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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Alternate Texts

Paper or plastic?

May 30, 2007 Booking Through Thursday

  • Do you read e-Books?
  • If so, how? On your computer, or a PDA?
  • Or are you a paper purist? Why?

Now this is an interesting question with which to begin my Booking Through Thursday entries!

While I try to focus on using audiobooks now, ebooks have been a great alternate format for me since 2001 when I first found some Adobe Acrobat Reader ebooks. Adobe Acrobat had a “read aloud” function at that point, which helped me greatly.

In 2002 I found MicrosoftReader ebooks and also discovered the free version of the Overdrive Readerworks program for turning electronic texts into MicrosoftReader ebooks. Microsoft now has an add-in for Word which also allows you to make your own books quickly and easily. This can be a great way to store and use class notes for future use and study. These programs have improved dramatically over the years. MicrosoftReader has a text-to-speech function and now has many features that allow you to take notes, write in the margins, add bookmarks, and highlight text while you read. You can also view and search your annotations or markups from the annotations list, rather than flipping through the pages to find the bits you thought were important.

I also make use of the ebooks available through my public library which has a subscription to NetLibrary. This is a MARVERLOUS resource for those of us who have a hard time returning books to the library on time! The book checks ITSELF back into the library at the end of two weeks, so you never have to worry about it! Now how cool is THAT!

These ebooks are compatible with my screen reader software, JAWS, and also allow you to add your own notes which are saved on the system, even after the book is “returned” to the library. Additionally, my public library also has down-loadable eAudiobooks through NetLibrary which play on a variety of media players like Windows Media Player or Winamp and which also check themselves back in after two weeks.

With the progressive loss of my functional vision, I’ve been forced to go looking for alternate text formats. In the last two years, Rehabilitation Services for the Blind have provided me with the equipment and software to make my own electronic texts efficiently and at need. I do this by using a high speed scanner and the educational software program Kurzweil 1000. With practice, I can now scan a two hundred fifty page book in about 45 minutes. Kurzweil has some additional features which make it an excellent tool for anyone who needs or wants to work in electronic format. It allows me to skim books, reading only the first sentences of paragraphs, take notes, and add hyperlinks between sections of a book, so I can jump to related sections. This feature is somewhat like writing “see page 67 for another example” in the margins of a print book.

Several organizations have been creating online e-texts for many years now. Project Gutenberg has been around for decades provide plain “vanilla” texts, that is, electronic versions of texts in plain text or ASCII 2 format that any computer can display in any word processing program, even low-tech programs like notepad or very old programs. They are also expanding their collections to offer audio version of texts in Mp3 format; some are electronic audio like the ones I can make at home with the program TextAloud Mp3 and my AT&T Natural Voices. You can try a demo of these voices at the following page: http://www.research.att.com/~ttsweb/tts/demo.php which is part of their research section. The demo at the Natural Voices homepage is currently down.

I’ve gathered a number of other sources for electronic texts, which I’ll include in a list of links in the sidebar sometime in the next few days. I’ll mention two of the free ones here. First, the Free E-Text Center at the University of Virginia provides more than 2,100 books in MicrosoftReader format, Palm format, or HTML. Many include the illustrations from the older versions of books or from the original classics such as A Christmas Carrol by Charles Dickens or Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. This was one of the first electronic libraries using ebook formats for the general public.

My other favorite source for electronic texts is the Online Books Page at the University of Pennsylvania. These books are all in HTML format, but convert easily to MicrosoftReader format with the free add-in. Aspects of this Library that I really enjoy are the “Celebration of Women Writers Project,” the “Banned Books Online” project, and their “Award Winners” project. They also have an extensive listing of free periodicals available on the web, many of which are strictly historical archives, like The Gentleman’s Magazine 1731 – 1907 or The Galaxy which was an entertainment magazine from the mid-19th century which was eventually absorbed by Atlantic Monthly. People looking for free books should check the Microsoft site from time to time; one year, Microsoft gave away two books per month as a way to promote the use of MicrosoftReader – it was a great way to collect some very interesting books!

One source to purchase ebooks that I have found very reliable and quite reasonable in price is Fictionwise.com. Fictionwise offers membership discounts, newsletters, rebates, and of course, free and continuing storage of your books, should your hard drive crash or your download disappear in any other type of traumatic event, such as an over-enthusiastic spasm of the delete key [grin]. Books from Fictionwise come in MicrosoftReader, Palm, and Acrobat formats. They also have “multi-format” books which any computer can access without proprietary software. The majority of books (including the large sci-fi and fantasy collection) are current titles. If you are considering the purchase of any book that might be in the public domain, check the free sites first. It will be cheap at Fictionwise, less than $10, but if you can download it for free for a little effort – it will be worth it!

Originally, I read my ebooks on my Jordana PDA, which allowed me to magnify the font to a comfortable level and which remains the most portable format I have for electronic books. Now that I’m working on a laptop, I use it for most purposes, including reading ebooks, since it allows me to access more formats from the single device and use the complete programs. The MicrosoftReader for the PDA will not accept the text-to-speech add-in, so I can’t have the PDA read aloud. This is very frustrating, and from time to time, I e-mail Mircosoft to hassle them about it, but so far, I haven’t gotten a response!


