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An Online Library for the Print-Disabled

By Rochelle Caviness - January 29, 2002

(Update: offically launched on February 21, 2002 and is now fully functional and enrolling new members.) is an innovative online community and book sharing program that is being shepherded into existence by Benetech, a nonprofit organization. Currently undergoing beta testing, is expected to launch sometime in February of 2002. Once goes 'live', it will begin to legally provide access to thousands of scanned books, including copyrighted works, to individuals who have a documented 'print' disability. Details about the legality of the program and how they are able to provide access to copyrighted books is available on their website.

Individuals who are visually impaired, or who have a learning or physical disability that makes it difficult to read standard print, are often limited to the number and types of books that they can access. While there are numerous organizations that convert books into accessible formats, these are not 'on demand' services. Basically, you are restricted to what 'they' decide to record. Granted, many of these organizations will try to accommodate requests, however they often do not have the resources to comply with all such requests. Even when they can accommodate your request, it may take months for the book to be converted into an accessible format. This leaves individuals who need a book right away with the task of manually scanning the books they need into a computer, using optical character recognition (OCR) software. They must then convert the book into a digital format that can be read with a screen reader or printed out in braille. For students this can be a time consuming and hectic process, especially when they find out, on short notice, that they need a particular book for a class. For others, it is just a plain nuisance, especially when you consider that it can sometimes takes longer to scan a book, than it takes to read it!

It is not uncommon for numerous people to scan the same book, and this is one of the biggest pluses of the service. It will make scanned copies of books available to anyone who qualifies for their services, thereby helping eliminate the time wasting process of scanning a book that has already been scanned. By compiling a huge collection of scanned books that have already been converted into digital formats, is opening up an entirely new world of printed material to the print disabled community. The non-copyrighted books contained in this collection will be available in four accessible formats, ASCII text, html, NISO / DAISY digital talking book standard, and BRF (Grade II digital braille) formats. However, copyrighted works will only be available in the DAISY and BRF specialized formats in order to comply with legal requirements., is being designed as an online community made up of individuals who will be using, and contributing, to the service. One of the nicer features of the collection is that it is, and will be, continually evolving. Members can contribute copies of books they have scanned, thereby increasing the number of books that are available, and saving their fellow members the time and effort of scanning the books for themself. By jointly sharing their individual efforts, the members of are helping to create a phenomenal resource that is likely to grow, exponentially, as more qualified users learn of its existence and the vastness of its collection. Because of this, it has the potential of becoming, in very short order, the largest online library of accessible books in the U.S. Already, this collection contains a large selection of current fiction and nonfiction books, including science fiction, technical books, classic literature, and even cookbooks and westerns. As is a collaborative effort, the quality of the material in the collection varies from near 'perfect' copies that have been thoroughly proofread to non proofread texts that may have many errors due to the limitations of various OCR software programs.

To use the service, a user will need to submit an application and provide documentation of a print-related disability, and pay a small yearly fee. Due to copyright regulations, the books contained in the's collection will only be made available to individuals who are visually impaired, blind, or who have a learning or physical disability that makes it difficult to read standard print. To qualify to use this service, you must submit proof of your print disability to, just as you must do when you apply to use the services of organizations such as the National Library Service or Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic. Due to U.S. copyright restrictions, membership to is limited to U.S. residents. Detailed information about the requirements for membership, including what constitutes a qualifying disability can be found on the website at: is password protected, and you will be given access to the site, via a password, after you submit your application. To enter the site, all you'll have to do is enter your email address and your password. Once logged in, you can begin to search for the books that you want, either by category, title, or by author. When you find a book that you are interested in, you will find that in addition to information about the title and author, additional descriptive details are also provided, such as the quality of the scanning and whether or not the text contains any errors. Each entry lists the various formats in which the book can be downloaded in, the size of the book, and ISBN number if applicable. In most cases, a brief synopsis of the book is also included. To download the book, all you have to do is to click on the format you desire and follow the prompt to select a download location. Downloads are very fast because the books are downloaded in a compressed format. Once the download is completed, you will need to unpack (i.e., unzip) the book using a program provided by Once unpacked, you can begin reading the book using your preferred screen reading software, or you can print the book out in embossed braille.


I was fortunate to have been given an advanced peak at the prelaunch version of the website, and I was very impressed with what I discovered there. The site is easy to access using a variety of screen readers, such as JAWS, Window-Eyes, and Zoomtext Level 2. And the collection, although still in its infancy, is already extensive and varied, containing a vast reservoir of current works, as well as hard-to-find and out-of-print books.

The requirements for membership are clearly detailed on the website, and qualified individuals will have no difficulty in complying with the listed requirements. As well, the yearly membership fee promises to be reasonable, and negligible when you consider the cost of a new book. Best of all, for this membership fee, you can download an unlimited number of books. Please note that qualified users can only download books for their own use. To ensure that this service is not misused, the books will be tagged to track who downloads them and to ensue that they are not transferred to non-qualified readers. This is an important safeguard which is necessary in order to comply with U.S. copyright laws, and to ensure the long-term security and viability of the service.

I look forward to watching grow over the years, both in terms of its collection, and as an online community. It promises to provide a real service, one which will ensure that print disabled people will have access to a large library of print materials in readily accessible formats. This is a wonderful service and it is sure to become an important resource for its members.

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