans with qualifying disabilities: more about that later. My point is that copyright exceptions enable the ebook to deliver far more social benefit than would be practical in an earlier era.
A page from a book with a poem about a sad bookseller, and the facing page has a drawing of a bookseller.
The second group of enablers of the brighter future are business model innovations. By this, I am not just talking about the publishing business, but also the nonprofit libraries committed to universal accessibility. A virtual good, a non-rivalrous good, enables a far greater range of business models, options for sustainability, than a traditional industry based on exchanging physical goods. We see this with a much greater ability to lower prices, to offer all you can read subscription pricing plans, to choose to license content freely, to publish open access articles, and so on. Technology advances have created the opportunity for many of us to experiment with one or more of these models.

The Bookshare story

napster logoBookshare is a real example of the confluence of how all of these exciting developments were able to drive an innovative new way of addressing a social problem, and demonstrating the potential of what ebooks can do.
For me, it started in late 1999 noticing a new icon on our home PC. These were the days when people had just one PC at home. My 14-year-old son Jimmy had installed some new software, against my express wishes to not install random software from the Internet (still a good idea!). Jimmy explained it wasn’t software from the Internet; he had gotten it from his friend Chris who lived two doors down from us. Turns out that Chris’ mom was the acting CEO of a new software company, “Napster.”
I had never heard of it. Jimmy and I spent an hour trading music together. He would play me a 90’s punk song, and I’d download Pat Benatar (saying, I had music like that when I was your age). It was a magical hour. At the end, I would have paid any amount of money for this new product. Jimmy then explained it was free, and would always be free. As we all know, the record companies ensured this was not the case, forcing Napster to shut down.
However, experiencing Napster sparked the idea for me of creating Bookster. At the time, my nonprofit social enterprise was the leading maker of reading machines for people who were blind or dyslexic, giving them the power to scan their own books and printed material. My idea was that instead of three thousand families each investing four hours scanning the latest Harry Potter book, as they did in those days, we could scan it once, proofread it to correct the optical character recognition errors, and get the accessible Harry Potter to tens of thousands readers with far less work!
Smiling boy in front of a PCI went right away to my lawyer, Gerry Davis, and told him of my vision, which I worried might be illegal. He came back the next day and gave me unbelievably positive news. A new copyright exception has been adopted nationwide just a couple of years earlier, the Chafee Amendment (also known as Section 121). My idea was completely legal! I was amazed: when do you come up with a great idea that is probably illegal and it turns out to be fine? Gerry did have one other piece of critical advice: change the name.
And that’s how Bookshare was founded.
Today, more than 15 years after the creation of Bookshare, we’re now the largest digital library dedicated to serving people with disabilities. We have over half a million readers in the United States, and over 625,000 different ebook titles available for instant download.

