Braille Monitor                                                    March 2009

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Opening the Book
An Academic’s Perspective on NFB’s Settlement with Google

by Paul Harpur

Paul Harpur and his guide dog ChesterFrom the Editor: Paul Harpur, who is a lawyer, associate lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, and a PhD candidate, offered to write a short article for the Braille Monitor about the importance of the NFB/Google settlement to print-disabled academics and professional researchers. This is what he says:

Open any book on research methodologies and the first step almost always involves reading leading textbooks in the field. For researchers who cannot read standard print this first step creates a substantial barrier. Some researchers simply ignore textbooks and go straight to journal articles, reports, legislation, or case law. It is possible with back referencing to adopt this research methodology, but it is far from ideal. In most situations failing to read leading textbooks means the resulting paper lacks the degree of analysis that can only be provided by leading scholars in the field. Arguably the settlement the NFB reached with Google late last year will significantly improve the ability of print-disabled researchers to access textbooks.

Googlebooks have scanned over a million books into digital form and created access online. For books that are out of copyright, users are able to click on a button and download the entire book in PDF. For books still subject to copyright protection, Googlebook will provide more limited access. The Googlebook search engine will identify the pages in most textbooks where search terms appear and can provide a table of contents with most textbooks. Until recently this great resource has been a closed book for print-disabled users who use screen readers such as JAWS or Window-Eyes. The settlement the NFB reached with Google should open all these Googlebook services to print-disabled users.

If implemented, the NFB/Google settlement will arguably provide print-disabled researchers substantial assistance in performing high-quality research. Currently a print-disabled researcher can identify titles of likely textbooks on Googlebook. Because the contents page and page numbers generally don’t appear in an accessible format, there is no way to identify what part of the book is potentially useful. Without a table of contents a researcher is unable to determine if the title means the book has useful chapters. For example, the title of a book on universal design may indicate that it is relevant, but the chapter headings may indicate that the book adopts an extremely legalistic approach when the researcher is after a practical guide to implementing universal design. The ability of the researcher to read the table of contents will increase his or her ability to find relevant chapters.

The identification of relevant page numbers in textbooks has the potential of substantially reducing the time print-disabled students spend scanning library books. Generally researchers can now identify only that a particular chapter has information on a point. If the researcher is after an obscure point, the information may be found on a few pages. Currently researchers need to scan an entire chapter and scroll through it to find the relevant pages. The NFB settlement with Google should alter this procedure and enable researchers to identify relevant pages with greater ease. Rather than scanning entire books, print-disabled researchers will be able to identify what pages they think could be relevant and scan only those. This will save both scanning and reading time.

Print-disabled researchers associated with an educational institution in the USA, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and many other countries have a number of the textbooks provided to them on disc in electronic files. While this is fantastic, often these textbooks in alternate format do not enable the student to identify which page they are reading. This becomes a substantial problem if they need to cite or quote the textbook. The Harvard Bluebook, the American Psychological Association Citation Guide, and most other referencing guides require authors to pinpoint references. For sighted researchers this entails simply looking to the top or bottom of the page. For people using an electronic version, pinpointing citations can involve serious complications. If for example the researcher knows the quote comes from a chapter of thirty pages but does not know precisely what page, he or she must ask a sighted person to assist in checking a paper copy of the textbook. When Googlebook is fully accessible, a researcher with a print disability should be able simply to search Googlebook for the title and part of the phrase. The results should enable researchers to identify quickly and independently the page on which the quote appears. This will create greater independence and save time.

Arguably the technology revolution creates the possibility to increase universal design and to enable people with print disabilities to access material without having to scan and convert it. Sadly the potential of these technological advancements is often not fully realized for legal and policy reasons. The NFB/Google settlement represents a move to embrace universal design and harness the potential of technological advancements to reduce barriers to people with print disabilities succeeding educationally and professionally.


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