France leads the way on audio books for the visually impaired.
"For the first time, when the results of the French book prizes were published this year, they were already available for our members as computer-generated audiobooks," says Luc Maumet, head of the media library operated by the Association Valentin-HaAaAaAeA y (AVH), which hel blind and visually impaired people.
Thanks to new technology and systems such as Eole, a download service AVH launched in April, the visually impaired and other people prevented from reading by a physical or motor disability can also access, almost in real time, new publications: fiction, non-fiction, cookbooks and such.
"When I started here about 10 years ago, audiobooks were on cassettes and our members sometimes had to wait years to borrow them," Maumet recalls, as he tours the ground-breaking library at the AVH headquarters in the seventh arrondissement of Paris.
The library is quite a surprise. Hundreds of CDs in white sleeves are arranged on wood shelves, with just a few lines of text in black print. Titles can be identified by their reference in braille on the back cover. Farther on are several meters of A4 spiral notebooks, also completely white. The contrast with the relatively dark floor helps visually impaired staff find their way around.
"The advantage with books in braille is that access to the text is more immediate," Maumet says. "The problem is all the space they take up. An average novel is seven volumes long in braille. It takes two wheelie cases to carry "The Kindly Ones," by Jonathan Littell, which is 1,400 pages long."
The library is also equipped with special electronic devices: CD players and memory sticks for Daisy-format audiobooks, suitable for the visually impaired; PCs with braille terminals; video magnifiers that will enlarge text from a standard document as large as required, change the colors and adjust the contrast.
But most AVH subscribers do not actually visit the library. The staff of 17, half of whom are visually impaired, handle most of the demand by email, phone or post. An audiobook can be burned on a CD and dispatched to mainland France free of charge.
In the past few years, new technology has brought about major changes in the daily life of blind and severely visually impaired people - 1.2 million in France, 285 million worldwide. Services for downloading audiobooks have appeared in many countries. There are also special players for listening to books. PCs and smartphones now offer similar functions. Braille terminals are available too, with scope for reading and input.
A French law, passed in 2006, requires publishers to make their source files available to certified organizations, enabling the latter to transcribe books into sound or braille - on paper and digitally - and to distribute them. This exception to the law of copyright, on the grounds of accessibility, may soon become universal, a global treaty having been signed in Marrakech in June 2013. At AVH hundreds of volunteers take part in recording audiobooks, but increasingly this process is being automated. In just a few hours a computer can use synthetic speech to generate a whole audiobook.
Eole, one of the largest French-language digital libraries, already has more than 6,000 audio titles.
"In six months we have registered over 1,600 users, downloading 30,000 files. The challenge now is to make this service known to a larger audience," Maumet says, adding that users need a certificate from an eye specialist or to be already registered as more than 80 percent visually impaired.
Eole already has plenty of satisfied subscribers. Pascale Isel, for instance, has downloaded books in all the available formats: audiobooks recorded by real people, or software, or in digital braille. "On public transport I prefer my little braille notebook. At home I listen to audiobooks on my iPhone while I'm doing the housework," she says. Born blind, she is quick to adopt new technology.
THE ASSOCIATION Valentin-HaAaAaAeA y provides various options for visually-impair people looking for reading material.