Ending the Book Famine: the Marrakesh Treaty

The World Blind Union talks about the global book famine experienced by blind people, and the negative impacts on education and employment on many millions of people around the world. The next challenge we’re working on is to bring this incredible library to the rest of the world.
Remember how crucial the Section 121 copyright exception was to creating Bookshare? Together with the World Blind Union and other campaigners, we set out to get a global treaty that would not only replicate the U.S. copyright exception, but also allow for easy importing and exporting of accessible books.
Ten years ago, I was one of a handful of leaders who got together to create a first draft of a global treaty. Just three years ago, negotiators from around the world converged on Marrakesh, Morocco, to hash out a final deal. It was highly controversial. Amazingly enough, it wasn’t the publishers who fought against the treaty; the publishing industry has a long history of supporting access for the blind, as long as their interests are respected. It was Hollywood, and the patent holders, who came out against the Treaty. Even though their movies and patents were not covered by the treaty draft, they were concerned the Treaty might be a bad precedent for them.
Stevie Wonder standing with a mic, addressing a conference
Stevie Wonder at the Marrakesh Conference
At that time, the National Federation of the Blind was running a campaign against the leaders of these big corporations, with billboards on I-95 saying things like “The CEO of GE wants to keep the blind in the dark!” and “The CEO of Caterpillar wants to bulldoze the blind.” We reached out to Stevie Wonder who promised to give a concert to the negotiators if they negotiated a treaty that the blind would endorse. Stevie recorded a short video that was shown twice at plenary sessions of the diplomats in Marrakesh. The second time was at a crucial moment when the Treaty seemed to hang in the balance.
Miraculously, the world’s countries came together and successfully negotiated the “Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled.”
Today, the Marrakesh Treaty has been ratified by more than thirty countries, and went into international effect and law as of last year. The European Union is committed to fully ratify by September of 2018 for another 28 countries. And, the U.S. Senate just ratified the Treaty!
It’s that global vision that brings us into partnership with the Internet Archive around their larger Open Library dream.
When we first launched Bookshare, members paid for a subscription, however, the subscriptions weren’t enough to cover our costs. Our current model mainly depends on government and foundation support enabling us to provide free library services to members. It works well for students in the United States, but we’re still not reaching American adults to the extent we would like. We share the goal of bringing more books to American adults, but the vast Open Library vision inspired us to go even further.
Our goal in working with the Internet Archive on the Open Library would be to experiment with a Wikipedia-style “please donate if you can” model to offer a global solution for free to everybody. We would need an additional $1-2 million/year of funding to begin this type of experiment globally, but we’re already planning to experiment with it in some of the least wealthy countries in the world.

Born Accessible

Our long term goal, however, is putting ourselves out of business.
Benetech’s President, Betsy Beaumon, set forth her vision for the future with the words, “If it’s born digital, it should be born accessible!” Remember how wonderful the ebook is for everybody, especially people with disabilities? Well, just like 99+% of the people benefiting from a curb cut designed for wheelchair access are not wheelchair users, everybody would benefit from ebooks with the features we deliver today in Bookshare. Features like books that will read aloud, or have graphics that explain what you are supposed to learn from them.
Our Born Accessible project means working closely with publishers to see that they put accessibility features in all of their mainstream ebooks. We’re convinced that not only do most people with disabilities prefer the dignity of being able to purchase their own ebooks, but that these features will make the publishers more money, because they make their product better for everybody. And then, accessible library services will be work the same as public libraries work today for people without disabilities, serving people who can’t afford books, or don’t choose to buy books. That will be equality!

Predict the Future

Smiling woman in front of bookshelves.One of the great things about being around the tech field for decades is the ability to confidently predict the future. Maybe not exact dates, and maybe not everything happens the way we project, but it’s possible to paint an exciting picture of the world that is definitely possible. Here is just a taste of what I think is possible, and maybe even probable:
A global library that makes people with disabilities first-class citizens when it comes to access to books and other information.
All students around the world have access to rich and varied educational content.
The publishing industry makes the great majority of ebook content sing and dance for people with disabilities by default, reaching so many more people with disabilities than we could ever reach.
People without identified disabilities benefit from content that adapts to their reading and learning preferences/styles.
Machine intelligence both greatly enhances the accessibility of rich content, and offers the ability for high-quality translations into a wide array of languages, including simplifying that content.
The publishing industry continues to thrive, finding business models that sustain them and deliver profits to their shareholders, without fighting the idea of copyright exceptions and public interest so much.


Print books were a wonderful technology for the last few centuries, but it still presented huge barriers in terms of economics, usability, and access. The ebook has overcome these barriers. The use of copyright exceptions and novel business models have become practical on a massive scale, enabling new capabilities while keeping the balance between the interests of society and of publishers and authors. The Internet Archive and Bookshare are just two examples of what is possible, and both organizations have barely scratched the surface of what they could deliver. The library leaders represented here are in the vanguard, helping realize bright future for the expanded impact of the book in its ebook form.

If you believe in the power of the book, if you love the book, if you feel the moral imperative to share that power and love with everybody, then you should join us in working together to fully realize this promise and bring millions of books to billions of people!

Source Note

Based on a Keynote Address to the 2017 Internet Archive Library Leaders Forum. The Forum focused on the Internet Archive’s Open Library Project, which has a goal to greatly increase access to books to people around the United States and the world.


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