If you’ve ever tried to use an e-book you’ll know there are serious limitations; you need a reader, preferably portable; you can’t easily flick through the pages to go back to a specific sentence or idea, you can’t annotate the pages. E-books are increasingly being adopted across the sector and hyped as a cost effective solution to issues of space and availability. But let’s not forget that e-books are a visual medium and increasing digitisation of text is also increasing the digital divide and putting in place yet more barriers to participation.

Under the DDA  public bodies are meant to enusre reasonable adjustments (so those with disabilities are not discriminated against compared to those without the same disability) in terms of access to services including libraries and information resources. But academic e-book publishers have no such requirements. As libraries increase their subscriptions to electronic resources so they are moving away from their duty to ensure equality. This issue was raised in a recent post on the JISC Mail Disabilities and Technology forum for Tech-Dis  [TECH-DIS@JISCMAIL.AC.UK] where Simon Ball, Senior TechDis Advisor, describes improving the accessibility of ‘e-book and e-journal delivery software’ as a ‘priority area’.  With no disrespect to TechDis, the words ‘horse’, ‘ stable’ and ‘door’ inevitably  come to mind. It’s good to see that they are working directly with the RNIB on this. Rapid adoption of e-books across the sector reinforces the invisibility of accessibility legislation and how addressing the issues continues to be a ‘bolt-on’ exercise rather than integral to new developments.

As a society we seem to be increasingly failing our more vulnerable members. The recent statement by the PM (following the  publication of  the Digital Britain report), that that a fast internet connection is now seen by most of the public as “an essential service, as indispensable as electricity, gas and water”  and the proposal to tax telephone lines to provide it, is a classic example of running before walking. Weakness in provision of the fundamentals is then compounded by public institutions such as the British Library whose digitisation of newspapers project has resulted in commercial ‘pay-as-you-go’ access to the nations history. Instead of climbing up towards greater integration and awareness of the need to cater for diversity, the needs of the socially vulnerable seem to be sliding back down into invisibility.

7 Replies to “e-books”

  1. Hi Sue
    I don’t know much about ebooks, but I did write about the accessibility of resources help in institutional repositories some time ago – see
    I suggested that even if it may be difficult to enhance the accessibility of PDFs in repositories (there may be a backlog of resources; IT staff won’t be able to annotate complex images; etc) there are things that can be done (training; provide better templates; advocacy; etc.)
    I’ve written several papers on this topic – see
    Hope this is helpful

    Brian Kelly, UKOLN
    PS The link to Techdis is broken

  2. Thanks for the comments and links; I’m designing a training workshop for September designed to look at promoting best practice with electronic documents, as more and more resources are digitised and shared this will be a starting point to raise awareness of some of the barriers this can entail.

  3. Hi Sue
    It would be great in your workshop resource has a Creative Commons licence – see my post at
    for reasons I think we should be doing this.

    Several years ago I write a number of briefing documents related to Web accessibility, which have CC licences. These include

    # Use of Automated Tools For Testing Web Site Accessibility, (briefing 02)
    # How To Evaluate A Web Site’s Accessibility Level, (briefing 12)
    # Accessibility Testing In Web Browsers, (briefing 57)
    # Tangram Model For Web Accessibility, (briefing 101)
    # Use Of Proprietary Formats On Web Sites, (briefing 03)

    Available from:


    I’m hoping to update these soon.

    Brian Kelly, UKOLN

  4. Fair point Sue – we are a team of less than 10 trying to solve all of the accessibility and technology problems currently facing the education sector. Sometimes we have to watch some of the horses bolt while we’re attending to others – and the publishing industry, whilst slow-moving admittedly, have been moving forward on the accessibility agenda in recent years. This has not been a quick process because of the logistics of moving such a multi-faceted sector forward, and because of the change-resistant culture in some quarters.

    However, we have been working as you said with RNIB and the Right To Read Alliance to try to improve things on this score, we have a newly completed HEAT project http://www.techdis.ac.uk/index.php?p=2_1_7_26_22 which we are extending because it has produced some very helpful findings, and we are about to issue a joint statement with Becta on Digital Editions, the Adobe e-book delivery software that at present introduces a bewildering array of accessibility barriers into an otherwise potentially accessible process (the ePub format used by much of the industry has a lot of potential for aiding accessibility).

    None of this, however, negates any of the points you make, which as usual are insightful and express succinctly the frustrations those of us working in this area can feel when we can’t change everything we would like to change as quickly as it might at first seem possible to do. Your point about Digital Britain is absolutely true – and the danger is if we (nationally) run towards this particular goal even less attention will be paid to the problems we are ignoring in the rush.

    Personally I think the point you almost skip past – the lack of potential for annotation – will prevent the widespread usage of e-books in education, but if we can get to a point where the delivery format/software is accessible then when annotatable devices are commonplace perhaps we will not be playing catch-up again!

    Many thanks for airing this issue – I hope it stimulates further useful developments.

  5. There are some better-than-average ebook readers out there which allow easy bookmarking, flipping, searching, snipping, annotations and so on, but they don’t read the locked-down formats which are usually promoted as “e-books”. Until we open the e-books to a wide competition of players, I think access for visually-impaired users (which is my main concern, being a mild example of one) will continue to be a “bolt-on”.

    @Brian – when you update the guides, can you make them proper CC and drop the NC restriction, please? Otherwise, it hinders any institution’s external commercial consultants (which many use) from using them. See my post on another topic at http://www.news.software.coop/why-is-public-and-charity-money-paying-for-the-private-sectors-marketing/617/ for why we should be doing this – the reasons apply just as well to ac.uk, although the FOSS advice is a bit better there than in VCS.

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