Internet allows building a digital library for the blind

01/07/2014

Tiflolibros is a digital library for the blind which has helped improve access to culture and information for the visually impaired.

Created by a group of blind friends in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the initiative uses new technologies as a means to improve access to books for the blind and has quickly spread throughout the Spanish-speaking digital world. Tiflolibros has now grown to have more than 46,000 books, available to more than 7,000 individual users and 300 institutions in 44 different countries throughout the world.

FRIDA, the Regional Fund for Digital Innovation in Latin America and the Caribbean, recently presented the project with one of its 2014 Awards.

Pablo Lecuona, founder of Tiflolibros, recalls how the project was born out of a book exchange among a group of friends and has become the largest digital library for the blind.

How was Tiflolibros born?

Until the late 90s, the visually impaired relied on Braille, audio books or another person willing to read to them. Braille books were copied by hand. Existing libraries had a single copy of each book which a person read, returned, and was then lent to another user. This frequently meant that waiting times for a specific book were quite long and that very few books were available. Audio books recorded on cassette tapes were easier to duplicate, yet they had to be recorded in real-time by voluntary readers, which led to their availability being limited to 3 or 4 copies in each the country.

As technology evolved, a new form of access became available – with the help of a scanner and OCR software, anyone with a computer and a screen reader could do the unthinkable: buy a book at a bookstore, scan it, and then read the resulting text file. It was wonderful! For the first time, we could choose any book. Even if it took a lot of work and OCR applications were not completely efficient, we were able to read independently, without having to rely on another person or institution to make the book accessible.

I remember the day I had my scanner installed. I had a large stack of my sister’s books which I was now magically going to be able to read!

Just the possibility of scanning a book and being able to read it was wonderful and opened the door to new opportunities. It was also great to be able to access an adapted computer on which we could write, read and share material with others, both blind and seeing. Access, however, was limited – existing screen readers ran on MS-DOS, yet everyone was already using Windows. We, the visually impaired, were a step behind the rest.

In 1999, a screen reader was introduced in Argentina that would strongly affect how the blind could access information. Instead of requiring a specific device to produce a synthetic voice, the new reader took advantage of the computer’s multimedia capabilities. Another advantage was that it ran on Windows, which allowed us to use the same programs and resources as everyone else. Most importantly, it allowed us to go online.

A combination of the ability to digitalize books for the purpose of reading them and the possibility of using the Internet, specifically mailing lists, as a space for sharing information led to the idea behind Tiflolibros.

Many visually impaired people were already digitalizing books to read them. Some of us were sharing the books we had already scanned on diskettes. One afternoon, while I was still relatively a newcomer to email and the Internet, a friend sent us an email asking if we would like to think of a way to share the books that each of us had scanned to create a common library.

My wife Mara and I were bold. Because we were already involved in a couple of mailing lists on visual impairment and technology, we started trying to figure out how we could create our own list. We studied how we could take the idea of sharing materials to a broader level and began thinking about building a digital library for the blind.

That’s how Tiflolibros was born – originally in the form of a mailing list on the ONElist server which was later moved to eGroups and Yahoo! Groups. The first goals were creating a mailing list where blind people could exchange their digitalized books regardless of their location and, if possible, coming up with a way to build a digital library for the blind.

The first version of Tiflolibros was the most virtual of virtual libraries, as it consisted of an Excel file that included information on each book and the name and email address of the person who had it. Users could then ask this person to send the book directly to them. Meanwhile, the mailing list was used to discuss legal aspects, build relationships, and share experiences.

Then, in October 2000, we found a free hosting service that offered us the possibility of creating a website requiring usernames and passwords. That’s how the concept of a virtual library began: we would upload the books that everyone contributed, while each user had their own username and password to make sure that only the visually impaired would be able to access those books.

After André Duré and Gustavo Ramírez, two blind programmers, joined out team in 2001, we began developing our own website, using various programming tools and hosting it on our own server. That’s when the Library as we know it today was born.

Actually, the project always grew faster than we expected. Beyond access to the books, its great potential was that it provided the possibility to network, connect, and share ideas, resources and the books that each of us digitalized.

Why a virtual library?

It’s a virtual library designed as a meeting place, a place where everyone can access the books that each of us have digitalized. As users of books and technology, we were used to maximizing available resources. In this case, we thought that a virtual library was the best way to combine and make the most of individual contributions. A virtual library is a joint effort, built with the materials scanned by each person or institution, which allows any user to search for and download a book 24 hours a day.

Being able to work not only at local level but also at global level was one of the project’s major contributions. Many people in Latin American and Spain speak the same language and can share our resources. The challenge was finding easy-to-use virtual tools that didn’t require too much in the way of administrative resources. That’s why, in addition to developing the library system, our programmers worked on developing various tools to automate the system and make things as easy as possible for both users and administrators.

What major obstacles did you have to overcome during those early days?

The first thing we had to address, an issue that could have represented a major obstacle, were the legal aspects involved in building a library for the blind that would include copyrighted books. On the one hand, we knew that we needed to take advantage of the potential that technology presented us. On the other, we knew that building a library open to the public would be in violation of copyright laws. Consequently, building a sustainable library required legal support and treading carefully when dealing with copyright issues.

