There was a time when my answer to "What [or how] do you read?" was a glib "Never enough!" As someone who grew up with a scarcity of braille books, the relative abundance of audiocassettes in the early 1970s seemed almost too good to be true. I once believed that sufficient material would never be available in accessible formats to satisfy the insatiable information and literary appetites of those among us who, like me, happen to be unable to read print. With the advent of computers, the Internet, commercial books on audiotape, and changing legislation, that old assumption is far from the reality of accessible literature today. The most recent addition to the smorgasbord of reading opportunities for people who cannot read conventional print is Bookshare.org, a virtual community of blind, visually impaired, dyslexic, and other book lovers with print-related disabilities.
Jim Fruchterman, CEO of Benetech, the nonprofit organization that oversees Bookshare.org, attributes the germ for the Bookshare brainstorm to his living a few doors down from Eileen Richardson, interim CEO of Napster (circa 1999). Richardson's son, Chris, gave Fruchterman's son, Jimmy, a copy of Napster, the music-sharing phenomenon written by Shane Fanning that spread like wildfire among Web-savvy music lovers, and the program sparked Fruchterman's legendary imagination. As he listened to his own and other teenagers talking about swapping music files, it occurred to him that a similar system could benefit people who had been reading books with optical character recognition (OCR) software.
It was a logical-enough progression for him. For years, Fruchterman and his nonprofit company, Arkenstone, had been wildly successful in developing and distributing the OpenBook software to make print accessible to people with disabilities. With Bookshare, a nonprofit organization created under the umbrella of Fruchterman's larger nonprofit company, Benetech, he was boosting that commitment to a much higher level.
What Is Bookshare?
With OCR software (usually Kurzweil or OPENBook) and an accompanying scanner, multitudes of consumers with print disabilities have been scanning and reading mail, office memos, magazine articles, and other documents since the mid-1980s. Some have used the technology to read entire books. Some have scanned only one or two books, while others have processed dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of titles—scanning, recognizing, and storing texts on floppy disks or CDs. The concept driving Bookshare.org is simply that if one person enjoyed reading a given book, others will, too. Rather than having 50 individuals across the country each scan the same book, Bookshare.org provides a mechanism to facilitate the sharing of one scanned copy. The magnitude of titles and breadth of reading tastes and interests is limited only by the imaginations of those who join the community. Whereas Napster was troubled by issues of legality, Bookshare operates completely within the law.
Recent changes to U.S. copyright law allow the distribution of books in specialized formats to people who are blind or have other print disabilities. Specifically, the law says, "it is not an infringement of copyright for an authorized entity to reproduce or to distribute copies of a previously published, nondramatic literary work if such copies are reproduced or distributed in specialized formats exclusively for use by blind or other persons with disabilities." All the copyrighted books on Bookshare are available in only two formats: .brf files, which are files containing the text of the book translated into Grade 2 braille, and .xml files, which offer the text in the digital Talking Book format called DAISY. To protect the rights of publishers and authors further, Bookshare permits only certified members of Bookshare.org to download the specially formatted books—and becoming a member requires proof of a disability. (To facilitate this aspect of the membership process, Bookshare has made a special arrangement with the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, NLS, so that if you are an authorized borrower of braille and Talking Books from NLS, Bookshare can obtain your proof of disability from that source.) Unfortunately, the law also prevents people from outside the United States from downloading the copyrighted material, although the company is striving to discover legal routes to open the Bookshare community to people with disabilities in other countries.
The site was officially launched on February 21, 2002, and is acquiring new members and new books daily. Volunteers from within the Bookshare community submit books they have scanned. Some 20 onsite volunteers at the Bookshare office in California also scan books each week to help satisfy requests posted on the Bookshare wish list. The site has grown in other ways, too, adding minor changes as members suggest them, exercising the sort of tweaking that make a good thing even better.
Like an Open Book
The Bookshare site is simple to navigate and flaunts the brand of user friendliness that comes from considerable consumer input. If you're not a member, you can download only books that are in the public domain (which can be downloaded in any or all of four formats: brf, DAISY, html, or text.) If you're a member, you log in with your password and then can browse, sample, and read among the "stacks" of 11,000-plus books.
You can search Bookshare by title, author, or category (animal, biography, mystery, science, and so forth). You can look at a list of the newest books added to the collection. Or if you know exactly which author or title you want, you can use the easy search function and locate the book immediately. Broader, less specific search options would definitely be useful, but at this point you can find a book if you have specific information.
Books are downloaded as compressed files. The books that are in the public domain may be unpacked with WinZip. Copyrighted books are encrypted with proprietary code and require Bookshare's own unpack utility, available only to members. When you have experimented with the system a few times, it is generally possible to locate and download the desired title in about a minute!
A Book of Many Covers
Thirty or forty years ago, reading material for blind people had one of two looks: large, bulky braille volumes or heavy long-playing records that required a machine half the size of your refrigerator to operate. (OK, the latter is an exaggeration, but it was certainly a cumbersome method of reading compared with contemporary options.)
