For retired doctor Edgardo Etchevarria, reading was a lifelong habit until retinal infections took away his sight 13 years ago.
"I wasn't practicing medicine anymore and reading was the last thing I had left," Etchevarria said, lamenting the years after darkness closed in.
Now 83, the voracious reader who tackled Homer's "Odyssey" at 10 is hitting the books again thanks to Tiflolibros, Latin America's virtual library for the blind. The service sends out e-mail files that can be read aloud by synthetic voice software on the user's computer.
Named after Tiflos, an island to which the blind were banished in Greek mythology, and the Spanish word for books, the Buenos Aires-based library was the first online library for the blind and is the largest of its kind. It serves about 3,000 people in 40 countries.
Library co-founder Marta Traina said Tiflolibros had grown since its launch in 1999 to house about 20,000 works in Spanish, from bestsellers such as the "Harry Potter" series and Tom Clancy thrillers to children's books.
"Just as ordinary libraries respond to the varied interests of their readers, among our 3,000 users, there are people of many backgrounds and interests," Traina said at Tiflolibros' headquarters, where employees scan new titles into the system each day. "Some want to read crime novels, others esoteric works, still others philosophy, psychology and even children's literature."
After registering and submitting proof of visual impairment, users can search by genre, title or author for books that then are e-mailed to them as coded files that computers can convert to speech using technology developed by co-founder and blind programmer Andre Dure.
The service gives access to people who are not fluent in the Braille system of reading, and allows for large stores of titles to be converted to audio far quicker than traditional audio books.
Dure said the encryption also helped Tiflolibros, a nonprofit, stay within fair-use limits and avoid potential copyright issues.
"What the user gets is not the real text but an encoded message," he said.
A similar operation in the United States, Bookshare.org, boasts more than 31,100 titles, mostly in English, and has begun to incorporate Spanish books.
But Traina said Tiflolibros was the first online library of text-to-speech files of its scope for the Spanish-speaking world.
"The wonderful thing is to have the chance to get close to great works one always wanted to read," Traina said.
She said Tiflolibros also had become a social networking site for blind bibliophiles.
"The mailing list allows people to get to know each other, even chat online or meet," she said. "All this happens through the membership in the library."
The service is free, and "checking out" a book takes just minutes.
"Tiflolibros was a turning point," Etchevarria said. "It allowed me to keep using my brain."