From the very beginning, one of the most exciting possibilities of the Google Digitization Project was its potential to open up vast stores of text to a group of users to whom it had previously been inaccessible: people with visual impairments and print disabilities. Before Google (B.G.), students and scholars who wanted access to the contents of a print book had to request that the book be converted to braille, or digitized and OCRed, a special one-at-a-time process that took several weeks. This required lots of advance planning and significantly slowed the pace of study and research for these users. After Google (A.G.), with an increasing amount of the total published content in the world available digitally, that tedious process is no longer necessary. Students and scholars with print disabilities can experience the flow of moving from resource to resource without impediment for the first time ever. Here’s how.

Over the past couple of years, The University of Michigan Library has been working on a project to improve the accessibility of our digitized texts for visually impaired UM students, staff, and faculty. First, the team made accessibility improvements to the standard public interface for the HathiTrust Digital Library (formerly known as MBooks) and developed a text-only interface geared toward people with print disabilities that is optimized for screen reading software. Next, and most important, the Library figured out how to grant access to the full text of digitized books for qualified patrons, regardless of the book’s copyright status.

Like many other universities, the UM Services for Students with Disabilities (SSwD) has long offered book digitization service to students with disabilities upon request. This is explicitly allowed under section 121 of U.S. Copyright law.

Our new system basically does the same thing but on a much larger scale. The HathiTrust Digital Library currently provides access to over 4 million digitized volumes and will grow to over 10 million – visually impaired students will have full-text access to all of these volumes. We consider this just the beginning. Over the next year, we will continue to work on improvements to the interface and conduct more user assessments, and our HathiTrust partners are working together to create a framework through which we can offer this service to users at their institutions.

Once a University of Michigan student registers with the UM Services for Students with Disabilities any time she checks out a book that has been digitized, she will automatically receive an email with a URL. Once the student selects the link, she will be asked to login. The system will check to see whether the student is registered with SSwD as part of this program, and ensure that she has checked out this particular book. If the student passes both of those tests, she will get access to the entire full-text of the book, whether it is in copyright or not, in an interface that is optimized for use with screen readers. The Library’s Blog for Library Technology has more details on the technical elements for those who are interested.

Our system was endorsed by the National Federation for the Blind as a model for how libraries can serve visually impaired patrons in the digital age. It’s a great example of how digital technologies can extend the ability of libraries to serve their clients, and to extend learning and teaching beyond traditional populations.

As with the production of so many things that are of broad public value, this work could not have happened without the efforts of a committed champion. I am pleased to recognize the commitment and skill of Jack Bernard, an attorney in Michigan’s Office of the General Counsel, who has provided substantive and legal leadership in our efforts to make our collections accessible to our students with print disabilities. Jack’s efforts were recognized by the American Library Association, which gave him the L. Ray Patterson Copyright Award in 2009.