Interview | Sharing Books with Jim Fruchterman




Jim Fruchterman founded Bookshare to reinvent the traditional library for the blind and to transform the level of access from 5 percent to 95 percent. “We’re well on our way to accomplishing that goal!” says Jim. Indeed, Bookshare ( is the world’s largest digital library of accessible texts. Bookshare serves people with print disabilities, such as blindness or low vision, as well as people who have severe learning disabilities or mobility impairments that prevent them from reading a traditional book. Traditionally, fewer than five percent of the books needed or wanted by people with print disabilities are available in accessible formats. By making content easily accessible and available, Bookshare is breaking down barriers that have prevented this underserved population from participating fully in work or community life. “By using the power of technology, we’ve found a way to deliver far more books for far less cost, and approach equal access,” says Jim. “We want to ensure that lack of access to books is no longer a barrier to education, employment and social inclusion.” Here, Jim shares his thoughts on education, technology, some fascinating formative experiences—and more about the power of Bookshare.

Victor: How exactly does Bookshare work?

Jim: Bookshare members can download books at any time of day or night. Rather than using recorded human narration, Bookshare uses digital text. Our collection is available in a variety of formats that can be read in Braille or enlarged text, or listened to as synthesized speech. Titles can be downloaded to a computer or to many of the inexpensive portable devices (such as cell-phones and MP3 players) that people carry today. Bookshare is possible due to the 1996 Chafee Amendment to U.S. copyright law, which allows nonprofit organizations like Benetech, Bookshare’s parent, to convert copyrighted materials that are not yet available for the print disabled into alternative accessible formats. They make sure that only qualifying individuals use their service by requiring people to register as members and to provide a Proof of Disability.

Victor: Where does the Bookshare name come from?

Jim: Bookshare’s mantra is “scan once; share often.” The idea to create Bookshare was sparked in 1999, when my teenage son showed me how Napster worked. This Internet-based way to share music struck me as totally cool, but probably illegal! It occurred to me that we might be able to set up a service that allowed blind people to legally share files of digitized books. We engaged publishers in discussions on how that could work well in advance of launch. After more than a year of technical development, Benetech launched the Bookshare service in 2002.

We approached Bookshare as a digital library that would be built by the people who use the library, instead of librarians deciding what disabled people should read. We named it to emphasize the social values of how the library would be built: Bookshare allowed blind people to legally share files of digitized books, and it provided the next generation of access solutions for the disabled community.

Victor: What formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Bookshare? How do your experiences with rocket science and scanning technology relate to Bookshare? (Any connections?)

Jim: My personal plan was to become an astronaut. While an undergraduate at the California Institute of Technology, I took classes in aerospace and electrical engineering, as well as applied physics and computer science. My “light bulb moment” came in a modern optics class, where we were discussing developing pattern recognition systems. Since this was the 1970s, the example was drawn from the military. We learned how you could build a smart missile with a camera in the nose, which used optical pattern recognition to hone in on a target such as a tank and blow it up. I left the class wondering if there might be a more socially beneficial application of this technology!

My idea was to use the same kind of technology to build a reading machine for the blind. It would do optical character recognition with a spinning disk with the special patterns for each letter, and a phototransistor would record the signal when the letter being analyzed correlated with specific pattern on the film disk. This was a long time ago!

The company that enticed me from my doctoral studies was a private rocket company. This was an irresistible opportunity, given my space inclinations, and I took a leave from Stanford to help build a rocket. Within six months, the rocket had blown up on the launch pad, and I was looking for something new to do.

My boss from the rocket company, David Ross, introduced me to one of his friends who was a chip designer from HP Labs. We sat down in 1981 to talk about starting a company. The chip designer, Eric Hannah, described his idea of making a custom chip that could do optical character recognition. I was enchanted. My first reaction was: “You could make a reading machine for the blind with that!”

Eric Hannah, David Ross and I founded the company that became Calera Recognition Systems in 1982. We raised more than U.S. $25 million in venture capital during the 1980s, which was a lot of money then (and now). We promised our investors that we would make a machine that would read anything, and then set forth to do it.

