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eBook access for print-disabled now available

Students, faculty and staff with disabilities that limit their ability to use traditional print materials now have “enhanced access” to thousands of digitized books through Cornell University Library. Thanks to a recent court decision, this will include copyrighted works owned by Cornell that are in the nationwide HathiTrust database.

Perhaps we should just say “equal” access. Most people can walk into a library, pick up a book and read it, but a person with a visual impairment or a reading disability such as dyslexia must rely on computer assistance, using software that reads digital text out loud, enlarges the type on a screen or converts the text to braille. This requires access to the full text of the work in digital form.

Now, users with verified disabilities can work with a “proxy” employed by Student Disability Services (SDS), a program within Gannett Health Services, or the library. The proxy will locate a desired book in the HathiTrust database or a local Cornell repository and convert it to the appropriate format. In most cases the book will be delivered in PDF format, either through the Cornell Dropbox or on a USB thumb drive supplied by the user. Assistive software can read a PDF aloud or convert the text to be read on a braille refreshable display, a device that pops up rows of tiny pins to create braille characters. Software is also available to convert illustrations such as graphs into a raised relief format. Disability service representatives in SDS and the library can guide patrons in using assistive technologies.

For many years Cornell Library has been scanning and digitizing books in its collections, with an emphasis on rare and out-of-print works. Since 2008 the pace has increased and focus widened through a partnership with Google, which has set out to create the largest collection of online books. The university sends about 6,000 items to Google for scanning every six weeks.

In 2010 Cornell joined HathiTrust, a growing consortium of more than 80 university and institutional libraries formed partly to ensure that the digitized books would be preserved if Google were to discontinue its project. So far more than 430,000 Cornell volumes have been contributed to HathiTrust's repository of more than 10 million. As with Google’s collection, everyone may use the HathiTrust Digital Library, performing catalog or full-text searches and viewing public domain volumes in full.

Although the primary purpose was preservation, many libraries, including Cornell’s, saw an opportunity to make the digitized books available to persons with disabilities that affect access to printed materials.

In 2011 the Authors Guild filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Google, HathiTrust and several universities, including Cornell, arguing that just scanning a book was “copying,” and therefore a violation of U.S. copyright law. The United States District Court, Southern District of New York, ruled that scanning for the purpose of creating an online index was a “fair use” under the law, as was making the texts available to those with print disabilities. (The Authors Guild has appealed the decision, with oral arguments scheduled Oct. 30.)

Those who need digital access to copyrighted works must verify their disability status. Students apply to SDS; faculty and staff apply through Medical Leaves Administration in the Division of Human Resources and Safety Services. Details are available in the patron guide in the “access” section of the library’s disability services page. The service is available only to library patrons affiliated with the Cornell community, and access is provided only to books Cornell Library holds in print form.

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Syl Kacapyr