Monday, 10 October 2011

Spotlight On: Large Print Books and Frederick A. Thorpe

Large print books barely cross the mind of most readers, or so I thought. A more accurate statement would be that large print books barely cross the mind of most readers until later in life. That’s because the major cause of vision impairment around the world and in Australia is ageing. If you think that this won’t be a problem for you, it might be wise to think again. The hard truth is that in excess of 161 million people worldwide are visually impaired (A Guide to Australian Eye Health, 2009) and 52% of the Australian population report eyesight problems (ABS National Health Survey, 2007-08). Put simply, 1 in every 2 Australians will suffer from visual impairment of some kind at some stage. For a large percentage of us the minor visual impairment we will encounter will not result in having to read large print books, but there is still a decent chunk of the reading population that will have to. Having to read large print books isn’t the end of the world. In fact, I’m sure most people who read large print books are just grateful they exist at all. What is a little disheartening is the availability of titles in large print format. According to the Availability of Accessible Publications study, only 4.4% of titles published in the UK between 1999 and 2003 were reproduced in an alternative format (LISU Occasional Paper No. 35, May 2005). This figure is just a drop in the ocean and it includes other alternative formats, like audio books. It would be easy to focus this piece on the availability issues surrounding large print books, but I’d much prefer to dwell on the positive. Given that quite a few of us are, or will be, the target market of large print books, I thought it might be nice to provide a brief history and introduce you to the pioneer of the format, a little known Englishman by the name of Frederick Thorpe.

My research on when the first large print book was published yielded some confusing results. There were some sources that stated the first large print book was published in 1914, but none provided actual evidence to back-up their claims. What most historians seem to agree on is that the first large print books produced in the English language in bulk were published in 1964 in Leicester, England. The publisher was a former book and magazine printer and publisher by the name of Frederick A. Thorpe. Thorpe wasn’t the first person to recognise the need for a larger format book for elderly readers with poor eyesight. In fact, the book industry had been talking about the need for such books for almost 20 years, but nothing had come to fruition as most felt that large print books wouldn’t be a financial success. Thorpe came at the idea from a different angle and decided that though there were risks involved, the best way to make the idea commercially viable would be to produce the books for libraries. Thus, Thorpe became the founder, and subsequent world leader in large print book publications with the formation of his non-profit organisation, Ulverscroft Large Print Books Limited.

In the early years, Thorpe produced large print books that were about twice the physical size of a regular book and the type inside was also about twice the size of the original publication. The books were colour coded according to their genre and had very simply designed dust jackets. However by 1969, after realising that the format of his books were too bulky for his elderly readers, Thorpe began to publish the books in regular sized bindings and came up with a standard 16-point type. This change in design marked the real take-off point for Ulverscroft. The new formatting made the books user-friendly for readers, but more importantly from a business perspective, the new format made the books more durable and shelf-friendly for libraries all over the world. Since these humble beginnings, Ulverscroft Large Print Books Limited, now known as the Ulverscroft Group, has purchased many other large print companies around the world and has diversified their product line to include talking books as well. Whilst many readers now buy Ulverscroft large print books themselves, libraries were the prime buyer of the Ulverscroft product back in the 1960s and they still are today. The non-profit side of Thorpe’s business is still alive today under the name, The Ulverscroft Foundation, a charity based in the UK that aim’s to provide help and support to the visually impaired.

Many other large print companies exist across the globe today and whilst the plain dust jacket that characterised the original Ulverscroft publications in 1964 are still the standard, increasingly many more publishers are giving their large print books the same look and feel as their originals with more elaborate cover art. In terms of inclusion, this seems like a positive move, but what interests me the most about the future is the impact of e-book technology. The ability for the reader of an e-book to increase and decrease type size at will makes them almost indiscriminate. From a publisher’s point of view, one could argue that large print books are becoming redundant. Why go to the trouble of publishing them and catering for a niche market, when the e-book supposedly caters for all? With the existence of libraries themselves also under threat, it makes me wonder what kind of future is in store for the large print book. What I do know is that for almost 50 years, the pioneering work of Frederick Thorpe has meant that the world of books has remained open to many a visually impaired reader, and that ain’t bad.

NB: If you’re a reader of large print books you might like to check out the Reading Habit Online Second Hand Bookstore catalogue. We always have large print books in stock (predominantly ex-library) and they start from about $4.50 AUD. You might also consider buying in bulk and saving on postage.

References
Australian Bureau of Statistics National Health Survey (2007-08)
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, A Guide to Australian Eye Health Data, 2nd edition (2009), (http://www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=6442468311&tab=2)
Loughborough University, Availability of Accessible Publications, LISU Occasional Paper No. 35, May 2005, (http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/ls/lisu/pages/publications/aap_op35.html)
The Ulverscroft Foundation, How the Ulverscroft Foundation Began, (http://www.foundation.ulverscroft.com/foundation1.html)