The online library of free books for students with disabilities was co-founded by computer science professor Gary Bishop and Director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies Karen Erickson. Since its founding in 2008, the site has seen a huge increase in users — all without a single dollar spent on advertising.
Kevin Jeffay, chairperson of the computer science department, said TarHeelReader.org has seen such widespread success partly due to buzz spread by fans of the site.
“(Bishop and Erickson) built this thing, and they put it out there, and teachers started writing books, and pretty much by word-of-mouth, this thing spread across the globe,” he said.
Bishop said the site was built with a focus on children with visual impairments, but later it was used by students with other disabilities.
“Most of our users have motor impairment or cognitive impairment,” he said. “They can’t handle a conventional book.”
The collaborative project began with no funding and a goal of eventually hosting 1,000 books on the site. This goal was surpassed within months, and now, nine years later, the site hosts over 50,000 books written in 27 different languages.
Bishop said he is still in disbelief about the rate at which the site has grown.
“When we started it, I had no idea it would get this big,” he said.
By incorporating an easy-to-use online form on the site itself, he said the creators have made it possible for anyone to write a book of his or her own and post it to the site.
“The key thing is that it enables civilians to create the books easily,” he said.
Jeffay said projects like TarHeelReader.org are exactly what the computer science department encourages its faculty to develop.
“It all fits into the model of research for this department, which is to work with others to solve real world problems,” he said.
TarHeelReader.org has encouraged students from around the world to read, including a fourth-grader named Leo who cannot hold a book on his own and uses a speech generating device to communicate.
“I like the Tar Heel Reader because it’s free!” he said over email. “My favorite book is ‘I Love Roller Coasters’!”
Erickson said she has high hopes for the future of the website.
“We’d also like more really smart young people to make more books for us because over and over again when you look at the books that are most widely read on the site, they’re always written by other young people,” she said. “And they tend to be written by young people who don’t have any disabilities at all; they just decided to write a book to make the world a better place.”