The ways in which you can read Bookshare books are even more varied than the range of available formats. You can download the text version and then have your screen reader read it to you or read it yourself with your screen-enlargement program or on your refreshable braille display. Or you can take the text version or the already-translated braille version and load it into your portable note taker, where you can then read it on the note taker's refreshable braille display or by listening to its synthesized speech.
Through an agreement with VisuAide of Canada, the Victor Reader software can be downloaded from Bookshare and used to read the DAISY-formatted versions of Bookshare titles. Still in its infancy, this digital format facilitates movement among sections of text, bookmarking, and other text-manipulation features. While many Bookshare members are experimenting with this software, no user who uses the Victor Reader as a preferred method could be found for this article. There are, however, a number of subscribers to Bookshare who are downloading DAISY-formatted titles and reading them via other means. The most popular method is the most recently released version of Kurzweil Educational Systems's Kurzweil 1000 (reviewed elsewhere in this issue).
With Kurzweil version 7.0, all the steps of downloading, converting, and beginning to enjoy a Bookshare title are accomplished with a few keystrokes. Guido Corona, an advisory software engineer with IBM's accessibility center in Austin, Texas, and one of Bookshare's greatest fans, has experimented with most methods of accessing the books and prefers Kurzweil 7.0. The new version includes a menu option that automatically goes online and searches three repositories—Bookshare.org, the Gutenberg Project, and the Baen Free Library—for the title or author you indicate. Once you select a Bookshare DAISY-formatted title, Kurzweil downloads the book and converts the DAISY file to Kurzweil's proprietary format for reading. Corona says that he often scans one book while he reads another in Kurzweil with IBM Viavoice. If he is not reading a book from his laptop computer, Corona can often be found scanning one to contribute to the online community. To date, he has scanned about 350 titles that are now in the Bookshare lists. And if he is not reading or scanning books, he can probably be found using the IBM Home Page Reader to consult the Bookshare catalog.
There's No Place Like Tome
Of course, if you don't want to listen to books at your computer or carry them around inside a note taker, you can also send the text of a .brf file to a braille embosser. In an ongoing effort to tweak the system and add new features, Bookshare.org forged an agreement with the Braille Institute of America in summer 2002, and now offers the books for sale as hard copy embossed braille books. Hard-copy books range in price from 8 cents to 36 cents per page and can be ordered from the Bookshare site and shipped directly to the address you indicate.
On a scale of from 1 to 5?
Anyone who has used a scanner in conjunction with OCR software knows that sometimes the results are practically perfect but other times, they are less desirable. Sometimes total accuracy is essential, while at other times a few errors have little effect on the overall pleasure of reading. Each Bookshare title includes a quality rating to assist readers in downloading selections. A rating of excellent indicates no errors or almost no errors, good indicates some errors, and fair lets the reader know that spots in the text might include some bumps in the reading road. The majority of books, however, include an excellent or good rating, and as OCR technology continues to improve, the likelihood of almost perfect renditions of printed pages will increase accordingly.
Some listings include annotations, but this is an area in which improvement is decidedly in order. Some annotations read like slick chunks from book jackets or published reviews, while others are much less informative. Many titles have no annotations.
When you choose to browse titles by category, there is no way to sort the listings—you must go through all the science fiction books, for example, from start to finish. You can change the number of books displayed per screen from the default 10 to 20 or 50 books per page as you browse.
Guido Corona summed up what readers think of this virtual community of book lovers: "It's fantastic!" He first learned of the project, he recalled, "when it was just a dream in Jim Fruchterman's eyes." He thought it was a phenomenal idea then and said it will only get better as it continues to grow.
Bookshare members are not the only ones who think this idea was a brilliant one. Fruchterman, president and CEO of the Benetech Initiative and Bookshare.org, was selected as one of the top social entrepreneurs of the world for 2003 by the Schwab Foundation of Switzerland. Candidates are recommended from throughout the world for this prestigious honor, and are all individuals whose creative approaches to social problems may be seen as models for governmental policy makers and others to follow. Among the opportunities included in this honor, Fruchterman will enjoy participation at renowned events, such as the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and the annual Social Entrepreneurs Summit in Geneva. Others who were selected for 2003 include the founders of Habitat for Humanity and Teach America. If a book is ever written about it, one of the growing number of volunteers will undoubtedly scan and upload it to Bookshare.org.
To become a member of Bookshare.org, log onto <www.bookshare.org> and fill out the online form. Members pay a onetime $25 sign-up fee and an annual subscription of $50. Anyone with a disability that prevents the reading of standard print is eligible, and proof of disability must be provided.
Today, when anyone asks me what or how I read, I take a deep breath and think, "Let me count the ways." Better still, I know there is no way I—or any other book lover with a print disability—could ever read all the books that are now available to us.