Benetech Bookshare Library Marks Decade of Innovations

By Benetech, posted on

Early eBook Pioneer Changes the Lives of People with Print Disabilities

The Benetech Bookshare library, one of the world’s largest collections of digital accessible books for people with print disabilities, announced its 10th anniversary this week. For the last decade, Bookshare has been at the forefront of the digital book revolution, applying Silicon Valley technology to meet the reading needs of people with print disabilities. The library now has more than 140,000 accessible eBooks including textbooks, reference materials, newspapers and best-selling titles.

Benetech CEO and founder Jim Fruchterman first envisioned the Bookshare library as a collection of eBooks created by volunteers.  These early eBook creators would digitize texts that could be legally downloaded from the Internet by people with qualified print disabilities such as blindness, low vision, physical disabilities, or severe learning disabilities. A former rocket scientist and 2006 MacArthur Fellow, Fruchterman acted on his vision and launched Bookshare, introducing an innovative new approach to reading for an underserved population.

“We wanted to reinvent the library for people with print disabilities, to make sure they had the books they need for education, employment, and social inclusion,” said Fruchterman. “With technology, we knew we could inexpensively solve 95% of the problem, rather than 5%.”

Over the past ten years, Benetech launched innovations and strategic partnerships to ensure that Bookshare eBooks are easy to read, build the collection, and make the library easier to use and more secure. To safeguard against illegal sharing of books, yet enable assistive devices to access them, Bookshare pioneered a new approach to digital rights management (DRM). Bookshare pioneered “Social DRM” approaches which include the use of electronic fingerprints inside the eBooks. Bookshare also developed legal agreements and social pressures which have been adopted by many publishers as they expand their eBook collections.

In an effort to supplement the volunteer scanning and proofing process, improve quality and  cost-effectively grow the library, Bookshare partnered directly with publishers and other social enterprises. To date, more than 180 publishers have now contributed over half of the more than 140,000 titles in the collection. Social enterprise partners have added thousands of educational titles each year while providing meaningful employment and job skills for individuals with disabilities and other disadvantages.

To ensure that users can read Bookshare books wherever and however they want, Benetech partnered with leading assistive technology vendors to build in support for Bookshare. Benetech released an award-winning iPad/iPhone app for Bookshare called Read2Go.

Benetech, which is a nonprofit technology company, also developed tools and technologies to access the increasingly prevalent graphical content in educational materials, particularly in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Benetech is now a leading provider of accessible open content and open source tools to improve the accessibility of graphical material. These innovations are urgently needed by students with print disabilities who deserve a level playing field.

Bookshare’s cost-effective operation and ongoing innovations led to a competitive award from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, to serve all qualified U.S. students. In a little over four years, fueled by state-of-the-art use of direct email, webinars and social media, student membership has grown from a few thousand to over 185,000. Bookshare now has a broad collection of texts that meet the tremendous needs of readers hungry for access to current content.

“Bookshare has been the very best resource for my reading needs. You have the most recent and largest selection of books and periodicals in one place anyone would want,” said Bookshare member Michael Asher, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist for Behavior Therapy Associates in New Jersey.

Teachers also report that Bookshare has changed student behavior prompting those who were not reading to seek out books. “I have several of my kids (6th – 8th grade) coming into my Reading Resource Room and asking to read…..Asking!!! These students read books that their peers are reading and that makes them feel so good,” said Sallie Spencer, a Resource Room teacher at Olivet Middle School in Michigan.

Bookshare’s innovations over the last ten years have changed the approach to reading for those with print disabilities and set a new standard for accessible libraries. Bookshare will continue breaking down barriers to access until the needs of individuals with print disabilities are met.

About Bookshare

Bookshare is the world’s largest online accessible library of copyrighted content for people with print disabilities. Through its technology initiatives and partnerships, Bookshare seeks to raise the floor on accessibility issues so that individuals with print disabilities have the same ease of access to print materials as people without disabilities. In 2007, Bookshare received a five-year award from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), to provide free access for all U.S. students with a qualified print disability. The Bookshare library now has over 140,000 books and serves more than 190,000 members. Bookshare is an initiative of Benetech, a Palo Alto, CA-based non-profit which creates sustainable technology to solve pressing social needs.