E-books, Libraries, and Access for the Blind

Library Hi Tech News

ISSN: 0741-9058

Article publication date: 1 April 2000


Johnson, D. (2000), "E-books, Libraries, and Access for the Blind", Library Hi Tech News, Vol. 17 No. 4. https://doi.org/10.1108/lhtn.2000.23917dad.002



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

E-books, Libraries, and Access for the Blind

David Johnson, Column Editor

E-books, Libraries, and Access for the Blind

David Johnson

[Ed.: "EASI Access to Library Technology," a regular feature of Library Hi Tech News, examines new technology, information sources and services, and other news of interest to librarians concerned with providing quality services to their patrons with disabilities. EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information), in affiliation with the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE), is concerned with new and emerging technologies for computer users with disabilities.]


What will the continuing development of e-books (also called eBooks or electronic books) mean for libraries and their blind or otherwise print-impaired patrons? Some Internet enthusiasts have speculated that e-books could mean the end of public libraries. Some blind readers entertain hopes that e-books will finally give them true equal access to published material, while others worry that e-book texts will be produced in inaccessible formats and e-book reading devices will have controls and output that only fully sighted people can use. My own speculation, which I will offer at the end of this article, is positive for both libraries and the print-impaired. But first, what exactly are e-books, and what has been happening in their development?

What E-books Are

Originally e-books were just books in some computer text format, e.g. ASCII text. (For a discussion of the different types of e-book and related accessibility issues, see Dixon, 1998[1]). ASCII text is fully accessible to blind and visually impaired persons using computers, through screen enlargement programs and screen readers. Blind people who own computers often prefer getting documents in ASCII rather than cassette format or large print that needs to be read or scanned. Organizations such as Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic have produced hundreds of books on diskette in ASCII format.

Books in ASCII format have a major fault from the viewpoint of publishers: They can easily be copied by readers and distributed over the Internet. Publishers envision their markets shrinking away as people get the books they want free online. Publishers therefore prefer to work only with e-book systems that, unlike ASCII, have some protection against copying and distribution. As a result, comparatively little copyrighted material has been available in this highly accessible format. (Fifteen states have laws requiring publishers to provide electronic versions of textbooks adopted by the schools, so that schools can more easily make textbooks available to blind students, but this is an exceptional situation in that under these laws publishers are getting print sales in exchange for providing the electronic version.)

CD-ROMs have been a leading commercial form of electronic text. However, as noted by Dixon (1998), as they have become more graphical they have become mostly inaccessible to blind users.

Digital talking books, which I wrote about last year in the EASI Access column (Johnson, 1999), are hybrids, with a digital version of recorded audio attached to an electronic text file.

The e-book systems that are being publicized today (Rocket eBook, SoftBook) consist of electronic text plus handheld devices that display the text in a form resembling the page of a print book. The text files used by these systems contain protections against copying, so publishers have allowed some copyrighted books to be used. A disadvantage of these systems, however, has been that they are not interchangeable, so that someone who buys an e-book in one format has to fear that the e-book will be unreadable by next year's reading device. From the viewpoint of blind people these systems are inaccessible in a number of ways. They lack voice output, and they use touchscreens for controls. Even for readers with limited vision they are poor since their "large" type is not large enough for most low vision readers. (Standard large print is only 14 or 16 pt, helpful for someone with 20/50 vision but not large enough for most people with more serious visual impairments.)

The interchangeability problem has been addressed through the development of Open e-Book standards by an organization supported by Microsoft, NuvoMedia (developer of the Rocket eBook), and other companies. These standards have also addressed concerns of the blind about lack of attention to e-book accessibility.

What E-books Could Mean for the Blind

Although people with print impairments have gained considerable access to published materials since the introduction of talking book recordings in the 1930s, their access is still far from equal. Each existing means of access is inadequate:

  • Braille ­ Only a small proportion of books appear in Braille, Braille books are expensive, and thanks to mainstreamed education most blind people are now Braille-illiterate.

  • Talking books for the blind ­ Only a small proportion of books appear as talking books, they appear at least a year after general publication, and they are hard to search and skim (this last problem may be solved when digital talking books replace cassettes).

  • Commercial audio books ­ Once again, only a small proportion of books are available, they are often abridged, and an abridged audio book tends to cost more than a complete print book.

  • Scanners and voice synthesis (reading machines) ­ Scanning is still a time-consuming process, scanners still make at least a few mistakes on every page, and voice synthesis is still not good enough for pleasure listening. (Talking books and commercial audio books, in contrast, are recordings of people reading books, often very well.)

  • Text magnification (CCTVs) ­ Only usable by people with a certain level of vision, and clumsy since only a fraction of the magnified page is shown on the screen at any given moment.

E-books have the potential to improve upon these inadequacies:

  • Most books published today go through an electronic (computer file) stage before publication, so if publishers choose it would be possible to have almost every new book available in e-book format.

  • E-books need not be more expensive than print books. Today, in fact, they tend to be priced above print books, but publishers will discover that e-books, like videotapes, sell better when they are competitively priced.

  • There is no reason for e-books to be abridged. (Commercial audiobooks are abridged because of the space limitations of cassettes.)

  • E-books are easily searchable.

