Books for All, or None

Why read when you can sue?

Braille Book

Have you heard about these ebook things? They’re very popular, and publishers are scrambling to make their booklists available electronically. With the success of Apple’s iPad, more and more people are reading new and previously published works on their tablet devices. So it makes sense that the Sacramento, California public library would test out book lending via these very same devices. The library gets books into the hands of readers. Authors find their texts reaching a wider audience. Older patrons who have difficulty finding the books they like in large-print editions can now read nearly any book on a size-adjusting device. Barnes & Noble (whose Nook devices are being used for the pilot program) gets to promote its wares and reading in general. It sounds like a winning program all around.

Unless you’re a grouch who hates happy readers, that is. That’s the impression I got from the National Federal of the Blind, the organization that filed a Department of Justice complaint against the Sacramento library, upset that the devices included in the lending program couldn’t be used by the blind. I’m not complaining about blind patrons who seek access to library books. Anything that the library can do to expand the scope of its reading programs, including to those unable to easily access printed content, is tax money well spent in my mind. I’m complaining about organizations that use the courts and the power of the government to throw a temper tantrum and get their way.

Never mind that the ebook offering in Sacramento was a pilot program, the very purpose of which was to determine if such devices met the needs of its patrons. If blind readers walked up to the librarian and said that the devices did not meet their needs, that would be good and effective feedback. Never mind that the library has shelves and shelves of printed books that have always been difficult or impossible for the blind to use and enjoy, books the library continues to buy. Never mind that Barnes & Noble, as a corporation seeking to expand its share of the reading device market, would likely have swapped out some or all of the devices lacking blind-friendly features with those that have them if the National Federation of the Blind had simply asked nicely. Never mind that the Federation itself could have ponied up money for the more advanced devices for its constituents. But no, they had to threaten a lawsuit, toss the pilot program into legal limbo, and take a new opportunity to read away from the vast majority of the patrons who could have benefited from the reading platform.

The library, of course, had no choice but to submit to bully tactics. According to the summary on the Department of Justice web site, the library settled with the Federation, agreeing to never again purchase those evil, disgusting, rotten devices that brought joy to adults and kids alike, and only purchase the more expensive devices that meet the needs of a tiny minority of patrons. Why can’t the library obtain a mix of devices: a large hoard of units that include the basic features for the ninety-five percent of patrons with basic needs, and a handful of more expensive devices with enhanced features for those with enhanced reading needs? Because that would be normal and logical.

[Image Credits: Freeman-Woolperta]


  1. This article assumes that the National Federation of the Blind simply resorts to “bullying” to advocate for accessible books. In fact, prior to this complaint, Barnes and Noble was repeatedly informed by the National federation of the Blind that its devices do not meet the needs of blind readers, and has been “asked nicely” on multiple occasions to incorporate accessibility into its devices. To date, the company has not done so. At the same time, it has continued to market its devices not only to libraries, but also to schools, where lack of access to the same content as the sighted can put blind students at a severe disadvantage and deny them an equal education. Under current law, Barnes and Noble is sadly free to sell its inaccessible devices to consumers. But under federal law, it cannot and must not sell them to primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, and libraries, all of which are covered by federal legal obligations to ensure that all of their content is accessible to those students or patrons who are blind to the maximum extent possible. We cannot and will not permit Barnes and Noble or other companies to market these products to entities that have legal obligations to the blind and others with disabilities. To do so would be to ultimately condemn blind students and blind people to permanent inequality, since schools and libraries would know that they could continue to acquire inaccessible devices and content with impunity, and vendors would continue to sell such devices and content.

    A note on the argument that print books are also inaccessible: Thirty years ago, the National Federation of the Blind would never have brought the lack of Braille books in a library to the attention of the Department of Justice, because there was simply no way to convert print books into Braille or other formats without human intervention, and acquiring such books was considerably more expensive. This is not true with e-books. In fact, all e-books are accessible to the blind “at birth,” so to speak. Being ones and zeros instead of printed content on a page, they can easily be converted by devices with the proper software and output capabilities into the spoken word or into Braille. Only by introducing proprietary DRM that makes the books available only on inaccessible devices or platforms do the books become inaccessible to the blind. In other words, Barnes and Noble is not innocent here. The company deliberately chose to make its books and devices inaccessible to the blind when it knew full well that it could have followed the example set by Apple and made both the device and the books accessible. Barnes and Noble and the library are victims only of their own poor choices.

    Note from Tim Patrick: Chris Danielsen is the National Federation for the Blind’s Director of Public Relations, and I thank him for taking the time to shed light on this discussion from the NFB’s perspective.

  2. Thank you for providing additional details, Chris. I read several media accounts of this issue and, as noted, the DOJ summary of the settlement, and all of them were short on specifics, making it easy to read the “bully” stance into NFB’s position.

    That being said, I disagree that Barnes and Noble is at fault. They may be a hideous company that provides inferior products that leave out features essential to those with accessibility needs. But the suggestion that that law must prevent them from marketing their feature-limited products to schools because a minority of students would not benefit is, in my mind, a legal disaster. A law that says schools and libraries need to purchase devices with features in proportion to its students and patrons might make sense. If, say, ten percent of patrons need text-to-speech features, then it’s reasonable for the library to include a 90-10 percent mix of products, where at least ten percent of them include those enhanced features. It’s the demand that every purchase include all possible ADA-blessed features that is the problem.

    If the Nook is an inferior product, then the library should, by all means, ditch it in lieu of other similar devices from Amazon, Apple, and others. But it should be their decision to make based on the actual needs of their patrons, and not a choice that is shoved down their throats by some one-size-fits-all, feel-good federal law that does not take into account the true local readership situation.

    Perhaps identifying NFB as the bully is too strong; it is a messenger. But the library was bullied, and by extension, there was a bully.


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