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ARGENTINA: Digital Library for the Blind

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 13 2007 (IPS) - Armed with a computer and their passion for literature, a group of blind people in Argentina have created the first digital library for Spanish-speaking people who are visually impaired. It already has some 20,000 volumes and over 3,000 subscribers in 40 countries.

Tiflolibros, as it is named, was created in 1999. It first operated out of the home of its coordinators, a blind couple who wanted access to books via their computer. “The project grew, and so did their family, so we threw them out and kept their apartment,” Marta Traina, in charge of public relations, joked to IPS.

“The library operates in one area, and technical support in another, but the apartment is getting too small for us,” said Traina, delighted about the growth of the project, which started out as 20 people exchanging a few titles by e-mail.

The library is made up of “talking books”, recorded on compact discs (CD). They may be listened to on the library computer, but Tiflolibros also offers a delivery service to its subscribers, who can choose the books they want and listen to them with whatever technology they prefer: discman, MP3-player, or an ordinary computer. “These are ideal options for older people,” Traina said.

Members receive their CDs by mail at a cost of less than a dollar apiece. “They order 10 or 15 titles at a time,” she said.

In the past, the visually impaired were reliant on texts in Braille, the writing system with raised dots that are read by touch, which requires large amounts of paper, or on other people who had time to read to them. Then “audio-books”, taped on cassettes, became popular.

But information technology has opened up a whole new dimension.

People can now install a screen reader in their computer to check e-mail and surf the Internet, and there are Braille printers, too. But copyright screen reader programmes, such as those sold by Adobe or Microsoft, are too expensive for most.

The problem was solved by André Duré, a blind programmer, who created the Tiflolector software which encodes a digitalised text, eliminating the risk of illegal print copies being made. The coded text is read by special screen readers, so that the books are only available to the blind.

So it is that books on a wide range of subjects by many different authors are reaching the Spanish-speaking visually impaired. “Lots of publishers give us their newest books, but there are some who aren’t interested. Perhaps they don’t know much about computer science and are afraid that the digital versions will go into print, and their book sales will suffer,” said Traina.

To get computers to read the books out loud, they must first be scanned and then read by a voice synthesiser. This method is time-consuming and error-prone, because the reading equipment does not always understand the digitalised text properly, and the mistakes have to be corrected.

The couple who coordinate the project, Pablo Leucona and Mara Vilar, started Tiflolibros by exchanging scanned texts with other visually impaired people on a mailing list. Everyone shared what they had. Now there are 80 volunteers in several countries who scan and correct talking books to add to the library.

The library accepts subscribers with severe or total visual impairment of any nationality who are interested in books in Spanish. Applicants must provide a certificate attesting to their disability. Representatives of institutions for the blind are also allowed to use the library.

There is a similar library in the United States, but it is only for U.S. citizens, and membership is not free. Traina said that initiatives like Tiflolibros in other countries would be a welcome development, especially if they could all connect up so as to increase the number of titles they could offer.

With time, Tiflolibros has gained credibility and prestige, and a dozen publishers such as Alfaguara and Sudamericana send it their books, or even the digital versions. “Sometimes we have the books before they’re even in print,” Traina said.

The library has subscribers in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cuba, Denmark, Ecuador, France, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Spain, Sweden, the United States, Uruguay and Venezuela. There is also a translation service into English and German.

Juan Spiraquis, a 50-year-old subscriber, lost his sight 12 years ago due to diabetes. “What interests me most are medical books about natural medicine, but there’s an endless variety, anything you could possibly think of,” he told IPS.

At first he had difficulty understanding the voice synthesiser but now he “reads” fast, he said. The screen reader can be set at different speeds, can be turned back, and can spell out a word on command.

In Argentina, publishing houses give copies of books to organisations that translate them into Braille. There is no copyright law that deals with this, but in 2006 the Argentine senate introduced a draft law to amend intellectual property rights, with a view to exempting texts for the blind on any kind of support medium. But the new law has not yet been passed.

However, avid readers cannot wait. “Some of my friends have computer speakers in different parts of the house, and listen to their books while they are doing other things,” Spiraquis described. “Others have one on their night tables, and they programme the screen reader to switch itself off,” he said.

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