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ALA Booklist Online: "Voices in My Head -- Accessible Audiobooks for the Print Disabled"

Categories: In the News

This article, written by Mary Burkey about the accessible audiobook industry, appeared on Booklist Online on September 15, 2013. 

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Voices in My Head- A Look at Accessible Audiobooks

Commercially produced audiobooks are a shining star in the publishing field. From industry reports of double-digit increases in sales to New York Times stories about favorite audio narrators, it’s clear that audiobooks are popular. I spoke with Elizabeth Burns, Youth Services librarian for the New Jersey State Library Talking Book and Braille Center, to find out how the boom in audiobooks is affecting patrons who were the original audience for audiobooks. Burns agrees that it’s positive news that the audiobook industry is growing. “It’s good news for people who are print disabled—those who need audiobooks because of blindness, physical handicaps (which leave them unable to hold books or turn pages), or reading difficulties. The bad news is that it is still not a level ‘reading field.’ Not every book is available or accessible for these patrons.” Burns notes that the increasing pace of commercial recording can’t match the number of print titles published because of cost and timing. And audiobook production is more costly than book publishing, so audiobooks are generally more expensive. The good news is that there are three primary organizations that provide audiobooks for adults and children with print disabilities. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) was established as a division of the Library of Congress in 1931. LearningAlly, formerly Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, evolved from one woman’s efforts to organize volunteers to read textbooks aloud to those returning WWII soldiers who were blinded in war and unable to read Braille yet eager to take advantage of the GI Bill. BookShare, a nonprofit group established in 2000, also makes books accessible in audio through help from volunteers. Burns verifies that noncommercial organizations have kept up with the digital boom. “Each of these organizations provides audiobooks that can be downloaded; NLS’ collection also includes magazines and Braille books. Yes, Braille can be downloaded and then read in Braille using refreshable keyboards. Each group requires either special hardware or software to listen to the titles. NLS, for example, loans out a free player, and LearningAlly has special software so individuals can listen on their computer or other devices. NLS is funded by tax dollars so there’s no direct cost to users; LearningAlly and BookShare fees vary depending on user (adult, student) or institution.” Public and school librarians can visit the respective websites to print out educational tool kits to serve patron needs. The Chafee Amendment to U.S. Copyright Law permits any book to be reproduced or distributed in specialized formats exclusively for use by the blind or other persons with disabilities, and allows volunteers to record any requested title. Burns shared that even with this exemption, organizations can’t have every title immediately available. “There’s the timing factor—audiobooks take time to make, scan, record, and pass quality control. The good news is there are ways to turn e-books into audiobooks. Most librarians are familiar with Kindle and the text-to-speech option, but text-to-speech is not available for every title, and many e-readers are not accessible for those with limited vision. Burns encourages librarians to become aware of software and hardware that is accessible “out of the box,” without requiring expensive add-ons. “Apple is the leader in such accessibility in hardware: iPhones and iPads come with VoiceOver screen-reading technology and have large print options. Plus, iPads work with Braille keyboards. However, other tablets and e-reader companies do not offer add-ons at this time. VoiceOver can work with various e-book apps to read any book. If you want further details about e-book accessibility, including names of apps that work best with VoiceOver, look at AccessWorld, the American Foundation for the Blind’s technology magazine, the National Federation of the Blind’s blog, or Fred Head’s piece for the American Printing House for the Blind.” As libraries add circulating devices to their collections, the needs of those with print disabilities should be an important consideration. Include demonstrations of accessibility features during patron training events or set up technology gadget galleries to serve a wide spectrum of patrons. Librarians seeking funding or training assistance can turn to the humanitarian service organization Lions Club International for help. In 1925, Helen Keller addressed Lions Clubs International convention attendees and challenged the group to become “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.” The Tri-Village Lions Club, located in suburban Columbus, Ohio, has continued this mission by developing a circulating iPad Mini library grant and training program that can be easily adapted and replicated by any group. Along with Ohio State University’s Director of Assistive Technology Nolan Crabb, Lions Club member Jane Jarrow prepared accessibility education materials for patron use and spearheaded training sessions for local library staff. For information on grant funding and training materials, contact Jarrow directly at lionjjarrow@gmail.com. Libraries can lead in the efforts to provide public attention to the critical role that accessible materials play in the lives of people with print disabilities. In the words of Learning Ally’s Doug Sprei, “Countless adults and students benefit from great volunteer voices across the U.S.—bringing books to life in an accessible format that levels the educational playing field and enables all to achieve their best and develop a love of literature.”