What’s a print-disabled reader to do?! Bookshare!
This Vision Loser is especially grateful to Bookshare, a “Technology for Society” project of Benetech, at http://www.bookshare.org.
A podcast from Disability411 provides an excellent overview of Bookshare from the perspectives of a disability professional and Bookshare staff.
First, the bad stuff. After years of living under an eyesight prognosis of “precarious, but stable”, battling lighting conditions, driving to then being driven to the library to pick up and return books on CD, and piling up unread newspapers and magazines, I finally lost the last sliver of central vision that gave me print contrast. The “smudges” won. So, what do I do with my library of pleasure and technical books? How do I get my reading fix, my world and local news, my curiosity-driven tutorials? It turned out to be harder to get rid of books than to rebuild my library and reading habits.
Bookshare was my life raft in a swirling sea of change. In a nutshell, new members register, pay $75, get their eye specialist to fill out a form certifying print disability, and then learn their way around the Bookshare website. Find a book they like, then download it to their PC, unpack it (like “unzip”), and read the book using PC software distributed by Bookshare or other readers of DAISY files, a Digital Talking Book format. Other use cases include conversion to mp3 format, e.g. using a tool like TextAlound (previous post) and natural voices. These books are just marked-up text files, not audio, so “turning pages” and speaking requires synthetic voices and special software.
While I found an abundance of books I wanted to read, being tethered to a PC was slowing me down. with some web searching for “DAISY readers”, I found the American Printing House for the Blind Bookport. Now I could download the books onto a mobile device and listen anywhere with ear buds. The Bookport is truly ugly, nothing but a panel of buttons and an older style male voice, “Precise Pete”, to read the books. Book Port Transfer software uses a USB cable to download the DAISY books, slowly, and can also load up the Bookport with converted mp3, Word, HTML, and .txt files. Using the training cassette and on-board help file, I quickly learned how to navigate books, adjust voices, mark spots of interest, move files around, and, most important, change the batteries. Built for the totally blind, the Bookport is better used by the partially sighted without looking, by memory in your finger-tips. Indeed, Bookport is great for reading in bed, equipped with sleep timer and a recorder to journal dreams, but with the dangers of strangler ear buds and night-time prowls for new batteries. Actually, battery life is great, over 40 hours with 2 AA easy replacements.
So, now I had over a hundred books queued up on Bookport, was listening to New York Times best sellers every week, finding new authors and new books by favorite authors on every trip to the Bookshare website, culling through some self-help books in the Disability-related category, and trying to unload boxes of my publisher-supplied course texts on a local university.
Could life get any better? Yes, along comes the Icon PDA from Levelstar with its newsstand, search, and bookshelf all linked directly to Bookshare. Give the Icon your password and browse the Levelstar server version of the Bookshare catalog, download and unpack in one swift action (literally, just seconds),and now I could rebuild my library more deliberately and with less energy expended. I wasn’t comfortable reading books on the more expensive and fragile Icon, so I batch download books every two weeks from the Icon to the PC disk, then over to Bookport, and redistribute to proper directories in its file systems. This script is a good example of where System Integration is required to achieve a goal, here reading comfort.
Since I don’t want to load up on books I don’t intend to read (already done that for decades), I carefully picked topics, tried to find the best sources, used book referrals from newspapers, podcasts, and radio shows. Now I have a library I’d be truly proud to show anyone, but I can’t because it’s all in the little black Bookport and under constraints from Bookshare. Oh, well, I’ll just have to show friends my knowledge.
What a boost to self-esteem as well as enjoyment of reading! I sadly read my way through six books on the Iraq war to identify where I believed things went wrong, and have explained that point in several discussions. I once heard a book review on the WAMU Diane Rehm show and immediately downloaded the book from Bookshare, and once had an emailed question answered about a book I’m now reading. I’ve found many of the technical books contributed by Reilly Press useful for my technical interests in web design and programming. Of course, not every needed book is available but I often find an adequate substitute in the 35000 book collection.
OK, I gain greatly from Bookshare and try to pass on the benefits with friends and family, as a fully functioning member of the reading world. What do I give back to Bookshare? Members and volunteers are the sources of scanned books. My scanning shop works but a few books showed me what grueling work it is, indeed, the Massachusetts penal system uses inmates to scan books for their educational system, as reported on a podcast from ACB (American Council of the Blind). I have contributed two books, one to honor former Governor Ann Richards and another eloquent memoir by editor and ambassador Henry Grunwald. Bookshare dues are only $50 and they welcome donations of cash as well as clean digital copies of books.
The downsides? I found the website rather wordy and in need of overhaul and reported this in a Bookshare user group meeting held at CSUN (disability exhibit in LA in March). Another is the guilt factor that authors and publishers don’t get paid. There must be a good story back in 1996 when a legislator (Chafee?) got in an amendment to copyright law to allow print-disabled people like me limited use of digital versions of books.
The founder of Benetech and Bookshare is Jim Fruchterman , an assistive technology entrepreneur and social activist Recognized for his work by a MacArthur “genius” grant, his Benetech blog tells about his world travels, writings and new ventures.
Regarding my own former personal physical library, I have two regrets. First, I wish I’d begun using Bookcrossings to experience letting some of my favorites lose in the wild rather than boxed into the domiciles of a Friends of the Library shop. I also wish I’d completed my sorting out while I could still read covers and parts of books which is a cumbersome task with magnifiers or a teenage helper .
So, if you’re partially sighted and can fail the vision test, you win entry into a classy organization to keep you amply entertained and informed.
References and Links:
Benetech blog http://beneblog.blogspot.com
Podcast on Bookshare from Disability411 http://disability411.jinkle.com/show30.htm
OReilly Publishing http://www.oreilly.com
DAISY Digital Talking Book alliance http://www.daisy.org