Digital Libraries: making reading more accessible
Ebooks have been around for some time now, but they are still hotly debated: are they real books? Which is better, a digital book made of bits and pixels or a traditional book made of ink and paper? How will libraries survive in this digital revolution?
This is a false problem: an ebook is not a ‘real book’ if your definition of it is a collection of bound and printed pages, but it is still an object that stores and conveys information. What changes is its form, not its substance: the primary function of a book remains the same. As for which one is better, that depends on the individual needs of each reader: supporters of ebooks and staunch defenders of printed books can both be right, because they want different things from their reading experience.
One aspect that has progressed in leaps and bounds with digitalization is the accessibility of reading: let’s explore how digital libraries enhance it.
Read wherever you want
An ebook is essentially a file, and a collection of such files, a digital library, takes up considerably less weight and space than its physical counterpart. This means that a device through which you can access digital books allows you to carry your personal library with you wherever you are.
If reading on the go is not your priority, however, the opposite is also true: with digital libraries, you can travel more, but you can also read while having to travel less to do so.
This is particularly useful for scholars and students: suppose you have to consult a rare or hard-to-find text such as a particular edition of a book that is now out of print or an ancient, fragile manuscript that cannot leave its building. Depending on what you are looking for, you have a number of options: you can buy a copy, which may take you considerable time and money; you can ask your local library to have it sent to your location, which may also include inconvenient waiting times and shipping costs; or, in extreme cases, you may have to travel to where the book is kept, which is not only expensive, but may be extremely difficult if you happen to have mobility issues that prevent you from travelling.
But if that book has been included in a project of digitalization and is now part of a digital library, you can examine it from your home with no travel or shipping expenses. You might still want to see the original if you are interested in its physical features, but if what you need is the content alone, the digital form of a book is far more accessible.
This is not the only way ebooks have improved the accessibility of reading: let’s look at another.
Reading is for everyone
Mobility impairments are not the only obstacle that might bar someone from reading: choosing digital over traditional can help erase some of the difficulties that certain categories of people might encounter.
Firstly, reading relies largely on sight, so people with poor eyesight may find it a difficult task. With a digital book, you can often zoom in on words you find too small to read or enlarge the font size, and if neither solution is sufficient, you can switch to audiobooks and have the words read to you aloud. With a printed book, such operations would have required a magnifying glass or the collaboration of a second person; an ebook makes you completely independent.
Audiobooks, alone or as a tool to follow along the written text, can also be a blessing for dyslexic users or people who otherwise find reading difficult because of learning disabilities or a poor grasp of written language; listening to audiobooks in conjunction with the written version can even improve a child’s reading fluency or a foreign language student’s pronunciation.
Someone who is still learning a language and has limited comprehension of complex texts can also benefit from dictionary and thesaurus functions, which can expand their vocabulary and explain the meaning of unknown words, granting them access to books they would have been otherwise unable to understand.
In conclusion, digital libraries can break down a number of physical, cognitive and even economic barriers that used to keep people from the joy of reading.