Already singed by the state plan to downsize Philadelphia's branch library for the blind, the Free Library of Philadelphia has now been sued by four blind patrons who cannot use the library's new electronic book readers.

The lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, said that the e-reader lending program, begun in November at the main library off Logan Square, uses devices that are not accessible to the blind.

And that violates the rights of blind people under the federal Rehabilitation Act and Americans With Disabilities Act, the lawsuit contends.

"For the first time," reads the lawsuit, "there exist commercially available portable e-book readers that allow blind and sighted readers to use the same means of accessing the written word and get the same content. By choosing to lend inaccessible devices, the library discriminates against its blind patrons and segregates them needlessly from its programs and activities."

Free Library spokeswoman Sandy Horrocks said she could not comment about the lawsuit's claims because they are part of litigation.

The lawsuit comes at a time when library managers are trying to deal with the state's decision to dramatically reduce the collection and staff of the Free Library's branch for the Blind and Physically Handicapped at Ninth and Walnut Streets. The lawsuit is not related to that issue.

The branch, founded in 1882 and the nation's oldest library serving the blind, is being merged with a branch in Pittsburgh, and most of its collection is headed west.

"We really do care about our blind members, and we've been working with them on this," Horrocks said.

The Philadelphia branch serves about 16,000 blind people east of the Susquehanna River. The branch in Pittsburgh serves about 8,000.

The library's e-reading lending program began as a pilot in November involving the purchase of 65 Barnes & Noble Nook "Simple Touch" models using $25,000 in federal funds.

Promoted to "bridge the digital divide" between young and old library patrons, the Nook program is available for loan to people over 50. Each Nook reader is loaded with 25 books — best sellers and classics. Librarians can add others from the library's collection of e-book titles.

The named plaintiffs — Denice Brown, Karen Comorato, and Patricia Grebloski of Philadelphia, and Antoinette Whaley of Ardmore — are all blind and Free Library members, the lawsuit says.

Plaintiffs' attorney Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum, with the Baltimore firm of Brown, Goldstein & Levy, said it was the first suit challenging the increasing use of e-books by libraries nationwide.

Though the lawsuit is new, Krevor-Weisbaum said the federal departments of Justice and Education, the National Federation of the Blind, the Reading Rights Coalition, and the American Library Association had warned libraries for at least two years "that the law prohibited libraries from buying and lending inaccessible e-reading devices."

The NFB and the Reading Rights Coalition wrote specifically to the Free Library of Philadelphia in November 2009 telling officials that e-readers needed be accessible to all patrons.

"The law does not exempt pilot programs," Krevor-Weisbaum said. She added that the library plans to expand the program to four other branches this month.

Although some makers of e-readers make devices that can be used by the blind, both Krevor-Weisbaum and Horrocks said they did not know of any offered by Barnes & Noble's Nook.

Mary Ellen Keating, a spokeswoman for Barnes & Noble, said the company "is actively working to increase the usability of our products and services." She added that a Nook Study application is available that includes text-to-speech support and other features "for those with cognitive, speech and/or motor impairments."

Krevor-Weisbaum said that using e-readers that are accessible to the blind would also benefit others with "print disabilities."

Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985,, or follow @joeslobo on Twitter.