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Bookshare Provides Free Accessible Books

by Ann Harrison, the largest online digital library of accessible books in the United States, offers more than 36,000 books, magazines and newspapers in digital files that can be converted to alternate formats such as large print, Braille, synthesized speech, CD, DVD and MP3 digital audio. now supports more than 18,000 user accounts that serve print disabled readers, teachers and organizations. In New Jersey 80 school districts and libraries, in addition to 700 residents, are enrolled as members. was launched in 2002 by Benetech, a Palo Alto, California-based nonprofit technology organization. Benetech developed a technical conversion process that transforms scanned book files into the worldwide DAISY/NISO digital talking book standard and the digital Braille (BRF) format. The DAISY/NISO standard allows the distribution of digital books with indexing and bookmarking features that lets readers navigate quickly from one part of a book to another.

The Collection

The collection is selected by members and volunteers who submit books they have scanned. Teachers can download desired books, request that new educational content be added to the library, and encourage students to register for individual memberships. A special provision in U.S. copyright law gives qualified nonprofit organizations, such as Benetech, the ability to distribute copyrighted materials in a specialized format for use by print-disabled people without requiring permission from publishers. provides members with free, PC-based DAISY book reader software that reads books aloud on a personal computer.’s texts in the DAISY format can also be read in a standard web browser allowing users to browse web pages with their screen reader, screen magnifier, dyslexia reading software and/or Braille display.
Among the titles are bestselling popular books including the
current New York Times bestseller list and the Harry Potter series. Over 150 newspapers and magazines are also available daily through in partnership with the National Federation of the Blind through its NFB-NEWSLINE® service. To comply with copyright law and agreements with publishers and authors, members must provide proof of a print disability, such as blindness, low vision, a reading disability, or a mobility impairment that makes it difficult or impossible to read standard print.

Students Benefit from Reading Books in Electonic Format

Teachers of students with learning disabilities say that combining onscreen digital texts with an audio program offers a multi-modal approach that permits students to see the words as they listen along. This combination of viewing and listening to digital texts can allow special education students to read textbooks, fiction and other assigned reading at their own grade level.

$32 Million Grant to Expand Collection and Membership

In October of 2007, the U.S. Department of Education awarded Benetech a $32 million five-year contract to dramatically expand the collection and provide U.S. print-disabled students of any age free access to the service. Teachers of disabled students and educational agency staff members can now download books for students without charge. Both members and nonmembers can search the catalogue of immediately available titles. has attracted a lively community of readers who have formed book clubs for fans of mysteries, science fiction, romance and other popular genres. The Friends of Bookshare volunteer group reports that literature and fiction are the top category of books in the library. Members of the group encourage volunteers to scan and submit books to the collection and maintain a wish list of books they cannot wait to read.
The U.S. Department of Education funding will allow the for Education project to add more than 100,000 educational books to its collection in the next five years and deliver millions of books for free to print disabled students. is currently adding 150 to 200 new books each week to its online library. It has permission to distribute about 3,000 copyrighted titles to people with print disabilities worldwide and offers texts in both English and Spanish. is expanding its partnerships with publishers and has established agreements with technology book publisher O’Reilly Media and other leading publishers. accepts books provided by publishers in RTF, XML, or the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) format, and converts them into DAISY digital talking book and digital Braille formats. In an effort to make educational books accessible to all students with print disabilities in the U.S., Benetech is also working with technology companies such as Adobe, Microsoft and Google to gain access to digital content.

NIMAS Validator Will Ease Editing Problems

In January 2008, released a free beta version of its NIMAS Validator software that locates errors in digital books produced under the NIMAS Standard.’s NIMAS Validator helps replace the laborious process of human validation by automatically checking key formatting criteria in NIMAS files such as the correct sequence of page numbers and missing images. The NIMAS format is especially important to students with disabilities since recent changes to federal law made NIMAS the standard accessible format for all K-12 textbooks.

The NIMAS Validator is intended for use by organizations creating NIMAS files, such as schools and publishers, who want to verify the accuracy of their digital books before submitting them to or the National Instructional Materials Access Center (NIMAC), a central repository for NIMAS files.

“This application fills an important niche because it’s the first NIMAS validator tool that is freely available to people producing digital books,” says Reuben Firmin, lead engineer for “We are planning to make much of our software code available to the public within the next six to nine months. We welcome support from the open source community to help us improve the algorithms for these validators and converters.”

A Partnership to Benefit Students and Don Johnston, Inc. have announced a partnership to provide qualified print disabled students with a free text reader to access electronic books from the library. Beginning at the start of the 2008-09 school year, qualified students will have the opportunity to use Don Johnston’s Read:OutLoud Edition text reader (Windows Version) to access the books, magazines and newspapers in the library. The text reader offers embedded reading comprehension strategies and instructional supports that align with state educational standards, such as audio feedback, electronic highlighting and note-taking features that allow students to effectively capture ideas. A Mac version will follow in 2009.

Ann Harrison is the Communication Director of the Benetech Initiative.




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Anne M. Disdier