This is a guest post by long-time Bookshare donor Carole Lake.
Why do I support Bookshare, the accessible online library for people with print disabilities operated by the Benetech Global Literacy Program? Well, I support it for a number of reasons, but first let me tell you a story.
My grandmother was a highly educated woman and an avid reader. Sadly, she developed glaucoma, and lost her eyesight in her 60s. I used to go down to the Texas State Library and pick up books on records for her. No, not books on tape—books on vinyl! They were heavy, clumsy, and annoyingly scratched. Moreover, the choice of subject matter was absurdly limited to biographies of long-dead historical figures, obscure (but sincere!) religious tracts, books on etiquette, and the occasional Pearl Buck novel (for light reading). It was depressing, and worse, it was boring. There was no way to request more interesting (or more recent!) books for her, so she dwindled into dozing and listening to soap operas on the TV for the last twenty years of her life. If she couldn’t listen to it on TV, it wasn’t readily available for her.
Like my grandmother, I have always been a reader. By the third grade, I had read every book in our elementary school library, though I definitely missed some of the nuances in Gone With the Wind! As a young adult, I was the kind of person who took ten books along to read on a trip, just in case we got stuck somewhere. Now, I have over five thousand (seriously!) books on my iPad/Kindle, because you just never know what you’re going to want to read! I have eclectic tastes in literature. If I find an author I like, I want to read everything he/she wrote. If I like the first book in a series, I want to read the whole series, and I don’t want to wait! I unapologetically read racy romance books (sexy vampires!), but I’m also working on reading a biography of every president (I read Bill Clinton’s first!).
As I’ve grown older, my vision has changed and is not what it used to be, as my grandmother’s eye problems seem to run in the family. I don’t expect to be seriously vision-impaired, but it certainly makes me think, “What if I couldn’t read?”
In my grandmother’s day, well-meaning people picked her reading material. Can you imagine the number of hours it took volunteers reading for the blind to finish just one book? The books they chose had to be not only appropriate for a wide range of readers, but also politically correct. About ten years ago, I discovered that, in many ways, nothing had changed. Many of the books I wanted to read were simply not available to people with disabilities. And this is because someone on a committee somewhere was deciding what is appropriate. To me, that feels like censorship. It surely isn’t equality of access!
I believe people should be able to read whatever they want to read—from history to urban fantasy to light romance, gory mysteries, current events, classics, paranormal, New York Times bestsellers, to inspirational books and, of course, sexy vampires.
Which brings me to Bookshare.
When I first discovered Bookshare, I realized that its members could choose what they wanted to read from any book in the collection. Technology had made it much faster to convert a standard book to an equivalent in an accessible format, and the Bookshare team was willing to add any book to the system, if someone volunteered to scan it. I was so excited. No censorship. No judgment.
It turned out, however, that many books still weren’t in the collection after all. Because the vast majority of its members are students, Bookshare was funded by grants to scan the books that students need for school. At first, I contributed to Bookshare books (not textbooks!) that I love and would want to be available to me if I were visually impaired. That was fun! But gradually, I began to realize that it wasn’t all about me. Thousands of others were out there, wishing for books that simply weren’t in the collection—yet. To me, not being able to read that book one wants is a bad thing.
I decided, therefore, to help increase the Bookshare collection by financially supporting the purchase, processing, and proofing of books that are requested by members and that are not covered by grants or otherwise made available directly as digital files by Bookshare publisher partners. If one person wants that book, that’s good enough for me.
You see, I realized that it isn’t about what I want to read, and it’s certainly not about what I think you ought to read. Rather, it’s about each individual member being able to read exactly what he or she wants. Today. Right now, by immediate download. Now that’s a good thing!