For several years Google have been digitising books, by scanning copies in libraries, and making them available on-line. The publishing industry was unhappy about this and they started a class action against Google which was intended to protect the copyright and revenue relating to the distribution of their books.
The parties have come to an out-of-court settlement, which still needs to be approved by the courts.
As with any settlement the details are complex and I will not go into them here. I want to highlight two areas:
Firstly, because I am based in the UK, it needs to be noticed that the class action, and therefore the settlement, is based in the US. The implications for non-US publishers, libraries and citizens will need further clarification over time.
Secondly, and more importantly for me with my accessibility hat on, there are some specific provisions for people with print disabilities. The settlement will allow Google to provide the material it offers users "in a manner that accommodates users with print disabilities so that such users have a substantially similar user experience as users without print disabilities." A user with a print disability under the agreement is one who is "unable to read or use standard printed material due to blindness, visual disability, physical limitations, organic dysfunction, or dyslexia."
When Google scans in a book they hold images of the printed pages and this is what you see if you go onto Google Books at present. However at the same time character recognition software has been used to convert the printed text into digital text. This enables Google to index all the text and lets users search the library not just by title and author but by any content. It also means that when a book is being viewed it can be searched for particular words or phrases. The search will return a few lines with the relevant content and the images of the pages will have the text highlighted in yellow. This provides a service that has not been available so easily to the readers of the physical book.
It also opens up the possibility of a new world to people who cannot read physical books. In theory, as all the text is now in digital format, it can be provided to screen reader, screen magnification software and refreshable Braille devices. The settlement provides the legal structure for this to happen. It has not happened up to now because there are issues of copyright of digital text as compared to digital page images. When the settlement is finalised and Google have the necessary technology available and agreements set up with participating libraries the number of books available to the vision impaired will go from the tens of thousands to millions. In fact over the next few years as more books are brought into Google Books the number of accessible books will approach the number of printed books. Hence removing a major obstacle to people with vision impairments.
Print disability covers more than vision impairments, it also covers dyslexia and certain physical impairments. The digital text can provide improved access to people with dyslexia as the text can be highlighted and read out using text-to-voice technologies. Anyone who cannot pick up a book in comfort, or at all, will benefit from the library. Anyone who can manipulate a browser-enabled computer or phone can now read any of the available books. For example a university student with RSI, who finds it impossible to carry books around, can now read relevant texts on a train journey as well as in the library or study.
The Google Book library is a major new tool for anyone wishing to do research as it provides an easy way to find what literature is available on a subject. With this new settlement it will will become a life changing technology for anyone who has had limited access to the content of the majority of books because of a print disability.
Finally, it will be interesting to see how this technology will increase access to the vast majority of the human race who do not have access to university level libraries because they are poor, physically remote or citizens of oppressive regimes.