Looking with Mingus and the print impaired
While the verdict in the Authors Guild v. HathiTrust case has been widely hailed for its impact on how libraries can handle digitization for search, the findings on access for the print-disabled may lead to even more profound changes in practice.
Not too long ago I was driving through Vermont on a rainy day. The countryside was saturated with green, and the hilltops punctuated the clouds. I struggled, in my obtuse way, to operate the windshield wipers in my rental car, and the radio was a challenge, too.
A Charles Mingus composition finally came on, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” The landscape was dreary and the music elegiac, but a bemusing alchemy began to occur as I drove. Mingus’s music not only coincided with the land, it penetrated and transformed it. Mingus’s genius had inspirited what had been natural beauty only with an aesthetic and moral poignancy.
This is what happens when the brilliant members of minority groups have the same intellectual and artistic freedom as other geniuses. They enlarge how we all think and see, no matter how incongruous the circumstance.
For years, those disenfranchised from such intellectual freedom have included the blind and the print disabled. They have been denied full opportunity and meaningful access to the collective knowledge housed in libraries, no matter how diligent or curious they may be. Similar to Richard Wright, as he relates in Black Boy, barriers—erected by libraries or other forces—challenged their incipient sensibility and rendered uneasy their research.
The Authors Guild’s recent attempt to impound the print collection scans from the HathiTrust would have only further hampered these disenchanted minds.
Daniel Goldstein, of the Brown Goldstein Levy law firm in Baltimore, Md., represented the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in the Authors Guild, Inc., et al.,v. HathiTrust, et al. case, which Judge Harold Baer decided on October 10. Speaking at the New York Law School on October 26, Goldstein described the HathiTrust victory as an “extraordinary milestone” with “huge implications” since it gives full access to the content of the HathiTrust scans at the University of Michigan to those with print disabilities.
Goldstein, in an oral argument that Baer called eloquent, described the efforts of the HathiTrust as “the single largest endeavor in history to make print materials accessible to the blind…. Blind members of these university communities would have the opportunity to access more than nine million works, rather than being largely restricted to the tiny body of books that have been printed in Braille or digitized piecemeal for use by the blind.”
In ruling against the Authors Guild, Baer wrote, “Academic participation by print-disabled students has been revolutionized by the [HathiTrust Digital Library].”
It’s not often a sober-minded jurist uses a word like revolutionized, but he’s not alone. Marc Maurer, president of the NFB, said, “Access to the printed word has historically been one of the greatest challenges faced by the blind. The landmark decision by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York will revolutionize access to books for the blind. For the first time ever, blind students and scholars will have the opportunity to participate equally in library research. The blind, just like the sighted, will have a world of education and information at their fingertips.”
Most significant, Judge Baer concluded that the Americans with Disabilities Act “requires that libraries of educational institutions have a primary mission [italics added] to reproduce and distribute their collections to print-disabled individuals, making each library a potential ‘authorized entity’ under Section 121 of the Copyright Act (the ‘Chafee Amendment’).”
Maurer said as a result that the University of Michigan will now be permitted to make its entire ten million–volume digital collection available to all blind and print-disabled Americans.
“So, for those of you who are associated with libraries, understand the blind are going to come knocking at your door and say we want to read all this,” Goldstein said at the conference organized by James Grimmelmann, a law professor at New York Law School. And that is only the beginning. Combine this with the push to get all libraries to provide accessible ereaders, such as the recent case the NFB settled with the Free Library of Philadelphia, then the knocking is only going to get louder.
The blind are going to add much more of their genius, their jazz, to our world, and the rest of us will never see the landscape in quite the same way again.
Michael Kelley, Editor-in-Chief