My personal collection of electronic texts is increasing rapidly with the use of the high speed scanner. For those concerned with copyright issues, I can give you a bit of information. Most of the free online libraries are working from versions of books which have aged into the public domain. The public library service through NetLibrary has current novels and non-fiction books as well as classics, but this is a service the library pays to access, and the authors are paid just as when the library obtains a paper copy or audio copy of a book to lend. Because I am copying library books for my personal use only and need to scan them into an alternate text to access them, my personal collection does not violate copyright law, so long as I don’t distribute the books to others.


Both Acrobat and Microsoft and other developers such as Franklin have been working on systems for allowing people to “loan” e-books to each other which would involve denying you access to the copy while someone else uses it, but none of the systems I’ve seen can be described as user-friendly. They are all clunky and often full of bugs by all reports, so I’ve not gotten into sharing my ebooks yet.


My house is still filled with actual paper books that I can lend out to others. While I’ve greatly reduced my purchase of paper books, it hasn’t been eliminated. Some books I want for their maps and other materials which do not appear in audio versions or which don’t show to advantage on the screen. Others are gifts or items I’ve acquired as part of my collection of older books. I particularly love to collect the “pocket books” which made up a significant part of my grandmother’s library and are still handy to carry about. The age of the book adds to my pleasure in reading, as do many of the illustrations, and they make it worth my while to hassle with a magnifier. I love the connection with my grandmother and the history involved in collecting old books, and I’ve never shaken my love of the dusty, dry smell that comes from the leaves and collects in the back sections of the nearby university library [smile].


My “inner librarian” died a quick death when I first discovered the wonders of taking notes in the margins of books in college. She wasn’t very reliable anyway, since most of my books from childhood include broken off corners, fudgesicle smears, and other indignities [grin].


As an educator myself, I encourage students to do “active reading” which involves a variety of ways of interacting with a text as you read, including note taking, highlighting, underlining, outlining on paper or in the margins, making use of paperclips, sticky notes or sticky flags, and, most especially, re-reading and THINKING about important passages whenever they are studying a text, rather than just reading for recreation. These activities appall many people raised in the strict traditions of not damaging books and not cracking the spines, but they can be a seriously important method of assisting readers in engaging with a text. Something seems to happen in the brain to help “set” the information, so it doesn’t just wash through like much of the reading we do for pleasure.


I still find the connections made as I imprint my presence on a book by writing in the margins personally satisfying in a mystical way. Something about the visceral input from feeling the pen connect with and even break some of the paper fibers as I write makes the experience far more real and vivid than typing notes into a computer. Yet, I also realize that electronic texts allow others to engage in these activities without involving themselves in the depredations of book-damaging. And the electronic texts also allow me to continue in my chosen profession teaching English literature and composition. They are a marvelous addition to our resources, yet still I hope they never completely take over publishing.

Update: After reading a number of other entries in this Booking Through Thursday series, I wanted to let people know an important aspect of reading on the screen -- small or large. My low vision specialist let me know about this when I went to him with massive headaches. Scrolling to read can give people motion sickness as well as eyestrain of various sorts. Use the next page or page down functions to help alleviate this, and work to figure out the font size and brightness levels that suit you best. Pick the lowest brightness level you find comfortable, and the largest font size you find comfortable to enable you to read for longer periods of time! Enjoy! .

5 comments:

KnitNana said...

Wow. A wealth of information! Thank you and will look for your sidebar info .... and very much appreciate it.
I am trying (not always successfully) to use audio books. I find that I "tune-out" as I frequently do when listening to music - it's just background noise...so I miss big chunks and am not always sure where I "zoned" in the book, so it's hard to "rewind."

But reading has meant so much in the past, I'd like not to lose it. With vision decreasing, as well as the other demands on my time, it's harder and harder...

E-books? No. I haven't tried them. I still like my paper....nothng like the heft in my hand (tho' not TOO much heft!! lolol)

And for knitting books....well...
of course I want the real thing!
(((hugs)))

Marianne Arkins said...

Wow! Lots of info...

I like your insight into writing in the margins. Interesting stuff.

I'm up here.

Jane said...

Wow, Shelob! What an expansive explanation of e-books! I've just discovered that there's at-home access through my local library not only to the genealogy books on Heritage Quest but a vast array of journals & magazines. I've been exploring {g}..

Aaron said...

Information on not just e-books, but information on reading assistance as well. I really liked this post. I've been thinking about getting into reading e-books for the same kind of reason you say you like your library. You don't have to remember to take it back when you borrow it!

Ron Starc said...

The current best text to speech software is Text Speaker. It has customizable pronunciation, reads anything on your screen, and it even has talking reminders. The bundled voices are well priced and sound very human. Easily converts blogs, email, e-books, and more to MP3 or for listening instantly.