Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Development of Digital Libraries for Blind and Visually Impaired People

Jennie Craven reports on the IFLA/SLB conference in Washington in August 2001.

The 2001 IFLA pre-conference SLB took place in Washington with a theme of Digital Libraries for the Blind and the Culture of Learning in the Information Age [1]. Papers delivered at the 2001 conference were from a wide range of subjects relating to digital libraries for the blind. Subject areas included meeting the educational needs of children and youth through libraries for the blind, digital library services and education, creating inclusive models of service and building small digital libraries for the blind.

This report will focus on a selection of papers looking at how the development of the Internet and web-based technologies can be used to increase information choices for people who are blind and to enhance a culture of learning in the information age. Further details about the conference can be found on the IFLA SLB web site [2].

As a tool for the delivery of library services the Internet should offer increasing possibilities to users who are print disabled. It should enable people to access information in a format that is appropriate to their needs, which could be in a braille or audio format, or through assistive technologies. These may include speech output, braille output, tactile devices or even just through simple adjustments to a browser. Despite growing technological developments, however, a paper on Future library services: developing research skills among blind students [3] reveals that only a small percentage of documents are actually made available in accessible formats. According to Miesenberger, the availability of documents in accessible formats is the way forward for library services for print disabled users and these formats should be distributed in better ways with more emphasis on the accessibility of non-textual parts of the document such as calculations, complex structures and figures, for print-disabled students. The paper goes on to describe the Austrian Network on Research Teaching and Service Provision for Print Disabled People (i3s3), which is an Austrian wide institute comprising five universities, most of which include the library, who co-operate in a network of distributed competencies.

The i3s3 has been working in co-operation with the University Library Graz and the Institute for German Literature Studies of the University of Innsbruck, on the Austrian Virtual Library ALO (Austrian Literature Online). This service not only provides a standard virtual library system, but also aims to integrate blind and visually impaired students into the mainstream university by focusing on accessibility issues relating to service provision, the aim being for all Austrian universities to join the network to enhance service delivery and to enable access for all print disabled students in Austria.

The needs of blind and visually impaired users are further explored in a paper entitled Education on the job [4], which poses the question: are the services offered by the library are essential to the blind information professional? The paper suggests that in order to increase the career opportunities for blind people there is a need for libraries for the blind to increase their collections of non-fiction and reference books and that these collections need to be provided in different formats. Electronic formats in particular are needed and should include ‘web-based electronic text documents, links to other digital resources on the Internet and commercial licensed reference databases’ [4] so that libraries do not have to acquire all this content themselves, but should simply build links via the library web site to content that is held elsewhere.

The type of library described in Chevalier’s paper is already becoming more of a reality both in mainstream library services and in library services for the blind and examples are given in several papers. Placing library service for the blind in the community [5], for example, describes how the Internet is used by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) library to make its national network of information available through VISUNET (which includes VisuCAT, VisuNews and VisuTEXT services). VisuCAT is the CNIB library’s online catalogue, which not only provides users with book details but also (for registered users or institutions) facilities to request books. Access to electronic texts are offered through the VisuTEXT service and web access to Canadian newspapers via VisuNews (also available via the telephone).

Another example is given in a paper on the Future of lifelong learning in the next generation of library services [6]. This looks at how the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress (NLS) is making use of the Internet to deliver a number of its services. The delivery of Braille, for example, has been made available to users via the Internet since 1999 using the Web-Braille system. The system currently has approximately 1,500 users and 3,800 titles - and these numbers are growing. Users can search the NLS catalogue for items and can limit their searches to Web-Braille titles. In 2001 further developments to the system made braille magazines available via Web-Braille.

Integration of blind and visually impaired people into schools, universities and training centres is being considered through projects such as BrailleNet which is described in a paper on Digital document delivery for the blind in France [7]. BrailleNet looks at the potential of the Internet for digital document delivery and aims to achieve integration through the development of assistive technologies and teaching materials which are made accessible on the Web. The delivery of adapted books to visually impaired people is further enabled through co-operation with publishers, adaptation centres and printing centres. BrailleNet also provides advice and guidelines for web designers (based on the recommendations of the W3C/WAI) through their publication ‘Better access to the World Wide Web for blind and partially sighted people’. This document defines what is meant by the term ‘accessible’ and then goes on to describe how to make an accessible site including examples and resources for further reading.

Despite the examples given in these papers of how Internet technology can be used to improve the delivery of services to blind and visually impaired people, it should be remembered that technological advances are not necessarily experienced world-wide. This was addressed to some extent in a section on the need to consider low budget solutions to building digital libraries for the blind. This section was particularly pertinent to an international conference such as IFLA, where delegates from libraries in less developed countries do not experience the technological advances enjoyed by others. Papers in this section included advice on some simple techniques to enhance Internet use - not only through accessible web design but also through simple screen enhancement features such as increasing the font size and changing the colour contrasts [8].

