Audio Book Issue in the Fairfax County Public Libraries (Fairfax, Virginia)

Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Fairfax County Public Library system is a large library system in Northern Virginia, a suburb of Washington DC. Leaders of the Fairfax Public Libraries think it's a good idea to distribute downloadable audio books to the public in Windows Media format. These digital rights managed (DRM) files will not play on Macintosh computers, GNU/Linux computers or iPods. Taxpayer funds are being used to purchase these audio books.

A friend of mine, Hal Cauthen, in the Washington Apple Pi computer club sent me an email last Wednesday night asking me to compose a song that would help this library system better understand the way their actions are discriminatory. Hal Cauthen is one of the most decent and generous persons around. He hardly ever spoils for a fight. When he asked me to compose a song, I knew I had to jump in and help.

We worked on a couple different song ideas together, and came up with this one that best expresses our point of view.

Your Audio Book Sounds Silent to Me. (Available in Ogg Vorbis, Flash and QuickTime formats.)

Okay, now the song is composed and placed on the web, what next? Alert the press. I sent an email to John Schwartz, science reporter at the New York Times. Over the years he has quoted me in the Washington Post and the New York Times on technology access and digital divide issues. That's my field of work. I work as a technology access activist -- a branch of civil rights activism. The work I do each day is centered on creating a more inclusive society.

John Schwartz has also followed-up on article suggestions I've passed along to him, sometimes writing articles on topics I thought were timely and relevant. Is he a friend of mine? No. He's a reporter whose commitment to his craft I admire.

John got back to me quickly telling me he'd look into the issue, but that his beat is more science than technology these days. If after investigating the issue he felt a news story ought to be written, he would request his editor to assign a reporter to it. That's fine. As long as someone is checking into this.

I also sent a short email to the weekend editor at, who listed the article on shortly thereafter. I alerted several reporters at Wired magazine and sent a notice to several widely read bloggers. In thinking about this fairness of treatment issue, I can't help but think of it in a historical context. Throughout the history of the United States, rights have only vested after they have been specified in law. From voting rights to gender rights to civil rights to disability rights, the rights were freely disregarded until specified in law. What's needed is a digital equal protection amendment so that this issue doesn't get revisited every time someone comes up with another bright idea.

Do you know who is getting the shortest end of this stick? The tenants in affordable housing units in Northern Virginia where GNU/Linux computer labs have been set up for them to use. Many of these tenants are hardworking immigrant families. Could the adults and children in these families benefit from greater access to audio books? You tell me. "Sorry, buster, you're a digital minority. No audio books for you. Here, let me relieve you of your taxpayer dollars all the same." How about this for irony -- one of the books currently inaccessible? Martin Luther King, Jr., On Leadership: Inspiration & Wisdom for Challenging Times, by Donald T. Phillips. I hear it's a good book.

How do I know about those GNU/Linux computer labs in affordable housing? I've volunteered there installing the EasySok logic puzzles that are fun for youth and adults to play. (See also The Educational Value of the Sokoban Logic Puzzles and SokoMind Logic Puzzles). I support the needs of those learners.

I'm also an active supporter of the new Digital Divide Network web site, which brings together people from around the world working to expand access to technology and technology training. So I've got a small favor I need to ask you. I'll be submitting a news story about this issue to Slashdot in the next few days. Considering the number of people who may be viewing the above QuickTime and Flash files, it would be helpful to have these QuickTime and Flash files on a number of "mirror" web sites. If you can upload this QuickTime to your server space, thanks for sending me the link to it. And here's a Flash version that needs to go on the web, too, as two separate files. I created this Flash version using the free version of Powerbullet Presenter.

If Slashdot runs a news story about this issue, it won't be long before the Fairfax County Public Libraries develops a better understanding about the nature of this issue. Let's hope the New York Times doesn't drop the ball. I have more faith in individual reporters at the Times than I have of the institution.

It's worth mentioning that I also sent a friendly email to technology reporter David Pogue about this issue and song. David is way overextended these days and hasn't gotten back to me. I'm still one of his biggest fan. The New York Times ought to get someone else to write Pogue's blog. Actually, the New York Times times computer blog really ought to be a group blog. I wonder if the New York Times ever thought about that. Is it too much to ask newspapers to think?

I'm going to ask you a second favor here, too. Stop by and register for an account on the Digital Divide Network web site. (It's free.) You can choose your level of involvement in this site, including none at all. Just showing up makes a difference.

The train has left the station on building a more participatory and inclusive world. Would you care to be a passenger on this train?

Phil Shapiro

The author has been an educational activist and computer user group supporter since 1986, providing help in various Macintosh, Windows and GNU/Linux user groups. He currently works for himself as an educator, writer and technology access activist. He writes most frequently on his Digital Divide Network blog ( and for the Macintosh Using Educators web site. (
He is a member of the Washington Apple Pi, Virginia Macintosh User Group, the Capital PC User Group and the Young Hacks and Scholars Libre User Group (formerly the Yorktown High School Libre User Group.) He is also an enthusiastic supporter of Community Technology Centers' Network, having been connected with that community since 1988.

For the musical inspirations involved in the composed song above, grateful thanks are owed to Folk Alley. and and Dan Hart.


Some Thoughts on the Treatment of Digital Minorities

Trying to Update the Content of this Site from a Public Library Computer (Friday, April 29, 2005)

Visually Impaired Users within the Excluded Class (Friday, April 29, 2005)

Does Using GNU/Linux Prevent Alzheimers? (Saturday, April 30, 2005)

Does Using Macs Prevent Alzheimers? (Saturday, April 30, 2005)

I'm currently assembling a list of person who feel this issue is of concern. If you are an educator, civil rights activist, consumer advocate, disabilities rights activist, public policy person, law professor, judge, brain researcher, neuroscientist, student leader or other person who would like to appear on this list, thanks for letting me know. To have your name added to the list you do have to provide a link to your web site address or blog.

I appreciate the supportive emails I've received already from MacArthur Award winner Richard Stallman and others. Your input has made this web site stronger and has helped me grow in my understanding.

I'm also conducting Skype interviews on this subject, which will be appearing here for people to listen to in a sound format that is not excluding.

Project Gutenberg Audio eBooks looks like a good starting point for libraries wanting to offer downloadable audio books. They should probably be using the Ogg Vorbis audio encoding format. (Thanks, RMS.)

The Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act of 2005 is a step in the right direction in addressing the issues raised by the Fairfax County Public Library system.

My 40-word quote on this issue: "Disparity of access to educational materials cannot be tolerated in the digital realm. In particular, public institutions need to be unswervingly neutral in file format wars. Anything less, and a new digital divide will arise. One that was entirely preventable."