By the mid-1980’s we had a $10+ million company, but I still wanted to create a reading machine for the blind. So our team built a prototype and showed it to our investors. When we told them that the market was thought to be $1 million a year, they vetoed the project.

To overcome this market failure, I created a nonprofit to develop and sell an affordable reading machine. We quickly reached around $5 million in annual sales and maintained that pace throughout the 1990s, as we kept cutting prices and seeing more and more people getting reading systems and machines. In late 1999, a for-profit company made an offer to buy our reading machine business. Benetech used the money from the asset sale to create Bookshare and other new socially motivated projects.

Victor: Very interesting Jim! Alright: What does Bookshare do? Who do you partner with?

Jim: Bookshare is a web-based digital library that gives people with print disabilities the same ease of access to books and periodicals enjoyed by those without disabilities. In the United States alone, there
are millions of people who have a disability that prevents them from reading a traditional printed book. Bookshare allows a book to be scanned once and then shared in digital formats that are easy to download, search and navigate.

Our shorthand description is ‘Amazon meets Napster meets talking books, but legal!’ Amazon, because it’s a huge number of books, all online: everything we do is through the Internet. Napster, because our members and volunteers are critical to the process of choosing and sharing books, although today more and more publishers voluntarily contribute digital content to us with global permissions to make books available to print disabled readers worldwide. Talking books, because our most common type of user access is to have the books be read aloud with a voice synthesizer. And legal, because the Chafee amendment makes doing this work explicitly legal under U.S. copyright law.

We partner with everyone you can imagine! In 2010, for the first time the majority of books added to Bookshare came directly from publishers, as an expression of their social responsibility and support for people with disabilities. We partner with close to 100 leading publishers, including Random House, Hachette, Scholastic, HarperCollins, Flat World Knowledge, Modern Language Association, NSTA, Encyclopaedia Britannica and Merriam Webster. More than thirty universities, including Cambridge University in the UK, Michigan State University, the University of California at Berkeley, Ohio State University and DeAnza Community College also contribute scanned books and journals to the library.

We’ve also worked with many authors, who want to see their works added to our library. We partnered with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America to honor author’s rights and fight illegal copying; in exchange, SFWA suggests that their members voluntarily contribute their books to Bookshare.

We add about a thousand new books to our library each month, to ensure a continual supply of fresh reading materials. Books that are donated are chopped, scanned, proofread, and edited by our staff to give our members high-quality accessible digital formats. Our Bookshare staff and some 1200 volunteers designed an efficient process to get books into the library. For those books that don’t come directly to us from the publisher, a volunteer or staff member first scans the book and then runs this data through OCR software to convert the scanned image into a digital text file. Our proofreaders take great pride in ensuring that Bookshare provides high-quality books with minimal scanning errors.

Text can be downloaded in two accessible digital formats. DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) is the leading talking book file format. DAISY books from Bookshare are text files (much like commercial ebooks or web pages) that work with screen readers, software and portable DAISY players that read the book aloud, and with scan-and-read software programs like Kurzweil K1000 and K3000, WYNN, and OpenBook. The books are also offered in BRF (Braille Refreshable Format) digital Braille, for use with Braille embossers and electronic Braille displays that pop up Braille pins for each line of text.

Victor: Who benefits from the Bookshare library?

Jim: Bookshare primarily benefits people with disabilities that significantly interfere with reading traditional printed material. This includes people who are blind or visually impaired and people with physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy, quadriplegia or fine motor control issues that prevent holding a book, turning a page or maintaining visual focus on the page. Our largest single group of members is comprised of people with severe dyslexia, a learning disability that greatly impairs reading.

We just reached the milestone of serving 125,000 members worldwide. We serve more than 100,000 members just in the U.S.—the majority of whom are students—with our collection of books, periodicals and newspapers and free assistive technology software. The Bookshare library grows daily through contributions from our volunteer community and through large-scale collaborations with publishers.

