My Experience and the Experience of Millions

May 24, 2017

Dr. Paul Harpur, Senior Lecturer with the School of Law, University of Queensland, Australia and International Distinguished Fellow of the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University draws from his monograph and personal experience to speak on the HathiTrust.


This article seeks to illustrate the massive impact of the HathiTrust on the lives of persons with print disabilities and upon me personally.  I will write in the first person as I want this to be informative and to enable me to express my thanks to the HathiTrust and to all librarians who are involved in the great work of opening the book to the print disabled.

While I am writing from personal experience, I also bring significant academic expertise to this topic.  I have recently published a monograph on the practical and legal issues with accessing E-Books: Discrimination, Copyright and Equality: Opening the E-Book for the Print Disabled (2017) Cambridge University Press.  This monograph includes a legal analysis of how copyright and anti-discrimination laws interact and includes a chapter on Google and the HathiTrust.  I want to leave this content for the monograph and deal with the impact of the HathiTrust.

The book famine for the print disabled

Depending on where you live in the world, a person with a print disability will be able to access between 0% and 5% of the books published in the world.  Statistics arguably fail to illustrate the problem.  Below provides real world examples from students with print disabilities.

Imagine a situation where you are in a classroom, whether it be K-12 or university, and the educator refers you to a book but it is not prescribed (required).  If it is just a recommended book and not a prescribed book, then educators will generally provide no support to get access to the book.  If the book is not in a format that a person with a disability can read, then they are denied the right to read the book.  If the book is in a format that is accessible, then this might be braille, cassette tape or in large print.  To get access to the book in one of these formats might take weeks.  Meanwhile the class has read the content, discussed it and started building on the understandings gained from reading.  If you get the book, then you have to try and catch up.  In most situations you just fall behind.

Enter the transformational impact of the HathiTrust and EBooks.  You are in the classroom and a book is mentioned.  The student cohort talks about chasing down the reading after class.  During the lecture break you get on-line, search HathiTrust, request the book from the library or office that supports visually impaired users, and return to your lecture.  You finish your classes for the day to find the book ready for you to read.  Soon you are happily sipping a coffee reading the book.

The new era of access: E-Books

HathiTrust, its member libraries, and the librarians and others that support it, are participating in a new era of reading for persons with print disabilities.

It could be said that the dark ages extended for persons with print disabilities until the advent of Braille.  Prior to the emergence of Braille in the late 1800s, persons with print disabilities had to rely upon others to read books for them.  While Braille was a great step, it is expensive, slow and expensive to produce and a simple book may consist of 10 or more large volumes of braille books.

While scanners and technology has partially improved upon Braille, all of these methods required a hard copy book to be altered into a format that the print disabled could access.  This has created a book famine; a book famine that E-Books have the chance to reverse.

How the HathiTrust’s E-Book library is transforming lives

In my recent monograph I noted that the HathiTrust is participating in a move that is having a significant impact on the lives of persons with print disabilities.   I noted that the HathiTrust and other EBook libraries could make up to 15% of the world’s books available to the print disabled in formats that they can read (Harpur, 2017, P 91).  As mainstream publishers start publishing more titles in digital format, then the figure of 15% will increase substantially.  Of course, where the HathiTrust focuses on ensuring people with print disabilities can access works, commercial publishers and E-Libraries can arguably be less committed.

I am tenured at the University of Queensland which participates in the HathiTrust.  This has enabled me to access the HathiTrust database of digitised books, comprising over 15 million books.  A matter of a few years ago I could easily access perhaps a few hundred books from a range of official and other sites.  This transformational change in access cannot be emphasised.


The social model of disability explains that people with impairments are disabled when barriers in society turn impairment into disability.  The probability of the society becoming barrier-free might appear farfetched or impossible.  I honestly might agree with you but for what has just happened.

A decade ago I was very print disabled.  Now, with help from the HathiTrust and others, I am far less print disabled.  In fact, when it comes to accessing many academic and cultural works, I am more print inconvenienced now.  My parents, supporters and I used to spend hours scanning books for my studies and work.  Now I ignore books I cannot access in an E-Book format that is not available in an E-Book that is accessible to persons with print disabilities.  While it would be ideal to have reading equality; to go from difficult, time consuming and expensive access to a few books, to easy, cheap and rapid access to millions of books in a matter of a few years is an amazing, liberating and joyous experience.  I would like the HathiTrust to be aware of the substantial personal and professional impact they are having upon the world’s print disabled.