Consideration given to the fact that there are different levels of technical development throughout the world is just one issue which requires further exploration and understanding. Two papers in particular brought home the fact that many countries still have a very long way to go, not only in technological terms, but terms of attitude and culture. In One student’s experience in the developing world, a young blind student from Zimbabwe described how as a child she did not expect to receive any kind of education at all, and that her parents initially ‘could only envisage a future for me begging on the streets, since this is the usual fate of the blind’ [9]. Fortunately however, her parents wanted her to have an education and as a result of determination and support she was able to attend school and managed to receive an education which led to a scholarship in Australia.

Attitudes towards blind people in Mexico were brought to attention of delegates in a presentation on the social integration of persons with disabilities [10]. This presentation described how blind people in Mexico are generally excluded from society and certainly not expected to receive any kind of a formal education. These problems emphasise that before technology can be considered, some fundamental attitudes regarding blind and visually impaired people still need to be overcome. Dick Tucker of the Force Foundation in the Netherlands, reinforced this with a presentation of the achievements of many blind and visually impaired people around the world who have managed to progress and succeed in life, often with their local library being the main support mechanism.

Fortunately the experience in many countries is a more positive one, as demonstrated in papers featured in this report. Other papers relating to the conference theme included work on how libraries for the blind are meeting the education needs of children and youth through the work of the CNIB KidsWorthy service [11]. Issues relating to digital library services and education were identified by Connaway [12] and were addressed in papers relating to the move from analogue to digital. Kerscher’s paper on the work of the DAISY Consortium reported moves towards the integration of DAISY standards for talking books into mainstream ebook standards such as the Open eBook Forum (OeBF). The DAISY Consortium strive to keep accessibility issues to the forefront of ebook developments and feel that ‘as long as the disability community participates in the OeBF’s activities, accessibility concerns will be honored’ [13]. Finally, creating inclusive models of service were presented in papers describing the UK experience of working towards a vision of a national service [14] and the development of partnerships between public or government agencies and non-profit organisations [15].

The final day included break-out sessions to discuss the ‘top ten issues’ relating to the conference theme. These included Braillle and electronic text development, connecting students and information, mainstreaming library services for blind and print disabled users, and technology for users in the digital age. The sessions involved some lively discussion and enabled delegates from around the world to share a wide range of experiences, developments and ideas.

I would like to pass on my thanks to the IIS John Campbell Trust who provided funding through the John Campbell Conference/Travel Bursary to enable me to attend the conference. Thanks also to Steve Prine at the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress for his advice.

The International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) Section of Libraries for the Blind (SLB) was established in 1983 as a forum for libraries for the blind to gather and address common issues. It is concerned with the delivery of library services to blind and other print disabled users and its main purpose is to promote national and international co-operation. Since its establishment, IFLA SLB has held expert meetings and training events throughout Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe. It participates in the annual IFLA conference and also in a bi-annual pre-IFLA conference for the Section.


  1. Digital libraries for the blind and the culture of learning in the information age, conference proceedings of the IFLA SLB Pre-Conference, Washington DC, United States of America, August 13-15 2001. IFLA/SLB, 2001.
  2. The IFLA SLB web site is at: http://ifla.inist.fr/VII/s31/slb.htm
  3. Miesenberger, K. Future library services: developing research skills among blind students (In: ref.1.)
  4. Chevalier, G. Education on the job: is library service essential to the blind professional? (In: ref.1.)
  5. Paterson, S. Placing library service for the blind in the community. (In: ref.1.)
  6. Sung, C. The future of lifelong learning in the next generation of library services. (In: ref.1.)
  7. Burger, D. BrailleNet: digital document delivery for the blind in France. (In: ref.1.)
  8. Craven, J. Making use of the Internet: simple techniques to consider. (In: ref.1.)
  9. Khanda, N. One student’s experience in the developing world. (In: ref.1.)
  10. Guzman, M. The social integration of persons with disabilities in Mexico and the impact of libraries on their learning (not published in proceedings)
  11. Owen, V. From mother goose to Euripides: reading in the formative years.(In: ref.1.)
  12. Connaway, L. S. Bringing electronic books into the digital library: identifying the issues. (In: ref.1.)
  13. Kerscher, G. Microsoft and DAISY: Transforming access to information for students and working adults. (In: ref.1.)
  14. Owen, D. The UK experience: towards a vision of national service. (In: ref.1.)
  15. Studley, J. Citizen Partnership leads to establishment of EASY grants for adaptive technologies. (In: ref.1.)

Author Details

Jenny Craven
Research Fellow.
CERLIM: Centre for Research in Library and Information Management
Manchester Metropolitan University
Email: j.craven@mmu.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.mmu.ac.uk/h-ss/dic/people/jcrhome.htm