At Book Summit, Access to Reading Matters Most
Publishers, writers, preservationists, technology experts, and literacy advocates gathered at the Library of Congress last week to discuss the future of reading and reading technology at the first International Summit of the Book. While the summit offered a variety of perspectives on the evolving role of the book in knowledge-sharing, access to reading emerged as a shared interest and challenge for those concerned with books in relation to literacy. Advocates made the case for early-childhood literacy and access to reading for the print disabled, and speakers gave the general impression that rumors of the death of the book—thanks in part to the rise of e-books and e-readers, widespread mobile technology use, and new avenues for self-publishing—have been greatly exaggerated.
Karen Lotz, the president and publisher of children's book imprint Candlewick Press, focused on how books can help create engaged readers for life, relating the following anecdote from a tense editors' meeting. After much agonizing and debate over the lineup for a forthcoming season, a co-worker attempted to calm the group, saying, "OK, this is children's books, it's not brain surgery." While Lotz saw nothing amiss at the time, she said: "It hit me a few years ago: it is brain surgery." Lotz takes seriously the role of children's book publishers in helping shape young readers' future habits. She described the philosophy behind acquisitions and decisionmaking at Candlewick as driven by the desire to publish the highest-quality books: "The books that will help children grow up to become lifelong readers: that is the definition of the best book."
Several panelists opined that fighting for access to reading is a greater and more worthy challenge than fighting for access to books. Carla D. Hayden, head of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library, noted that, according to the Pratt library system's usage statistics, digital media comprise the library material most rapidly growing in demand. A recent grant from the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation will allow Pratt to expand e-book offerings and its e-reader lending program as part of the Baltimore Library Project.
Karen Keninger, the director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), was another strong voice for improved access to reading; specifically, she advocated prioritizing distribution of "the intellectual content of a book" to a large population of print-disabled readers. Keninger described four decades of what she considers infinitesimally slow development in the availability of books for the blind, starting with Ray Kurzweil's 1976 invention of the first book-to-voice translation system. The Kurzweil Reading Machine combined optical character recognition (OCR)—scanning book pages and translating the scanned images to text—with a synthesized voice to read the text back. (A video clip of Stevie Wonder demonstrating use of the machine is cataloged at the WGBH Open Vault but, sadly, unavailable for viewing.) At $50,000 and "the size of a refrigerator," the system was hardly portable or affordable. Still, said Keninger, many who learned of and were able to use the system found it empowering to access any printed book without the assistance of an institutional intermediary. She currently reads on a refreshable Braille device, which also relies on OCR, but is far easier to carry than the Kurzweil machine. Access remains a problem, she says, as parts for the device can be expensive.
Keninger is highly supportive of expanding book-scanning projects like those undertaken by Google Books and Hathi Trust, pointing to the efforts as the means for blind readers "to read, to understand, and then to add to the world's dialogue." She applauded recent court decisions allowing those projects to continue.
While lovers of print were well represented at the summit, Keninger considers such reverence for the book as container to be exclusionary: "For some of us a book can be the most frustrating object in the world. ... I can't access this container, I can't access the voices within." She has no quarrel with the aesthetic appreciation of print, but rather with the lack of viable alternatives for the print-disabled. And not all e-readers are equally accessible. As Sean Cavanagh reported last week, the National Federation for the Blind has long taken issue with the Kindle's lack of compatibility with other assistive technology and plans to protest at Amazon headquarters on Wednesday.
Over and over, book summit panelists stressed that, whatever influence research, business interests, and print nostalgia may bring to bear, reading ultimately matters more than books themselves. Jim Leach, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, enjoined educators to "use every conceivable instrument" in the cultivation of literacy. Whether print and digital will continue to coexist, he said, is "going to be a public choice," not one for cultural institutions to decide. In response to those rushing to predict the death or life of books and publishing, Niko Pfund of Oxford University Press pointed out that enthusiasm for reading can often have very little to do with the format of what is read: "The point is less that it's changed; the point is that people are incredibly passionate about this topic. They will talk to you about it ad infinitum." Each of the speakers quoted here concluded that a love of reading is worth nurturing for its own sake; encouraging readers to form relationships with texts remains their primary objective.