Providing eBooks For All

Access, Social Justice, Technology

By: Kelly Bilz

Let me get this out of the way: I love eBooks. I’ve run the numbers (really–I made a spreadsheet) and only 16% of the books I read in 2019 were physical books; the rest were all eBooks that I checked out from my public library. I respect that some people prefer the look, feel, texture, and smell of an actual book, but eBook usage and audiobook usage have increased–as have, of course, tensions between publishers and libraries. 


Amazon Publishing won’t allow libraries to lend their titles at all, and Macmillan’s embargo has sparked the #eBooksForAll initiative. eBooks, which were predicted by some to bring about an age of universal access, have instead provided more hurdles than ever, not even including the digital divide.

#eBooksForAll and the Incarcerated

A person facing away from the camera with an ereader in their right back jeans pocket and trying to put a hardcover book in their left back pocket

I’ve written about prison libraries before, but recently, there’s been more and more talk about digital libraries at prisons and jails and other correctional facilities. For example, there are two on OverDrive: the National Institute of Corrections Library and the National Corrections Library (by American Prison Data Systems, or APDS). There are a lot of benefits to these collections: they include Spanish language materials and relate to relevant topics for inmates, such as re-entry and living with disabilities in prison. The NIC library even has a category specifically for women (although it would be nice to see a category for the LGBTQ+ community as well). 

But it’s hardly surprising, given recent developments, that the existence of eBooks in prison libraries has not made information and entertainment more accessible to inmates. In fact, it’s made the whole matter a lot more complicated.  

First, inmates need devices to obtain and read eBooks. Correctional facilities have largely adopted modified tablets to give to inmates, some states even providing them for free. In other facilities, however, inmates must purchase their own. Even when “free,” these tablets “charge users at every opportunity.” It can cost 35 cents to send an email, but more relevant to libraries, it can cost 5 cents a minute to read an eBook

More egregiously, these tablets charge inmates to read books from Project Gutenberg–you know, the digital library of free eBooks, most of which are out of copyright? JPay, a tablet company, has recently eliminated these fees in response to backlash, and more than 25 states have followed their lead. Beyond price, however, there is still censorship. Many books don’t make it into prison library collections, physical or digital. In Pennsylvania, some of these books include the Autobiography of Malcolm X and The New Jim Crow. The Philadelphia Inquirer also reports that the digital translation of the Quran is considered “nonstandard” and “extremely offensive to most observant Muslims.”

Moreover, the use of eBooks and tablets has led to a distressing trend where prisons are rejecting physical book donations. The risks of books being used to smuggle in contraband (claims of which are largely unsubstantiated), combined with the benefits of surveillance and profit from these tablets, make eBooks a more appealing option. Inmates might not have the option of reading a mass-market paperback versus the digital copy. 

Fortunately, activist groups are calling attention to exploitative tablets, and their efforts have led to eBook fees being removed across state institutions. However, even on the outside, eBooks still don’t extend to all. 

eBooks and Accessibility

Cartoon of a large smartphone with an icon of someone reading and with a hand pointing at the screen

eBooks provide some benefits to readers with disabilities and vision impairments, like adjusting font sizes, color and contrast. (There are even dyslexia fonts, although they haven’t been shown to actually help with reading.) These features are a good start, but that’s all that they are: a start. 

eBooks run into accessibility problems when it comes to screenreaders and digital rights management. The screen reader “may not handle book navigation and presentation of complex data such as tables or mathematical equations,” which would especially be problematic for nonfiction, or math fiction (which I just learned is a thing). DRM may not allow a screenreader to narrate the text, and a lack of standards exacerbate accessibility issues. 

The potential to make eBooks more accessible is there. Robin Christopherson, who is the Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet, said in an interview that the ePub 3 format, most commonly used for eBooks, “provides inclusive text, images with labels, and interactive links,” but “it’s not always used well.” Christopherson also points to the Digital Accessible Information SYstem (DAISY), which allows for greater navigability through the book and utilizes a text-to-speech (TTS) system. TTS “gives access to a much greater variety of material” than audiobooks, and it is often available much sooner than the audiobook version. 

Regarding audiobooks, author Ijeoma Oluo posted a wonderful Twitter thread about ensuring audiobook licensing that is feasible for public libraries. In the thread, she writes, “audiobooks are first and foremost an accessibility device for those who cannot read another way.” Many libraries still offer analog formats, like CDs and Playaways, but many audiobooks are also circulated digitally. Audiobook usage has increased overall, but as Oluo illustrates, it’s an accessibility issue as well. She and other authors are using their own authority to help make sure that libraries can license audiobooks, but we need the cooperation of publishers, too.

So, after you sign the #eBooksForAll petition, don’t forget that “for all” also includes the incarcerated and patrons with disabilities. 

Kelly Bilz

Kelly Bilz is a graduate student from Kentucky pursuing her MLIS with a specialization in academic libraries. She works in her university’s Special Collections as well as the local history department of a public library. Kelly first heard about intellectual freedom in her Information in Society course and has spent the time since arguing with her friends about intellectual freedom in algorithms, ethics, and institutional integrity. Because she is passionate about history and the cultural record, Kelly is interested in how intellectual freedom affects access to genealogical records and ethical collecting practices in archives. In her free time, Kelly enjoys listening to podcasts (especially Ear Hustle) and watching old movies (like Lady from Shanghai). Find her on LinkedIn.

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