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Smart Libraries Q&A: Magnifying print

Smart Libraries Newsletter [January 2019]


We've recently had several patrons ask for technology to magnify documents and print books. What's the best tech for this (portable, desktop computer peripheral, and/or standalone)?

Libraries naturally want to make their materials easily used by all the individuals they serve, including those with disabilities. Assistive technologies are available to help persons with different types of disabilities.

For those with visual disabilities different levels of technical help is available. For those with no or very limited eyesight, for example, screen readers convert text into spoken language. Commercial products commonly used in libraries include the JAWS screen reader and Open Book text reader, both from Freedom Scientific.

Returning to the question at hand, many individuals have some degree of visual limitation and benefit from magnifying the size of text. Magnification can be accomplished in different ways, depending on whether the text is in print or on a digital device.

The National Library Service for the blind and physically handicapped of the Library of Congress maintains the reference guide “Assistive Technology Products for Information Access,” which lists products and devices across multiple categories.[1]

This guide includes the category of “portable video magnifiers,” which can be used to magnify the text of a book or document.

Several approaches are available to help those with low vision view magnified text. In a library context, it is probably helpful to have a desktop unit that can be used with library materials, such as books or documents. The material is placed on the device and the device displays the magnified text on the attached screen display. The user would be able to pan through the document to read the text and control the level of magnification. An example of this type of device is the TOPAZ desktop video magnifier, available through Freedom Scientific.

Portable video magnifiers are also available, which may be well suited for personal use. Handheld devices are available that are quite portable but may be more suitable for magnifying text for quick reference than for sustained reading. The RUBY handheld video magnifier falls into this category.

Smartphones can also provide adequate video magnification for some purposes. The Apple iPhone, for example, has a built-in magnifier function. This feature is not enabled by default but can be activated through the accessibility tab in general settings. Once activated, a triple click on the home button opens the camera app with a variable magnification slider. Magnifying glass apps are also available for Android devices. Like other portable magnifiers, this approach can be used for quick tasks such as reading the fine print on a label but would be tedious for reading an entire book.

Many more magnification options are possible with digital text and devices. When implemented according to current standards, text in a digital context can be easily magnified to meet the needs of persons with low vision. Desktop computers and portable devices give the option to set the default size of text, a great help to those not able to read small print. Many e-book readers and smartphones also include features for verbal reading of text on the screen. Again, using the iPhone as an example, text-to-speech capability is activated in the accessibility section of general settings. Once activated, a two-finger swipe gesture from the top of the screen initiates verbal reading of the text on the page.

It's important for library websites and content resources to follow current standards for accessibility. Following these standards ensures that the text can be scaled to the size needed, can be navigated easily without a mouse, and can be processed by screen-reading software. Section 508 of the United States Rehabilitation Act specifies the requirements for websites, digital content, and devices to be accessible by persons with disabilities. Libraries using reasonably current technologies to develop and deploy their websites will be compliant with these standards.

These are just examples of the technologies available. Libraries interested in setting up a suite of assistive technologies would want to perform a more systematic review of the disabilities they intend to address and the products available. Libraries interested in providing a diverse set of assistive services may want to work with a specialist in this field that can help identify needs, select and implement the best array of products, and train library personnel on their use.


  1. “Assistive Technology Products for Information Access,” National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress, accessed December 18, 2018, ness-and-vision-impairment/devices-aids/assistive-technology-products-information-access/.
View Citation
Publication Year:2019
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 39 Number 01
Issue:January 2019
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Record Number:24088
Last Update:2023-01-25 10:48:20
Date Created:2019-03-06 13:04:54