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Accessing Resources

Cambridge libraries: accessibility & disability

A guide to library accessibility services for students

What are accessible readings?

Some people find it difficult or impossible to use some books, journals or other publications in the format in which they are provided by the libraries. Not everything you need to read will be available electronically, and some ebooks and other eresources might not work well with assistive technology, due to licensing restrictions or design issues on third-party websites.

You might need accessible versions of books, articles etc. to work with. The information on this page explains how we can help you with this.

Alternate Formats Service

What is the Alternate Formats Service?

If you have a Student Support Document (SSD) from the Disability Resource Centre which recommends access to alternate library formats, the Libraries Accessibility Service can usually obtain or create accessible digital formats of publications held in the libraries for your own personal use, either by using RNIB Bookshare (see RNIB Bookshare box below for how this works at Cambridge), contacting publishers or digitising library copies (subject to conservation approval for older or fragile material).

We are usually able to obtain or produce PDF and Word files, and may also be able to obtain epub and DAISY formats, depending on the source. In some circumstances we can provide audio formats, although in most cases these will be automatically generated from text and use a synthetic voice. If you require other formats, please contact us to discuss this.

Do I qualify for the Alternate Formats Service?

The Equality Act 2010 and the Copyright and Related Rights (Marrakesh Treaty etc) (Amendment) Regulations 2018 are the two pieces of legilsation which require and allow us to obtain/make accessible copies of copyrighted works for students whose disability prevents them from using those works in the format provided by the libraries to the same extent as students without a disability.

If the libraries provide a copy of a work, and you think that you would benefit from an alternate format due to a disability, please contact the Disability Resource Centre for a referral to this service.

If you do not qualify for copyright-exempt copying, please make sure that you observe the usual copyright and licensing restrictions when printing, photocopying, downloading or scanning library resources.

How do I request alternate formats?

Please email the Libraries Accessibility Service to request alternate formats of titles held in Cambridge libraries. Try to give full details, including any specific editions required (a permalink to the iDiscover record is really helpful and saves typing). Some publishers may take several weeks to respond to requests, so please try to request titles as soon as you know that you need them.

Can I share files provided for my use with other people?

Any files that we obtain or create for you are strictly for your own use. Please do not share them in any way.


RNIB Bookshare

Bookshare is a UK-hosted online resource offered by the Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB), which provides a UK education collection for print-disabled learners including those with visual impairments, learning disabilities, or physical disabilities which significantly affect the use of printed materials.  

Textbooks, academic monographs, and other materials are available via Bookshare, and there are currently over 700,000 titles to choose from. A range of accessible formats are offered via the website, these can be read electronically or adapted to suit the personal reading needs of learners.

Cambridge University has signed up to Bookshare. Print-disabled students who are registered with the Disability Resource Centre can contact the Libraries Accessibility Service to be registered for a personal Bookshare account allowing you to search for and access/download files independently. Alternatively, we are happy to download files on your behalf.

Convert inaccessible files yourself using SensusAccess

SensusAccess is a free, self-service facility designed to allow disabled students and staff (or those supporting them) at the University of Cambridge to create accessible alternative formats of inaccessible digital documents. Using SensusAccess you can convert PDFs, JPEGs and other files into an e-book, text file, Word file, audio or braille. Further information and e-training is available. There is no need to register for this service.

Audio formats

Currently, the availability to libraries of downloadable academic audiobooks is poor. We can't buy from vendors such as Audible as their audiobooks are sold to individuals and not on a library model. However, we are monitoring developments in this area.

For print-disabled students, in the vast majority of cases, we are limited to providing accessible text-based documents that can be read with a screen reader, or generating mp3 files for you using automated conversion tools.

If you would like to try getting your computer to read books out to you, there are a number of free screen reading tools available to try which should work with Digital Rights Management (DRM)-free electronic resources. This includes most journal articles and a growing number of ebooks. For an explanation of DRM and DRM-free, see the ebooks LibGuide. Additionally, VLeBooks (link opens in new tab) has an inbuilt screen reading option in Read Online mode.

See the Assistive technology and Eresource platforms sections of this LibGuide for further information.

Copyright information

Other than when the disability copyright exemption allows full books to be copied for individual use, under copyright law only a limited amount of a book or other type of publication can be copied. Copying includes photocopying or scanning physical resources and printing, downloading or copy/pasting electronic resources.

You can copy part of a book/journal under the fair dealing exception for private study and non-commercial research. You can make a single copy to the following limits:

  • one chapter of a book OR
  • up to a max of 5% of the whole of the book OR
  • one article of a journal issue OR
  • one article from an issue of a newspaper OR
  • one paper of one set of conference proceedings OR
  • one report of one case from a book of law reports

For more information on fair dealing exceptions in the UK please see the relevant pages of the Intellectual Property Office.

Citing alternate formats

If you use alternate formats to books and other materials, you may not be able to exactly follow the referencing guidelines required by your department or module. For example, some formats – e.g. Word, epub – don’t have fixed pagination which matches the original publication. Audio formats lack page numbers altogether of course.

You should check with your department or tutor and agree on a form of referencing that works for both of you. There are established alternatives to citing page numbers (for example, citing the paragraph or section number) within the main referencing schemes which you could consider.

General guidance on citing ebooks without fixed pagination is available from the ebooks LibGuide. You can also find referencing advice by department on our Reference Management LibGuide.

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