Monday, May 15, 2006

It's not easy being moderate when those you love...

...I'm trying really hard not to be partisan about this. Every fire-breathing, activist, family-protecting bone in my body is crying out to make connections, analogies and cast aspersions. Consider this a post typed with clenched teeth, because this is too important for partisanship. So far.

Let me catch you up. A few days ago my spouse got a phone call from a friend who'd discovered that the Library of Congress's National Library Service for the Blind's Web-Braille service -- where the electronic braille files of professionally produced braille books can be downloaded for access by certified blind NLS users with the proper electronic equipment -- had been shut down with a simple "out of service" message. Since then there's been a flurry of speculation and consternation in the blind community: this is a fantastic service, one of those unabashed "technology makes the world better" moments which is a mainstay of braille readers in this country.

Very little information has been forthcoming from the head of the National Library Service, one Frank Kurt Cylke, in spite of calls, e-mails and letters from some very prominent leaders and educators in the field. Even American Council of the Blind president Chris Gray got evasions and even threats ("Finally, you threatened the blind community by saying that should the community protest your decision, that would only lead to delays in the
reinstatement of Web-Braille.") when he tried to figure out what the issue was.

They haven't even said why the service is closed: that's infuriating and unnecessary. It's worse than a bad reason, really: it smacks of paternalism (and if I say any more about it, my teeth might unclench....) and it's unnecessarily worrying to the community which relies so heavily on this service. All that Cylke would say was "technical and security" issues; the rumors flying around are that someone at NLS, possibly Cylke himself, finally realized that someone could translate electronic braille files back into plain text, and that plain text files running around the internet might violate copyright..... as if OCR software, scanners, libraries and photocopiers hadn't already been invented.

For now, I highly recommend Jonathan Mosen's measured comments, Chris Gray's hearty fulminations linked above, and, of course, this petition calling for the prompt restoration of service.

It's ironic: I was going to take this Google petition off my sidebar anyway, since Google introduced audio authentication for comments and blog creation. Now, instead of a nice little triumph, it's gone bad to worse.

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