Members of all ages can find and access the latest digital books and textbooks to prepare for required reading assignments, transition to college, support vocational interests, and hobbies. Bookshare started as a primarily U.S.-focused library, but permissions from publishers and authors now make it possible for us to serve people with disabilities globally. Our largest group of users outside the U.S. is in India.

Bookshare benefits far more people than our patrons with disabilities. Family members no longer have to scan books manually themselves or read them aloud. Teachers can spend their time teaching instead of converting inaccessible books. Schools and publishers can meet their civil rights obligations to people with disabilities at lower or no cost.

Victor: What does Bookshare cost? Who funds it?

Jim: In 2007, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) at the U.S. Department of Education awarded the Bookshare project $32 million over five years to expand the availability of accessible electronic books and the software for reading those books. This funding gives all qualified disabled students in the U.S., regardless of age, access to the library without charge. Qualifying individuals in the U.S. who are not students pay an initial setup fee of $25 and a $50 annual subscription. People in developing countries generally receive significant discounts from these prices: our fee in India is roughly $8 per year.

Victor: Alright, we’ve discussed it some, but could you share a bit more about how Bookshare works?

Jim: Bookshare members go to the Bookshare library and search for the books, textbooks and newspapers they wish to read. They then download them to their PC or smartphone, in a compressed, encrypted file. Adaptive technology, typically software, reads the book aloud (using text-to-speech) and/or displays the text of the book on a computer screen or Braille access device, such as a refreshable Braille display. Bookshare provides books in a structured digital form that can be easily and efficiently navigated with a Braille reader or voice synthesizer.

Victor: What are the major long-term benefits of Bookshare?

Jim: The largest benefit that Bookshare provides is equality of access. We want people with disabilities to be able to complete their education, get the job they want, and fully participate in society. Access to books and periodicals is an essential step on the road to equality. Bookshare has also shown that it’s possible to solve far more of the book accessibility problem without needing to spend more money. New technology reduces the cost of adding a new book to our collection, or of delivering a book to an individual with a disability, to less than one-tenth of the cost of traditional mechanisms.

Victor: What companies do you see as in the same market?

Jim: Bookshare is working in an area that the market has traditionally failed to serve, which is why the copyright exception now exists. The most comparable organizations to Bookshare are other nonprofit libraries focused on serving people with disabilities; these include the Library of Congress, Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic and the American Printing House for the Blind. However, each of these groups delivers quite different (and useful) services in meeting the problem of accessibility.

We are encouraged by the prospects we are starting to see for the commercial book industry to meet the needs of this community. Traditionally, commercial ebooks have been inaccessible to people with disabilities. Technical protection methods (also known as digital rights management) that are designed to inhibit “piracy” also tend to prevent accessibility. Recently, however, Amazon, Apple, Google and the Internet Archive are paying much more attention to the needs of people with disabilities.

Victor: What are some examples of Bookshare in action supporting teachers and helping students to succeed?

Jim: We recently published two profiles of Bookshare student members, including college student Steffon Middleton Steffon is a straight-A student, who has made his college dean’s list each semester. He downloads Bookshare texts to a portable device called a BrailleNote that allows blind people like him to read digital Braille.

High school student Jessica Pinto is also a member of Bookshare and a member of the National Honor Society. Jessica has cerebral palsy and downloads her schoolbooks from Bookshare in digital formats that allow her to read without assistance.

You can read more great testimonials and stories from educators, students, parents and disability advocates on our website. They’ve told us how Bookshare helps students to get timely access to books and textbooks, rather than waiting for weeks or months. Teachers have written about how Bookshare helps students to connect in the classroom and to improve their reading scores. Students have thanked us for helping them to achieve reading independence and for providing them access to assistive technology reading software, like Read:Outloud, for the first time. We’ve heard from parents who are thrilled that their child can read a digital book on his or her own and actually enjoy the act of reading for pleasure. All of these stories point to one major advantage for people with disabilities: equal access.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education and your outlook on the future education?

