Friday, February 06, 2009

The library is now open: Google Books Mobile employs OCR and adds unintended accessibility

This latest bit of news is, well, hot off the press.

on-going quest to make the world a more searchable place, and to make all discovered content available for viewing on whatever device one is using, whether that is a computer or mobile phone, the internet search giant has learned to embrace a tool of the assistive technology trade, namely optical character recognition, or OCR.

This all came about in Google Books latest quest to put
1.5 million books in your pocket.

One of the great things about an iPhone or Android phone is being able to play Pacman while stuck in line at the post office. Sometimes though, we yearn for something more than just playing games or watching videos.

What if you could also access literature's greatest works, such as Emma and The Jungle Book, right from your phone? Or, some of the more obscure gems suchas Mark Twain's hilarious travelogue, Roughing It? Today we are excited to announce the launch of a mobile version of Google Book Search, opening up over 1.5 million mobile public domain books in the US (and over half a million outside the US) for you to browse while buying your postage.

While these books were already available on Google Book Search, these new mobile editions are optimized to be read on a small screen. To try it out and start reading, open up your web browser in your iphone or Android phone and go to

What the fine folks at Google found when taking this endeavor mobile was that the page images Google Books serves up as pictures of individual pages on a computer are quite “unwieldy” on mobile phones. To solve the dilemma, they have employed OCR to extract the text of the book pages and display this content just as it would show any other web page.

And, in the above post, Google also clearly illustrates some of the inherent imperfections blind OCR users have known about for years. Yes, some times the text comes out as gibberish. It isn’t perfect, but it works more often than not.

So, here’s the really big news in all this. Even though it was an unintended result, Google Books has finally made its material accessible to blind screen reader users. And the best news in all this is that these folks don’t even have to be using the web on a mobile device with a screen reader. All they need to do is access the
Google Books Mobile site

I just tried it on my pc and it works great. I searched for Mark Twain and clicked on
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

While it took some time for Google to discover the added value of universal design, perhaps they can now begin to see it for the benefit that it truly is. If they had just used this OCR presentation method from the inception of Google Books, the “Blind Folks Not Allowed” sign wouldn’t have been necessary.

So, even though it was an unintended result, hat’s off to Google for finally bringing accessibility to Google Books. Yes, the library is now open.


slger said...

Thanks for pointing out the improved accessibility of public domain books.

However, there is a negative side of the full Google Book Search for visually impaired researchers.
The page images remain graphic only with sparse tantalizing snippets to indicate what I cannot read. In the competitive world of grants and journal publications, this means visually impaired writers are disadvantaged when indeed a useful summary, reference, or criticism appear on those image pages.

I'm finding this a limit right now as I research responses to an important paper I co-authored in 1975. It's great to have 100 hits from book search, but I cannot read any of them!! Sure, I could buy the book or ask for it via a public library loan, but this would take forever. It's ironic that work done when I was sighted that produced a fertile branch of activity is now inaccessible to me after vision loss.

More explanations appear in "Seeing Through Google Book Search" at

I would appreciate any pointers on getting around this limitation. In the ideal, fair world, Google would work with organizations like Bookshare, as suggested by its president Jim Fruchterman. A special account or privilege associated with my account could allow sending me the OCR text by email or a separate page display. This legally permissible step would help much to avoid doing harm to competitive researchers or underserve inquiring minds with limited eyesight.

Thanks for your many useful blog posts like this.


Anonymous said...

You don't have to use the mobile version of Google Books to access the plain text for those works for which it is allowed. In regular Google Books there is a hidden image with a link, the alt text reads "Accessible Version For Screenreader Users." Following the link takes you to the page you're looking at displayed in a different interface and with the plain text instead of an image of the page.

The "magic" part of the different URL is &output=html_text. You can also add that to your URL while search Google Books and for books that allow it, you will automatically get the text instead of the image.

Ron Graham said...

Thanks for that helpful insight. Your knowledgeable information is most appreciated.