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New technology makes library more accessible

BY A. BRAD SCHWARTZ
Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 28, 2009

Armed with digital versions of most of the publications in its collection, the University Library has developed new means for the blind and other disabled persons to enjoy the fruits it has to offer.

As part of a partnership between the Google Book Library Project and University Libraries to digitize the University's collection, Google has been scanning images of a large majority of the Libraries' materials to later be put online and shared with students and subscribers around the globe.

But officials at the Hathi Trust Digital Library, formerly known as MBooks, are in the process of making all those books available to people whose disabilities had prevented them from getting the most out of their library experiences.

“It’s like we’ve given all of these people a library card,” said Jack Bernard, assistant general counsel and chair of the University’s Council for Disability Concerns.

Bernard said that making printed books accessible to those who are unable to use them was one of the goals of the University Library’s partnership with the Google Book Project.

“We decided, as part of this project, that one of the great things that we could pursue is making our library immediately accessible to our patrons with disabilities by having the books in a digital format,” Bernard said.

Once the books are digitized, students who have registered with Services for Students with Disabilities will be able to check them out from the library, which means that even though the books are digital, they will only be available to one person at a time.

“Once the book is checked out to their account, they get an automated e-mail with a URL to a special interface with the text only,” said Suzanne Chapman, an interface and user testing specialist for Hathi Trust Digital Library. “Once they return the book, they lose access.”

The text-only version of the book can be read out loud to a student by screen reader software installed on the student’s computer or a digital Braille device, typically a bar on a computer that uses small pins to scroll Braille text under the student’s fingertips.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires the University Library to digitize specific books requested by students, necessitating a level of advanced planning and a lead time that John Wilkin, director of the Hathi Trust Digital Library, described as a “deterrent.”

“When somebody’s doing research, the problems, the challenges of getting this stuff into a format they can use it in are so significant that they have to be very careful and selective about what things they want to have in that form,” Wilkin said. “There is no sense of exploration through the entire library.”

Bernard said the University is committed to going further than what is required by law, and he described the new technology as being “game-changing for people who require works in digital format.”

Chapman said that because the technology is relatively new, it is taking some time to become widely accepted, though people are starting to take advantage of it.

“I think we’re still trying to get the word out that this service exists because the users need to sign up for it,” she said.

The current print digitization software doesn’t have an accommodation for describing photographs or other pictures in a text, but Bernard said that’s an improvement that may come in the future.

“Over time those things will be added,” Bernard said. “We actually expect that with the birth of this mass digitization project, other people won’t have to digitize, so they can put their efforts into making those things that are not currently accessible, accessible. We’re expecting to see lots of programs develop and grow along these lines.”

Even before its partnership with the Google Book Project, increased accessibility has long been a goal of the University Library. And the fact that it is currently being implemented is something that Bernard describes as “very exciting.”

Right now, the new technology is being made available to University students and other universities that are members of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a group made up of all Big Ten schools and the University of Chicago that supports each school’s research opportunities and advances.

Wilkin said other aims of this project are to keep libraries connected and protect the items in the library’s collection.

“We remain committed to the long-term preservation of this content,” Wilkin said.


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