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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

VISUNET: A Vision of Virtual Library Service for the Blind

Rosemary Kavanagh,
Executive Director
CNIB Library for the Blind


Barbara Freeze,
Systems and Operations
CNIB Library for the Blind


While libraries serving the blind are addressing the next generation of talking books the greatest issue facing the print disabled community they serve has not changed in centuries. It is the paucity of resources to support cultural or information needs for life long learning purposes. For example the holdings of the union catalogue of alternate format materials started by the Library of Congress and including over five countries and all the major institutions in Canada and the USA, lists over 250,000 titles. A single community of over half a million people, Toronto, is served by The Toronto Public Library which has over 300,000 titles. If, as Melvil Dewey said the library is the 'people's university' then, in the age of information, the 'people's university' for the blind is resource poor. Librarians serving the print disabled community like Sisyphus rolling his stone up the hill, never getting it to the top, face insurmountable obstacles in achieving benchmarks similar to libraries serving the general population.

Today we live both in the information age and the global village which means that technology disseminates information in seconds and we can be in someone's village on the other side of the world in a matter of hours. These developments, while exciting, challenge current assumptions about service delivery. The Library of Congress's National Digital Library Program aims to digitize 5,000,000 items by the year 2000 and many major libraries across the world, including Canada, are developing similar digital libraries. What do these initiatives have in common with the Gutenberg Project whose founder regards himself as the electronic Robin Hood, "sowing the Internet with books for the global proletariat" , and whose ambition is to give away 1 trillion etext files or books by 2001? Both recognize education and information as fundamental to literacy, independence, employability and self development and more importantly to individual empowerment. Both want the public to have greater access to information than ever before and want to move libraries from being warehouses for information to actively disseminating it. These developments signal rapidly changing circumstances for all libraries although their purpose, which is enabling the client to find the best material in the shortest time frame, has not changed.

In these circumstances, can libraries serving the blind get their clients to the top of the hill at last? The founder of the Gutenberg Project, Michael Hart, in an interview with WIRED magazine acknowledging the contribution made by one of CNIB's staff, Jo Churcher, who scans books for the project, recognized that for the first time books and information may be accessible to the printdisabled community in the same time frame as the general population. Jo Churcher succinctly sums it all up when she says "Gutenberg has finally allowed blind people to begin building up libraries of their own". It is technology that has made the difference and libraries serving the blind must recognize and respond within this new paradigm shift.

There may suddenly be more in common with other libraries. Visiting libraries may be a thing of the past for the general public in the new paradigm but serving clients in their homes and workplaces, i.e. the library without walls, has been common place among libraries for the blind. Digital libraries are also not new. Libraries for the Blind have dealt with rights management, electronic texts and multi-media for some time. Most were, however, format constrained, driven first by format rather than by the quality and substantiveness of the information or developed their services outside the mainstream of other libraries. Collections were not generally catalogued in acceptable library standards or formats and links to other libraries and resources or subject expertise were weak. The information was always too little too late.

The information age, geographic and political considerations are factors impacting the development of any service let alone the national service provided by the CNIB. Canada covers an area of 3,851,787 square miles and the Trans Canada highway, the main east and west route approximately 5,000 miles long, connects the towns of southern Canada where most of its 28, 000,000 people live. About ten percent of this area is made up of lakes and rivers. By and large the country is primarily made up of European immigrants and its multicultural mosaic is primarily that of European cultures.

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) delivers its service in this vast landscape maintaining a presence in every province and territory. There are ten Divisions in the CNIB each with its own Divisional board of management reflecting the regional character and independence of the country and its provinces. The CNIB is a private, charitably funded organization. It has provided rehabilitation services for vision loss for over 75 years. The CNIB also acts as a consultant and resource agency to service providers, government departments and private industry. The number receiving service from CNIB has steadily increased and is now at an all time high of more than 90,000. The CNIB Library for the Blind is one of the oldest divisions in the CNIB actually predating the parent organization by several years. It was established as The Canadian Free Library for the Blind in 1906 and merged with the CNIB in 1918.

Library service is one of the most popular of the seven core services provided by the CNIB. Although it provides a national service, the Library receives no direct funding from governments in Canada. It is the major nation-wide publisher of alternate format materials, a mail order library and transcription service for clients of the CNIB and a further estimated 500,000 blind or print handicapped Canadians served by other agencies and service providers. These service providers include federal, provincial and municipal governments, libraries, business and education.

VISUNET is a matrix of systems and services which in combination forms a national library service for blind and visually impaired Canadians in both official languages, french and english. It attempts to resolve the issue of accessibility over geographical and other regional boundaries. It integrates the CNIB's alternate format collection with Internet resources and other libraries making them available in any community and in any home or office across Canada providing one place to look for print disabled Canadians. As a virtual library service, VISUNET in its ultimate form will be less about a warehouse for copies of books and more about an assembler of sources of information and books in which a client may digitally immerse the intellectual soul, determining formats and types of delivery by mail or cable network. While still in development, VISUNET responds to the type of library service required for printdisabled Canadians in the information Age.