First, we investigated each country’s legal framework on adapting and transcribing books for the blind. As an example, we found four countries where copyright law included exceptions that allowed the royalty-free reproduction of literary works without seeking the authorization of the copyrights holders, provided that this was done on a non-profit basis and ensuring that the books will be used exclusively by those with a disability that prevents them from reading in the conventional manner.

Our general rule was to make sure that the library was only accessible to this specific population and that it was free. At the same time, in order to make the most of our resources, we began approaching publishing houses and authors so that they would get to know us and contribute the files from which paper books were printed, as these error-free texts were easier to handle than our scanned copies.

The fact that major Argentinian publishing houses such as Planeta and Alfaguara began supporting us earned us even greater credibility. In 2006, we promoted the incorporation of an exception to copyright law for the visually impaired in Argentine law. In 2008 we began participating with the World Blind Union in the negotiation of an international treaty at WIPO. All of these things helped clear any legal issues.

The other major problem we’ve always encountered is having to constantly come up with ways to support the initiative, to live up to a project that is consistently growing beyond its basic structures. We’re always trying to achieve economic and technical sustainability and find people willing to work to capitalize on the opportunities offered by the use of new technologies.

One of the challenges we’ve been working on through various projects and alliances is having the library reach every disabled person who needs it, not just the top of the pyramid which often has greater access a technology.

How is the project funded?

Ha! Sometimes, by doing magic!

We started out as a group of friends working on an exciting project. We didn’t give much thought to financing. Instead, each of us contributed whatever we had and continued moving forward. The project, however, began to grow and demand resources, precisely at a time when Argentina was undergoing a major economic crisis.

The first form of financing was discussed with Tiflolibros users and participants themselves. It consisted of two voluntary fund-raising campaigns a year among users, who were able contribute any amount they wished without this affecting their use of the library. Then, in late 2001, we set up an association and created Tiflonexos, the purpose of which was to provide an institutional framework for Tiflolibros while generating other projects having to do with the use of technology and networking.

The Association developed different strategies and methods for generating resources, although funding has always been an issue because the project continues to grow faster than we can generate resources. At the same time, we need to balance the time and resources devoted to our fund-raising efforts with our main activity.

Currently, we receive funding from several sources which, however, are quite unstable. For this reason, we constantly have to come up with new ways to make ends meet.

Has the project been able to include people who previously had limited access to books?

Very much so. On the one hand, it has exponentially increased the amount of available reading material. To give you an idea, in their 60 years of work, the most important Braille library in Argentina transcribed a single copy of some 3,200 books. In 30 years, the largest audio books library recorded approximately 1,500 titles.

There are currently 46,000 books available at Tiflolibros and we’re adding between 3,000 and 3,500 titles a year.

In addition to increasing book availability, the fact that the library can be accessed online has allowed many people who previously had limited options in their own countries to access these books. We also make great efforts to promote networking and multiply the library’s resources. Today, 300 institutions (libraries, schools, organizations for the blind, universities) have access to Tiflolibros and can download the materials they need and distribute them among the local visually impaired population. Nevertheless, there is still much to be done as, in some regions such as Central America, a relatively small portion of the visually impaired population has access to Tiflolibros, partly because having to send evidence of their disability and registering on a virtual library is quite complicated for those who are just beginning to use technology. This is why we are trying to create alliances to work together with local organizations that can improve the project’s reach.

How far has the project reached?

We currently have close to 46,000 books, which are available to 7,000 individual users and 300 institutions. We have users in 45 different countries throughout America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Although most of our users are based in Latin America and Spain, many Spanish-speaking users or Spanish students are using the library in other countries. A very interesting example that illustrates how far the project can reach is that of a blind student who is studying at the Cervantes Institute in Cairo, Egypt. When the blind student joined them, the Institute did not know how they would be able to transcribe Spanish books so that they would be available to the visually impaired in Egypt. An online search led them to Tiflolibros. Today, this visually impaired student probably has greater access to books in the Spanish language than his seeing classmates. At the same time, networking, email and social network exchanges allow users to keep in touch and practice their Spanish skills with many different people.

Without the Internet, would it have been possible to make so many books available to people with visual disabilities?

No, absolutely not. The Internet is the medium that allows building the network and sharing resources so that they are available to any user or institution that needs them, at any time. The Tiflolibros project is strongly based on Internet tools – it was born out of a mailing list; its first website used a free hosting server; it flourished when we were able to add a network computer with broadband access to the Internet 24 hours a day; it ran on a web server and used an interface and system which we developed ourselves, which not only provides access to books but also uses different tools to achieve the highest possible levels of automation. The Internet is also the medium through which we connect with our users and users connect among themselves, and the means that allows us to work on joint projects with other institutions and individuals throughout Latin America. In addition, the Internet allows the visually impaired to access information without having to rely on others. We are using it in an increasing number of our daily activities.

Without the Internet, it would not have been possible to make the books available to users and we wouldn’t have been able to work in collaboration as we have done to build and grow the library.

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