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Audiobooks, E-readers and Accessibility
November 12, 2009 - 10:43pm

Three cheers for the educators at Syracuse and UW Madison for refusing to purchase new Kindle's until the speech-to-text feature meets accessibility standards. It is beyond stupid that Amazon neglected to provide spoken menu options, therefore making it impossible for sight impaired readers to access the speech to text feature.

All colleges and universities, and libraries (and all of us consumers) should follow the lead of these institutions and refuse to purchase e-readers until they are fully accessible. This is, as they say in our business, a "teachable moment."

Amazon has a wonderful opportunity to make lemonade from lemons, and leverage the attention it getting about accessibility to make a positive and significant contribution towards opening up reading for all readers. Amazon should bring out a college library Audible initiative. Accessible speech-to-text for e-readers is essential, but the experience of a machine generated voice remains a poor substitute to the spoken word. Providing higher ed libraries the means to lend Audible audiobooks would immediately make large number of books accessible, as well provide another medium that all learners (students, faculty, staff) could consume books.

The fact that the e-reader boycott is getting so much press demonstrates the power of our higher ed institutions to advocate for companies to change their products and policies. How can we get similar momentum built up around providing audiobooks for loan?

When it comes to advocating for audiobooks to be included in academic library collections I'll admit to some strong vested interests. I'm a huge audiobook fanatic. Too much of my money goes to Amazon to pay for my Audible platinum membership. Almost all my nonfiction reading is done via audiobook. The genius of audiobooks is that they allow reading while doing other things. Reading while driving, reading while doing the dishes, reading while walking across campus. Are you an audiobook fanatic as well? My Audible reading list can be found here - I'd love to see what you are reading (and why can't Amazon/Audible provide social space for passionate readers to meet up, exchange reviews and recommendations?).

So my plea for college/university libraries and Amazon to to get together to offer an audiobook program is entirely self-interested. But it would also make good learning and business sense. How many of our students are shut out from reading for accessibility or learning style reasons? How many students would benefit from being able to get course reading done while multitasking (riding on a campus shuttle, running on a treadmill, walking between classes)?

Can some enlighten me as to why Audible does not have a college library program? (Or is there a program that I can't track down?).

I've long thought that the academic librarian worry about Google's book digitization effort is misplaced, and the real worry should be about the dominance that Amazon has in the digital book world. It is great that Amazon is finally getting some competition in the e-reader business, but I worry that their control of the audiobook market through Amazon will stifle the kind of innovations and partnership with libraries that I'm suggesting.

Both Amazon and academic libraries need to develop the next generation of book readers (and I mean people who read, not e-readers). I'd bet that a large number of college students would be more likely to read if an audio option was offered. If Amazon does not provide this generation with the opportunity to fall in love with books through audio then they may loose the next generation of readers and book buyers. Providing audiobooks for check-out is an example where, by working together, Amazon and academic libraries can both increase overall reading and make their collections accessible to all learners.

How can we get audiobooks into our academic library collections? How can we insure that these audiobooks work on the devices that students already have (ie iPods), and are not restricted in file format or DRM to players that only a few students possess? How can we support and encourage the trend for academic libraries to invest in digital and audiobooks in the same way they invest in paper copies? And how can we push to get Amazon on board to create an academic library program?



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