Canada and Beyond: CELA and Marrakesh

Accessible library services (CELA) 

For more than 100 years, Canadians who were blind or partially sighted and needed accessible books received their library service from charities, first the Canadian Free Library for the Blind, and later, the CNIB Library.  Canada, unlike other G8 countries, had no centralized, public model for providing alternative format materials for library loans. Decades of effort by the Canadian library community, consumer stakeholders, governments, and readers with print disabilities finally came to fruition in 2014.  Leadership by the Canadian Urban Libraries Council (CULC)/Conseil des Bibliothèques Urbaines du Canada (CBUC) paved the way for the establishment of CELA, the Centre for Equitable Library Access.

CELA is a board-governed, national not-for-profit organization run by public libraries for public libraries. The CELA mandate is to “acquire, produce, and distribute published works in alternative formats to Canadian public libraries and to provide public libraries with advice, training, and information to support their patrons’ access to and use of these collections.” Among various Canadian and international partners and suppliers, CNIB produces materials in  braille and audio, and provides delivery services and support.

Copyright exception

Only a small fraction of published material is available in alternate format versions, such as braille. It has been estimated that people who are blind or have low vision have access to only five to seven per cent of published works. Historically, one barrier to creating more alternate format reading material has been copyright.  Rights holders use copyright to protect their intellectual property from unauthorized reproduction.  In 1997, following a decade of lobbying by advocates that included former CNIB President Jim Sanders, the Canadian government amended the Copyright Act to provide exceptions permitting the production of alternative format materials while protecting the rights of publishers.  Further revisions have broadened the types of materials included in the exemption to all formats specially designed for persons with a print disability.

Marrakesh Treaty

The Marrakesh Treaty is an agreement to reduce copyright barriers that impede the creation and distribution of alternative format books around the world.  It came into effect in 2016, under the full name “Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled.” Many people with vision loss live in lower-income countries and their access to published texts in accessible formats is so limited that it has been called a “book famine.”  Countries that join the Marrakesh Treaty require their lawmakers to permit the reproduction, distribution, and making available published works in accessible formats through very specific limitations and exceptions to the rights of copyright holders.  It will also make it easier for organizations who serve people with print disabilities to share works in accessible formats across borders, thus working to end the “book famine.” Canada ratified the Treaty in June, 2016.

The library legacy

Nationally and internationally, libraries will continue to play a major role in providing accessible reading materials.  They will be key to the success of the Marrakesh Treaty because of their history of serving people with print disabilities and their large collections of accessible material.  (Critically, they are among the limited number of "authorized entities" named in the treaty that can send accessible format copies to other countries. )  At the national level, public libraries run CELA and other accessible format lending entities such as the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS).

"Our public libraries must keep in touch with you and do what we can for your cause...We can get our heads together and talk over ways and means
— W.O. Carson, 1913

As this exhibit demonstrates, libraries have supported accessible reading since the early days of the Canadian Free Library for the Blind.  The offer of assistance from London, Ontario, librarian W.O. Carson to the CFLB in 1913 shows this affinity.  As he wrote to the CFLB's Sherman Swift, "Our public libraries must keep in touch with you and do what we can for your cause.  If we can not buy books, we can keep your catalogues on hand and inform blind people of our respective constituencies regarding the books that appear in it, we might be able to assist the people in making their choices from your catalogues...I am anxious to see all classes of people have library privileges, and should like to see the blind people have the very best…We can get our heads together and talk over ways and means, and if the public libraries can do anything, we will find out what it is and try to do it."