Free Library of Philadelphia Lawsuit Casts a Pall Over eReader Lending Programs Everywhere
Lots of libraries have been buying ereaders and lending them to patrons, with as many as 28%reporting that they did so in Fall 2010 (the latest data). But it looks like all those libraries may have been wasting their money.
Four visually impaired Philly residents filed suit this week against the Free Library of Philadelphia. They allege that the Free Library’s new Nook lending program, which is about to expand to cover 5 library branches, violates the Americans with Disabilities Act because the Nook is not accessible to the blind (it has no audio support at all).
The thing is, they’re probably correct.
FYI: When you read the word accessible, I’m sure you’re thinking of text to speech. But the technical meaning of the word accessible as used here extends beyond the support for text to speech, which for example the Kindle can do. The Kindle qualifies as accessible because it also includes a feature called Voice Guide. This helps the visually disabled navigate around the menus that they cannot see, thus enabling them to independently use the Kindle.
The story broke earlier this week when the National Federation of the Blind issued a press release on this lawsuit, which you can find it here. You can also peruse the court filings (here, here), thanks to InfoDocket. The press release is formulaic, but the filings are worth a read.
Caveat: I have not yet heard back from the FLP yet, so all the details mentioned here are from one side and should be taken with a grain of salt.
The first detail that jumped out at me was that the FLP funded their Nook lending program with a $25k federal grant. That leaves me scratching my head as to why the grant didn’t require that the library comply with laws like the ADA. It’s not relevant to today’s story, but it is curious.
The basis for the lawsuit is rather simple. The 4 plaintiffs have each checked out a Nook and tried to use it. They couldn’t because it did not support audio of any kind. Since the ereader program consists of 65 Nooks but not any other devices, the plaintiffs were unable to make use of the equipment bought by the Free Library of Philadelphia.
The National Federation of the Blind then sent a letter to the FLP about this issue. The reply is not included in the court filings, so I do not know how the FLP responded. (I’m planning to post that when I can.) But if you can judge anything by the 5 months delay between that letter and this lawsuit, this did not end well.
On a side note, there’s a corollary here that I don’t think anyone has considered yet (I haven’t heard of it, at least). What about audiobook collections that some libraries are investing in? Those cannot be used by the deaf, given that most are recorded audio and not spoken text (ie, they’re MP3 files, not text files). So wouldn’t that content also qualify as a violation of the ADA?
And that really isn’t such a stretch. Quite a few libraries are investing in Playaway devices like the one pictured at right, or they are buying MP3 players. Both can be checked out to patrons, just like libraries do with ereaders. And neither type of device can convert audio to text, so they clearly cannot support the blind.
In any case, libraries are going to have to come to terms with the fact that they need to support all patrons with their programs. They are covered under the same requirements as the universities who were sued for their ereader pilot programs back in 2009.
I didn’t like the lawsuits when they were resolved in 2010, but they did force everyone to confront the issue. It’s now a settled point of case law that ereader programs have to be ADA compliant. That’s not a bad thing. And it’s long since been a recommendation of the American Library Association, who issued a resolution at their annual conference in July of 2009 (it’s in the court filings).
It’s also not an insurmountable requirement. Libraries do have options, which I plan to cover in more depth in a later post. The NFB posted a video a few days back which showed one of the pricier alternatives to non-compliant ereaders. It’s an iPad equipped with a Braille reading device.
The upside to this lawsuit is that it is going to affect all library ereader programs, not just Nooks. Yes, B&N is making a strong effort to sell to schools and libraries, the Nook isn’t the only ereader which is falling down on the job. The Kobo Touch is equally inaccessible. In fact, of the major US ereaders, only the Kindle qualifies as being usable by the visually disabled.
The transition will likely be painful and expensive, but it still needs to be done.