(Editor's Note: To check this library out for yourself, visit www.bookshare.org.)
Imagine hearing a sighted friend comment on a wonderful book he/she read. Imagine being able to gain access to that book the same day from the comfort of your own home. A decade ago that would have been impossible for people in the blind community, but not any more.
On Feb. 21, 2002, one web site decided to make that dream a reality. Benetech is sponsoring Bookshare.org, a web site where a member with a print disability can download an entire book in seconds. Bookshare currently has more than 4,000 members and more than 29,000 books in 33 different categories. As a result of a partnership with the National Federation of the Blind, this diverse library contains newspapers and magazines from all over the United States. In addition to its material in English, Bookshare.org contains material in other languages, including more than 1,000 books in Spanish. More books are approved every day.
The Bookshare database reflects the interests of its members and volunteers. Bookshare has a section of books recommended by teachers for students, so when a student needs a book for school, he/she can find it more quickly. Bookshare.org currently highlights New York best sellers on its home page. The site contains the entire Harry Potter series, including the Spanish translations. The latest book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," was available on Bookshare the same day as it was available in print to the public.
A book goes through a three-step process before it can be on the site. First, a person scans, edits, and submits a book. This can take anywhere from an hour to several weeks, depending on many factors. Some of these factors include access to a computer, access to the book, the quality of the scan, and of course, time. Then, a validator picks the book up from the site, proofreads it and recommends it for approval. Finally, the book is approved by a Bookshare.org staff member who makes a final decision about the book.
In general, it is illegal to scan and share copies of books. However, there is an exception in the United States Copyright Law. It states in part "... it is not an infringement of copyright for an authorized entity to reproduce or to distribute copies ... of a previously published, non-dramatic literary work if such copies ... are reproduced or distributed in specialized formats exclusively for use by blind or other persons with disabilities."
Bookshare volunteers can submit books in one of five formats including Arkenstone, Kurzweil, Microsoft Word documents, Wynn and rich text format. Arkenstone is a format that is only accessible to a user who has Open Book. Likewise, Kurzweil is a file format that can only be accessed with that software program. Bookshare is encouraging all its volunteers to submit their books in rich text format, which is accessible to more members than any other format. Once the book is downloaded, the talking software on the individual's computer helps make the print audible. If the user does not have such a program, he/she can download Humanware's Victor Reader software from Bookshare.
A member or visitor can search the entire database by using the search function. A search can be done by title, subject or author. One can also search within a category. For example, if someone were searching for a book on Helen Keller, he/she could do a general search or search the disabilities category, which would cut down on time. Once the book is found, a page is displayed with the title, author, ISBN, copyright name and year, length, quality (excellent, good, or fair), and two synopses. One synopsis is 250 characters or less. The other is 500 words or less. This helps the user know if he/she has the right book before downloading it. Once the user is sure he/she has the right book, he/she can download it from the web site.
Bookshare.org is different from other organizations that offer reading material for the blind in many ways. First, it costs money. It costs $75 the first year and $50 each additional year for the service. A volunteer can work off this cost by submitting or editing books. Each submitted book is worth $2.50 credit toward membership. If one wants credit toward a subscription but does not have access to a scanner, he/she can validate a book for a 50-cent credit. Validators are essential for Bookshare to run. These dedicated readers take books that were submitted, proofread them, and categorize them so they appear on Bookshare in the right place.
A person can become a member by filling out a short online form and submitting a proof of disability to the site either proving that they are a member of the National Library Service (NLS) or getting a printable form filled out and signed by his/her eye doctor. Bookshare has a small staff and relies on its active volunteer community to grow the collection. If a member can get a volunteer to scan the book, Bookshare will have it on the site for the whole community. Bookshare has a wish list for this type of situation. Members need to keep in mind that there is no guarantee a book they ask for will be scanned, however.
Bookshare also offers another unique feature for braille users. Any book in excellent or good quality can be bought in braille from the Braille Institute of America thanks to a partnership between the two organizations. Books can be purchased for 8 cents per braille page for unformatted and 36 cents for formatted braille. Membership is not necessary for purchase of braille books.
I enjoy scanning books people request for two reasons. First, I know the book I submit will be read by a member who either wants it or needs it. Some people who use Bookshare have the equipment to scan books, but don't have the time. I feel fortunate that I have the time and the resources to submit books for others. I scan children's books often because they are fun to read, and parents, teachers and children can benefit from them. I also describe pictures in every children's book so the reader won't miss out on any visual information in the print copy.
I learn a lot by scanning books on different topics, too. A friend asked me to scan a book for her on Buddhism. If she didn't ask, that would not have been a book I would have scanned. I learned a lot about the religion and I thanked my friend as much as she thanked me.
Bookshare.org is a wonderfully diverse library that has affected the lives of its members in many ways. The size and scope of this library reflects the needs and interests of its members and volunteers. The site allows members to gain access to information in a quick and easy way that was unheard of 10 years ago. Bookshare.org has a growing collection of diverse reading material with no end in sight.
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