July 15, 2005
When throngs of Harry Potter fans mob stores Saturday for copies of the boy wizard's latest adventures, at least one of them will begin dismantling the book page by page.
That's how volunteers for Bookshare.org prepare books for their high- speed scanner, the first step in adding pages to a fast-growing online library for the blind, learning disabled and physically impaired.
Begun three years ago by Benetech, a Palo Alto nonprofit that focuses on developing technologies that address social needs, Bookshare.org now has more than 22,000 books available online and almost 3,000 paying members.
"When the last Harry Potter book came out, almost half our members downloaded it that day," said Jim Fruchterman, president and chief executive officer of Benetech. "That kind of currency is what we want, as if you're looking for books on Amazon.com."
Unlike Napster, the Redwood City Internet file-sharing program that was upbraided and eventually shutdown for breaking music copyright laws, Bookshare. org operates legally under a 1996 federal exemption that legalized scanning and distributing copyrighted material for use by people with reading disabilities, Fruchterman said.
The American Foundation for the Blind estimates that more than 10 million Americans are blind or visually impaired.
Though recorded collections and Braille books have existed for decades, supply is limited, production costs are high and using them can be cumbersome, said Janice Carter, head of literacy programs for Benetech.
Many sight-impaired people use inexpensive scanners to prepare their own reading material for computer-synthesized speech, Carter said, but the page-by- page process can take two to three hours per book.
The high-speed machine used by Bookshare.org can scan an entire book in 10 minutes. The technology can scan both sides of a page simultaneously after a book's binding has been removed.
"Our (goal) question was how to get rid of the duplicative effort people put into scanning books for themselves," Fruchterman said.
With Bookshare.org, members submit their own scanned books for the collection and download as many as they like for use with Braille printers, computer-synthesized speech programs or other reading aids. Members pay a $25 initial setup fee and annual $50 dues.
To join Bookshare.org, members must send a letter from a doctor or other professional that attests to their disability. After paying the fees, they get a copy of Victor Reader Soft software that translates digital files into computer-synthesized speech.
Word about Bookshare.org has spread to students and teachers who recently prompted the organization to add a staff member dedicated to working with schools, Fruchterman said.
About 95 percent of Bookshare.org members are legally blind or dyslexic, while the remainder live with physical disabilities that prevent them from turning the pages of a book, Carter said.
"Chopping up books is not the nicest thing I could think of doing," said Pallavi Gupta, a volunteer with a doctorate in English literature who worked with blind people in her native India. "But the collection is like a dream come true for people like me who work for the blind."
Driven by member submissions, the popular collection leans toward romance and science fiction. Volunteers like Gupta search the files for errors and add titles, like the complete set of Pulitzer Prize winners or college reading lists.
Some Bookshare.org members even convert files to the MP3 format so they can load them onto an iPod, Fruchterman said.
However at the moment, use of Bookshare on the iPod is limited, Fruchterman said. "Copyright law allows us only to provide books in specialized formats for the disabled. If we did straight podcasting from the Internet, we wouldn't be keeping the material out of the hands of other users.
"We're hoping to get to the point where the technology is invisible. Our dream would be to find a way to turn cell phones into book players for the disabled. All kinds of interesting things could be possible."
Bookshare.org users rave about how easy it is to navigate.
"I use it every day," said Bryan Bashin, assistant regional commissioner for the U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration, who is blind and commutes daily from Oakland to San Francisco while listening to newspapers downloaded through Bookshare.org to his portable Book Courier, a device similar to an iPod.
"When you go to a cocktail party and everyone is reading Bill Clinton's autobiography, it's great to be in the middle of it," Bashin said. "If you want a year of eighth-grade mysteries, it's there."
The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Disabled, operated by the U.S. Library of Congress, has offered Braille and recorded books since the 1930s, but Bashin said it could take two to three years for a best-seller to be made available to the public via that service.
While the service distributes books to a network of libraries around the United States, including the San Francisco Main Library, Bashin said users can face a months-long waiting list to receive a book. Bookshare.org offers quicker satisfaction, he said.
The effect does not match the dramatic readings of many recorded books, Bashin said, but he finds the loss minimal. "Hearing the human voice is a pleasure, but you just get used to it. I personally prefer a reader who is transparent," he said.
Another advantage over recorded books is the ability to skip chapters or search for keywords, especially helpful with textbooks, news or nonfiction material, he said.
Bookshare.org now offers more than 500 books in Spanish and dozens of periodicals, including The Chronicle, through an agreement with the recorded Newsline service run by the National Federation of the Blind.
Bookshare.org aims to expand its list of 200 active volunteers that scan and proofread new books, evaluate member submissions and organize new offerings, Carter said.
It also is seeking more partners in the publishing industry, Fruchterman added.
"Publishers are still getting used to the idea that books will be used electronically," he said.
The organization has appealed to publishers to donate digital copies to Bookshare.org when books are released, in keeping with the 1996 federal law that requires digital textbooks to be made available to disabled students at the same time as print versions.
That law has boosted interest in providing all types of books for people with reading disabilities, a fact that Fruchterman hopes will raise awareness of Bookshare.org.
"We're still in guerrilla marketing mode," he said.
With $200,000 a year from members, Bookshare.org leads the slate of Benetech projects striving for self-sufficiency, he said. Benetech also supports international land mine detection efforts, human rights issues and reading assistance programs for people with Down syndrome.
The remainder of Benetech's $750,000 annual allotment for Bookshare.org comes from sources including the Community Technology Foundation, the Yahoo Employee Foundation and the NEC Foundation, Fruchterman said.
While Bashin said Bookshare.org could not operate without the monetary support, he believes Bookshare's members are the program's backbone.
"The brilliance of Bookshare.org is getting the volunteers and members to share what they've scanned," he said. "To have in my coat pocket a half-dozen books or things to read while I'm on the train -- it's a huge thing."
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