Today only a few hundred copyrighted titles are actually available for the Rocket or SoftBook e-book systems, and there is a tendency for computer titles to predominate because these are the ones publishers expect the early purchasers of e-book devices to want. But even if numerous titles become available in e-book format, blind and visually impaired readers will be excluded if e-books cannot be read by devices with voice output or extra large font sizes.

Open E-book Standards

Fortunately, the Open e-Book standards written by a committee sponsored by the computer and publishing industries (Open e-Book Specifications 1.0) incorporate the accessibility standards of the World Wide Web Consortium:

[Section 1.7] Accessibility:

This specification incorporates features that ensure content can be made accessible and usable by persons with disabilities. Existing accessibility features developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for HTML 4.0 for content accessibility are incorporated into the OEB specification. OEB publications should be authored in accordance with the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (http:// www.w3.org/TR/WD-WAI-USERAGENT/) to ensure that the broadest possible set of users will have access to books delivered in this format.

This means that e-book texts meeting the standards must be readable by systems that produce voice or Braille output. In addition, Section 4.6 on font-families states that reading systems must support three generic font-families (serif, sans-serif, and monospace), while Section 4.9 on font-weight requires that e-books support two font-weight values, normal and bold. Most visually impaired people prefer fonts that are bold and sans-serif.

Finally, Section 4.7 states that e-book systems must support large and extra large fonts. It should be understood that saying that e-book systems must support extra large fonts does not mean that every e-book device will have extra large fonts; it only means that any e-book run on a device that has extra large fonts will be readable in an extra large font size. Furthermore, the standards do not define font sizes absolutely, only relative to each other, so one particular device may have much larger "extra large" fonts than another.

[Section 4.7] Font-size:

Reading systems must accept the seven named font-sizes, as well as the forms for stepping one size (among the seven) larger or smaller than surrounding text.... [T]here is no requirement that any given reading device actually render using seven distinct sizes. Reading devices may provide means to change the mapping between the 7 named font-sizes and physical font sizes. Font sizes specified with absolute units are presumed not to change size during normal operations (although they may do so in modes focused on universal access for the vision impaired). Content authors should avoid specifying absolute physical font sizes; doing so deprives the user of one of the significant benefits of an electronic book ­ user control over relative font size.

The possible values are:

  • xx-small

  • x-small

  • small

  • medium

  • large

  • x-large

  • xx-large

  • smaller

  • larger.

These standards have been accepted by NuvoMedia, SoftBook, and Microsoft, which as of the date of writing is promising to deliver during the first half of 2000 an application (Microsoft Reader) to turn laptops and palm computers into e-book devices.

Implications for Libraries

In the October 24, 1998 issue of the online magazine Slate, the political journalist Jacob Weisberg argued that e-books will make public libraries (though not research libraries or specialized libraries) obsolete (Weisberg, 1998)[2]. The function they serve, according to Weisberg, will in the near future be better accomplished by giving people "a subsidized internet account and a free digital reading device." There are a number of reasons why this is not going to come true anytime soon. Too many books, especially older, out-of-print books, are not going to be on the Internet. Scholars are not the only ones who want these books. And new books on the Internet are not generally going to be free. It will still be necessary to have public libraries so that we can share the cost of books.

My own predictions about the future of e-books and their possible implications for libraries serving people with print impairments are, like Weisberg's predictions, speculative, but I hope they are more likely to come true. Today, the usual e-book concept is that e-book users will obtain their texts by downloading them from the Internet, either through a PC (Rocket eBook) or through a built-in modem (SoftBook). E-book users who want to keep more texts than their device's memory holds will store the texts on their PCs (Rocket) or on a personal Internet site (SoftBook). My guess, however, is that it will turn out that most consumers prefer having overflow texts in their personal libraries on CD-ROMs, diskettes, or some other portable media. E-book devices will be more like portable CD players than like computer accessories. Downloading e-book texts will be an option, but only one option.

Once they become confident that their e-books will not be copied over the Internet, publishers will make e-book CD-ROMs available (of course, these will be CD-ROMs in standard e-book format, not the graphical CD-ROMs complained of above). Libraries will lend them out just as they now lend audiobooks. This will not save libraries money on collections, any more than the addition of audiobooks to library collections has saved libraries money. It will, however, make it much easier for libraries to serve the needs of people with print impairments, since the same e-book CD-ROMs will work for people with print impairments and those without. Once e-book devices cost as little as CD players do now, most blind and visually impaired people will have their own e-book devices with voice output or extra large print.

People with print impairments will still have trouble with library access, since so much interesting material will remain unavailable in e-book format. Libraries will still need to have some adaptive equipment on hand to allow print impaired patrons to use this material. Nonetheless, the blind and others with print impairments will be much closer to equality.

E-book Related Web Sites


1. Dixon (1998) is available from NARIC, (800) 346-2742.2. Weisberg (1998) is available at http://slate.msn.com/Browser/98-10-24/Browser.asp

David Johnson is an abstractor/ information specialist at the National Rehabilitation Information Center (NARIC). Readers with questions, comments, or suggestions may e-mail him at Johnson@kra.com


Dixon, J. (1998), "E-books: implications for the blind and visually impaired", paper presented at Electronic Book '98, October 8-9, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD.

Johnson, D. (1999), "NLS conversion to digital talking books", Library Hi Tech News, No. 163, pp. 15-17.

Weisberg, J. (1998), "The modern library ­ will anyone borrow books in the future?", Slate, 24 October.