Photo by Nicki Dugan, CC BY-SA 2.0.

April 23 was World Book and Copyright Day, an international day created by UNESCO to promote reading, publishing and protection of intellectual property. This year, the day was celebrated with events and activities happening around the world, focusing on access to information for print disabled people and how information and communications technologies can help to improve it.

Access to printed materials is an essential part of access to education and culture, and a key support for individuals to fully participate in society. Literacy and access to books is a global issue that affects people’s abilities to address other development challenges; access in particular is an acute problem in many parts of the world, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, where most people do not own a book.

Access to printed works is even lower for people with a print disability. The World Blind Union has calculated that in developed countries only 10% of written material is accessible to people with a print disability. In developing countries, this number falls to just 1%.

“World Book and Copyright Day is an opportunity to highlight the power of books to promote our vision of knowledge societies that are inclusive, pluralistic, equitable, open and participatory for all citizens,” said Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO. “It is said that how a society treats its most vulnerable is a measure of its humanity. When we apply this measure to the availability of books to those with visual impairments and those with learning or physical disabilities (with different causes), we are confronted with what can only be described as a ‘book famine’.”

One potential solution to people’s limited access to printed materials is to make digital books and other online resources—like Wikipedia, for instance—available to them on mobile devices. Over six billion people, out of a total of seven billion on the planet, now have access to a mobile phone.

Wikipedia and accessibility

Volunteers are working to ensure that Wikipedia is available for everyone to access and contribute, including people with print disabilities. Projects within Wikimedia like Wikispeech, an open source text-to-speech solution targeted to Wikipedia, and other information-rich texts, including ebooks, aim to improve accessibility. Wikipedia also uses more general assistive technologies, like screen readers, which improve people’s ability to access and add to Wikipedia’s knowledge. A wonderful explanation of what life is like as a blind Wikipedia contributor was recently written about Graham Pearce, who shared his experiences including how it differs from sight-based contribution.

Wikipedia loves books

Whilst Wikipedia has usurped the role of print encyclopedias in many parts of the world and the vast majority of the references on Wikipedia link to other digital material, books are vital to Wikipedia. Despite most contemporary publications having some form of digital incarnations, for hundreds of years physical books offered – and still offer – a vital way to share information.

A simple search on Google Books or on more targeted research collections, like JSTOR or Project MUSE, will not provide the information found in many books. Wikipedia editors rely heavily on physical reference materials, especially when working on specialist or historical subjects. There is a huge volume of printed materials that currently have no digital representation; digitization is simply too costly and takes too long for many institutions holding these books.

Wikipedia needs free licenses

Copyright is an intrinsic part of how Wikipedia is created. The Creative Commons licenses provide two permissions that are fundamental to the functioning of Wikipedia:

  • To adapt: Wikipedia is a collaboration between tens of thousands of people working together. It is far from unusual for hundreds of people work together on a single article. Without the ability to alter other contributors’ text, Wikipedia would be unable to adapt over time.

Wikipedia needs you

For many people, their love of reading stems from specific books—whether that’s falling through portals into fictional worlds, or understanding the world in new ways through factual, non-fiction narratives.

You can help people learn more about the books you love, the characters within them, the authors who created them, and the worlds that inspired them by writing on Wikipedia. If you have never contributed to Wikipedia before, you can use our getting started guide.

You can also share knowledge within these books on Wikipedia by using them as references. This is especially important for less well-known subjects where limited information is available online. The English Wikipedia, for example, generally require that users note where they got their information by citing reliable sources, like books, so that readers can verify everything for themselves. To assist in this process, Wikipedians on many language wikis can get access to the Wikipedia Library, which has been set up to grant Wikipedia contributors free access to various online databases for the purpose of improving Wikipedia.

By contributing to Wikipedia, you will not only be helping others to discover the books you love—you will become an author yourself and work with thousands of other people to build on the largest reference work ever created.

John Cummings, Wikimedian in Residence
UNESCO