Signing Books Handbook

by: Liesbeth Pyfers
in co-operation with
* Bencie Woll
* Rita Bruning
* Thomas Handke
* Constanze Schmaling

Original text: 1999


In 1997, we optimistically wrote that we were going to improve the quality, quantity, accessibility and cost-effectiveness of signing books for Deaf people in the EU (Project proposal, Signing Books for the Deaf, 1997). We were going to do this by producing guidelines and a manual for the production and distribution of videos and CD-ROMs in sign language, in the EU.

At this stage, two years later and wiser, we realise that we are not the persons to realise these objectives, or more accurately: our dream.

We wrote the manual - you are reading it now – but it is you, the readers of this manual: producers, signers, editors, cameramen, viewers, teachers, etc. – to whom we now pass on our dream of more signing books in all countries of the EU, better signing books, reasonably priced signing books, and national and international catalogues and databases so that everyone knows what’s available and where.

Please help us realise the Signing Books objectives: if there are no signing books in your country: ask for them! Let relevant authorities know that signing books are needed, show that there is a real demand for information in sign language, for signing books in your country. If there are some, or many signing books in your country: co-operate nationally and internationally, share expertise and resources, collaborate on productions! Please help us realise our dream.

Our Resources

The Signing Books project started in January 1998 and ended in December 1999. The project team consisted of 4 organisations, and 7 part-time individuals. Most of us had never actually produced a signing book. Each of us however, brought along an extensive network of friends, colleagues and acquaintances, who in one way or another were participants or stakeholders in the signing books field.

During the project, we managed to add a considerable number of experts to our network. It was the people in this network who provided the base material for these guidelines. They showed us their productions, told us about the production process, problems, solutions, and ‘unresolved issues’: things that were done in one way or the other, without anyone having the resources to investigate other, possibly better ways. 

We tried to resolve some of these issues. We made prototypes, showed these to over 300 viewers in 3 countries, asked them for their preferences, tested them for comprehension. The outcomes of all these activities are synthesised in the guidelines that you find in this manual.

Our Target Group

This manual was written for many different groups of readers, with very different backgrounds: for people who have already been involved in the production of videos in sign language for many years; for persons who are totally new in this field; for experienced video producers who are new to the field of sign language productions; for experienced sign language narrators, who now want to publish their stories on video; for schools for the Deaf, who want to produce educational materials in sign language; for parents’organisations, who want to publish signing books for their children; for people in the EU, but also of course for anyone else who is interested in signing books.

It probably would have been more effective to write a number of manuals: each made to measure for a specific group of readers, because one size hardly ever really fits all. Unfortunately, our resources wouldn’t stretch that far.This manual therefore demonstrates what is probably the most important guideline of all: find the best balance or compromise between what you want to do, and what you can do. 

The ‘market’ for signing books is relatively small, the production and distribution costs are relatively high, almost all productions need outside funding, and the funding you receive hardly ever equals the funding that you need and applied for. But please, don’t let this stop you!

In our case: since we were not able to write a number of manuals made to measure, we wrote one manual in which we included as much information as possible, hoping that each reader will at least find something of value that will fit his or her individual circumstances.

Each chapter starts with a summary of absolute minimum background information for anyone who wants to work in this field. The main text of each chapter gives practical advice: it describes what we’ve learned from experienced producers and viewers of signing books. Each chapter ends with a number of examples: samples from productions and samples from our research data that we’ve included for inspiration, consideration, and comparison.


 Low budget productions

In many countries, and for many organisations: low budget – or even no budget – productions are the reality. If this applies to you: use these guidelines not to the letter – actually, no one should do that – but in its spirit. Minimal requirements for any production are: a good story or good information, and a good signer. That is: someone who has good sign language skills, a good understanding of the material to be presented, and who is experienced with the target group. 

Set high standards for your signers, your stories, your information, and be creative in how you meet these standards. With those essential ingredients taken care of, you can ‘make do’ with a basic camera set-up, lights, scenery, and minimal editing. 

The main complaint of the viewers we consulted was: there are not enough videobooks to choose from, we want more! Some of the best written stories and the most useful printed information are not found in beautiful glossy hardcover books, but on hand-written, faxed, or photocopied pages or in desktop publications. So take heart: not all video has to be broadcast quality!

However, a reader can see on the outside if a book is a low-budget or home-made production; a reader can browse through a text, before buying. In comparison, videos and CD-ROMs are ‘black boxes’. Usually, you have to buy before you can see what’s inside. For all productions, both low and high budget, it’s bad policy to disappoint your customers. Show clearly on the outside of the video or CD-ROM, as well as in your advertisements, what sort of production you’ve made, so viewers will know what they are buying.


This manual describes the production and publication of signing books. A separate document, Del. 4.1, consists of scenarios for the distribution of signing books (by mail, television, and/or internet). Other Signing Books documents describe the state of the art of signing books in the EU (Del. 3.1), the prototypes that were developed for the Signing Books project (Del.5.1), and the results of user tests in Germany, Great Britain, and the Netherlands (Del. 6.1).

This manual is not finished. It represents the knowledge and expertise we’ve accumulated in two very short years, in a period of time in which the field of signing books productions was undergoing rapid changes. More and more people are becoming involved. Videobooks in sign language are becoming available in more and more countries, and are becoming more generally accepted as alternatives to printed information for Deaf sign language users. New media are becoming available. Viewers are becoming more aware, more experienced, and more critical.

This manual is published on the internet where everyone can use it. We hope that the 1999 issue will soon be outdated, and will become a curiosity ‘from the previous century’. We hope you will keep us informed of new developments and new productions. We will try to find ways to continue to add to and update the signing books knowledge base, to keep it alive and growing.


These guidelines are not to be read as a ‘do-it-yourself’ manual. Even if you learn this manual by heart, we still do not guarantee that you will be able to produce a good quality signing book.

These guidelines are not to be read as prescriptions. As we said before: one size never fits all. The guidelines present you with several, and often many, alternative ways in which things can be done. Which alternative is most appropriate for you and your production, is for you to decide. 

If you’re not sure, consult with your target group. And always check with them afterwards. With each production, you’ll get a better view of what does, or does not fit your particular target group. Don’t be discouraged by the many problems, barriers, and difficulties we’ve catalogued for you. The best way to learn is to go ahead, and to learn while you’re working. 

To cheer you up: the complaint that was expressed most often by your (potential) customers was: there aren’t enough signing books, we need more!If you’ve followed all our guidelines to the letter, and still you haven’t even been nominated for an Oscar, and you’re still not able to buy the mansion next to Steven Spielberg’s: we’re very sorry, but please keep trying!

Liesbeth Pyfers

February 2000


 Update 2009  

The old Signing Books website was hopelessly outdated. The objectives, however, are not. Some of the guidelines are still useful.

I've updated the website, the content remains the same. 

Liesbeth Pyfers

December 2009