Jim: The best outcomes for people with disabilities result when their needs are aligned with the needs of the rest of society. More and more mainstream students are demanding an individualized approach to education; that’s the norm in special education. By recognizing that students with and without disabilities benefit from different approaches and that not all students learn in the same way, we can improve educational outcomes for all students.

Exciting advances like Open Educational Resources (OERs) and portable computing devices such as smart phones and tablets are both likely to change education dramatically. OERs are digitized materials that are offered freely and openly for educators, students and self-learners to use and reuse for teaching, learning and research. My dream is that educational technology and content adapt to serve the student in the future, rather than forcing the student to adapt to the technology and the content in a “one size fits all” approach. We know that approach hasn’t worked, and the sooner we make these changes, the better things will be.

Victor: How does Bookshare address some of your concerns about education?

Jim: My goal in creating Bookshare was to revolutionize access to books for people with print disabilities. We’ve shown that it’s possible to solve this problem cost-effectively with a free, exception-based model. Now that we’re delivering terrific content to the students who represent one percent of the student population, we’re getting strong demand from schools, parents and students to serve a much larger audience of students than the small number who qualify for free access under the copyright exception. We want to show that there’s a real market there: that publishers can make money selling books to people with disabilities who don’t qualify under the copyright law. This population includes students with milder or undiagnosed disabilities, English Language Learners and students who simply learn differently. While the publishing industry is working the ebook market from the top down, we’re hoping to catalyze working it from the bottom up. These disadvantaged students are those who could benefit most from more flexible electronic books that meet their needs in ways that traditional print books never could!

Victor: What’s new at Bookshare now—or coming in 2011?

Jim: At the 2011 ATIA (Assistive Technology Industry Association) conference in Orlando, FL, we just announced Read2Go, a new accessible e-book application developed in partnership with Shinano Kenshi Co., Ltd, known for its PLEXTALK® brand of digital talking book players.

Read2Go is a full-featured, accessible DAISY reader for the Apple device market. The app is easy to use on the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch and connects directly to Bookshare for on-the-go reading. Individual Bookshare members can use Read2Go to search, download, and read Bookshare books and periodicals and manage their books in a bookshelf. Read2Go also reads DAISY 2.02 and 3.0 materials from other sources. You can learn more about this new application on the website and our Bookshare blog ( The Bookshare blog is the best way to stay current on the latest events and developments at Bookshare.

This year, we also introduced a new Developers Portal, which fits within our open access strategy and will enable our assistive technology (AT) partners and other third party developers to integrate their applications and devices easily with Bookshare’s Application Programming Interface (API). This web service allows developers to provide their customers with qualified print disabilities the capability to search, browse and download books and periodicals directly from their applications and devices. Be sure to check out our Partner Gallery to see how various partners have integrated with the Bookshare API.

The Bookshare Mentor Teacher Program was also created this year, in response to the growing number of K-12 teachers who are using Bookshare. Teacher Mentors are “experts” at using our books and tools to encourage better academic outcomes for students. We wanted to find a way to acknowledge these local experts and encourage them to spread the word about Bookshare to other teachers and faculty. In almost no time, 225 teachers had signed up for our program and received lots of great training materials and support. Now they are working to train other teachers on Bookshare best practices. This spring we will be selecting several Mentors at random to receive prizes like an iPad, Flip video and money for school supplies, and we will acknowledge several outstanding Bookshare Teacher Mentors through local recognition. It’s important that we continue to celebrate their achievements to provide awareness and equal access to students who need our resources.

Bookshare offers a variety of membership options for schools, organizations, qualified students and individuals. To register and learn more about Bookshare, you can visit

Finally, we’re actively talking to publishers about implementing a market model approach (rather than a copyright exception approach) to sell accessible books to people who want to buy them, a concept we call Bookaccess.  The idea is that Bookaccess would be an online bookstore of accessible ebooks, going beyond what the Bookshare library can do by serving people who don’t qualify under the copyright exception.  We look forward to sharing more about this as it develops!


Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of Edtech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to:


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