May 11, 2018

NYPL, Benetech Partner to Offer 370,000 Accessible Ebooks to Print Disabled

Benetech LogoThe New York Public Library in December announced a new partnership with nonprofit Benetech, and the organization’s Bookshare solution, to provide print disabled patrons with access to more than 370,000 accessible ebooks through NYPL and the Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library. Although Bookshare provides free access to its collection for all U.S. students with qualifying disabilities through an award by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, access to the collection for qualifying adults, seniors, and other non-students generally requires payment of a $25 setup fee and a $50 annual subscription fee. The partnership to provide free access to library patrons through NYPL is Bookshare’s first such partnership with a U.S. library, and Benetech officials have stated that the organization is hoping to establish similar agreements with public libraries throughout the U.S.

Benetech has been doing similar work in Canada since July 2014, when the company announced a partnership with the country’s newly established Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA). And Benetech has worked with many U.S. libraries on a more ad-hoc basis in the past, Betsy Beaumon, president of Benetech, told LJ. “This is the first time we’ve ever entered into a strategic partnership in the U.S. where we’re going to go out there and make sure that [eligible patrons] know about it, and know how to use it,” she said.

For patrons with print disabilities, such as blindness, legal blindness, dyslexia, or physical disabilities that significantly interfere with reading, Bookshare offers unlimited simultaneous access to its collection of bestsellers, children’s books, fiction, nonfiction, textbooks, educational resources, and more.

These lending terms, as well as the conversion of copyrighted works into formats such as audio or Braille, are made possible by the Chafee amendment, a measure introduced by Sen. John H. Chafee (R-RI) in 1996 that grants an exception to U.S. copyright law allowing authorized entities, such as Bookshare and the Library of Congress’ National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), to reproduce and distribute copyrighted works for use by print disabled readers without seeking special permission from publishers or paying royalties to those publishers.

The Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library is part of the NYPL system as well as the NLS, explained Jill Rothstein, managing librarian of the Heiskell library. “We help provide [NLS] with human-narrated, professionally recorded audiobooks…and we do all kinds of assistive technology training and programming serving patrons with disabilities,” she told LJ. “And we have our own website and our own mobile app for books that we’ve made or that the Library of Congress has gotten through partnerships with publishers.”

But producing audiobooks for the program is a slow process. “We [record] 20 a year in our own local audio studio,” Rothstein said. The library currently offers access to 30,000 audiobook titles, and about 2,000 additional titles are recorded each year by NLS-affiliated libraries. Bookshare, with a process that involves scanning books and using text-to-speech technology in conjunction with accessible formatting, “can create a lot more titles—things like textbooks, technical manuals, or more obscure titles that might not be…at the front of the priority line.”

Although recent years have seen great strides made in text-to-speech technology—with basic text-reading features now available on popular consumer devices including Android, iOS, and Kindle tablets—without the right type of formatting, these features do not inherently make an ebook accessible. A text-to-speech program might treat a table of contents, primary text, sidebars, and footnotes equally, for example, while skipping over charts, illustrations, and other visual content completely—problems that print-disabled readers will have significant trouble navigating. Several publishers have committed to incorporating accessibility features into their ebook publishing workflows using the EPUB 3 formatting standard, but challenges remain.

“If you download a Harry Potter book, because it’s a few hundred pages of text, it’s pretty easy for [commercial] e-readers to read that,” with text-to-speech, said Brad Turner, VP of global literacy for Benetech. “When you get into either children’s books that have lots and lots of pictures…or STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] books with equations, formulas, the artwork, the graphs and charts, that’s where it starts to get really hard. The alt-text for all of those images [provided by an NLS library, Bookshare, or other service] is huge step forward. Now, people can understand that when the text says ‘see the equation at the right’ that there will be some sort of description there. Otherwise, with most publishers, those equations come out as an image.”

Beaumon said she was bullish about the state of accessibility, and that electronic publishing has come a really long way during the past few years, thanks to industry efforts on EPUB 3.  “At the same time, it’s still the early days,” she said. “The good news is that we have a commercial ebook standard—EPUB 3—that if one follows to the letter, you’re going to have a very accessible book. But it takes time, to get [publishers] following that.” Beaumon added that another major initiative at Benetech involves working to help publishers create “born accessible” ebooks.

In the meantime, NYPL’s new partnership with Benetech is already introducing the Heiskell library’s patrons to a huge new selection of fully-accessible titles.

“New York Public Library offers, to sighted patrons, all kinds of books, large print, ebooks, audiobooks, e-audiobooks—lots and lots of options with different platforms,” Rothstein said. “We [at the Heiskell library] wanted to offer options as well.”

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (, @matthewenis on Twitter, is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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