Using here and now technology such as computers and the telephone, a ubiquitous and familiar mode, VISUNET places the user, whether a senior, student or professional, or anyone in search of recreational or life long learning at the centre of their information needs. It serves the entire Canadian community of printdisabled persons supporting any age and any individual unable to read print including clients of the CNIB and clients of other service providers. VISUNET does not require users to be sophisticated computer users in order to use the service. It allows clients to meet these needs independently choosing the technology with which they are most comfortable and to be served in the way they prefer.

This national service presently links CNIB divisions, staff and clients including three public libraries in a national network which is accessible from anywhere in Canada. The number of online service providers is expected to increase to about 100 libraries over the next two years. VISUNET is accessible on the WorldWide Web to all visiting the site. There are different access privileges for network participants and visitors. The services and collections that comprise the information environment that is VISUNET will be described.

The single coordinating system for VISUNET is a standard library turnkey system developed by Geac Canada for the mainstream library market and customized to meet the unique needs of the CNIB Library for the Blind. These unique requirements are not specific to the CNIB Library for the Blind but indeed are standard features of all libraries serving blind and visually impaired people. The Advance Library system includes a standard Online Public Access Catalogue (OPAC), cataloguing, acquisitions and circulation modules. Most of these modules have been customized, particularly, the Circulation modules to accommodate profile selection and automatic selection, a standard service in libraries for the blind. As well, significant custom development has been done to the Acquisitions module for the rights management functions necessary for our extensive publishing and production activities. As we present each module, we will indicate where the customization has occurred so as to accommodate our special requirements.

The Geac Advance automated library system is combined with Geac's i2 manufacturing, distribution and sales system so as to meet the CNIB Library's service, production and sales requirements. It encompasses and supports most departments: reader services, cataloguing, audio and braille and e text production. Additionally, there are Geac modules specific to the service that each department delivers.

The CNIB preferred a well established vendor with a strong commitment to library systems. Geac Canada has, for the past 25 years, established over 260 sites worldwide in public and academic libraries as well as the Smithsonian, the Vatican, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to name a few. Selecting a vendor with a good track record in library and information systems is important for ongoing upgrading and standardization of products. Two new products Geopac and Geoweb for libraries indicate the capability to develop and support new systems and approaches in the evolving information environment and their understanding of the nature of networking among libraries.

Reader Services is the frontline of service for library clients who contact this department to order books, adjust their service, register complaints or frankly, just to have a friendly chat about books. Clients call this service using a 1 800 number. Staff facilitate clients selections or browsing if the client prefers this type of support. The most important tool for this service is the OPAC where reader advisors as well as clients themselves can search for books and place holds on them.

Traditionally, all aspects of a client's library service were managed by a reader advisor interacting with the Library's system and, at present, this service is still the most heavily used fielding over 35,000 calls a year, Users contact our Reader Advisory via a 1 800 line and discuss their service preferences and reading choices with a reader advisor. The reader advisor, using the OPAC, enters this information in the system. This level of service is still available to clients who do not wish to manage their own library service. Reading and service profiles are established in the system which issues books in accordance with a client's profile specifications.

With the implementation of the OPAC in 1994, clients anywhere in Canada who owned a computer could perform their own searches and place their own holds on the books they wished to read. The design and layout of the OPAC was developed with their involvement and feedback. Accessibility issues were a major consideration and the testing involved many types of access technology as well as the customizing of OPAC screens to facilitate access by this technology. For example, single column text based arrangement facilitates searching for this user group.

The introduction of the OPAC in 1996 to blind library users was instrumental in redefining the library service paradigm that is VISUNET. It allows users to manage their services independently and privately; to explore the Library's collections on their own; to make their own discoveries. The OPAC has been the first step in levelling the playing field between sighted library users and those that are blind. Both CNIB Library users and libraries serving print handicapped people can access VISUNET via a 1 800 line or via the CNIB website on the Internet. Both types of access offer the same degree of interactivity.

VISUNET provides links to a number of major Canadian public and academic libraries as well as to important alternate format libraries such as RFB & D, and the Library of Congress collections. The intention is to build connections to other resources such as french language materials in other countries. Clients as well as other libraries and other service providers can perform one stop searching from our website. This level of access is to be upgraded through the implementation of Geac's z39.50 application, Geopac, which will permit virtual access to other libraries in such a manner that clients will not need to orient themselves to each library catalogue. These catalogues will appear to have the same uniformity as VISUNET. The National Library of Canada launched a Virtual Library Project for Canadian libraries to test Z39.50. The CNIB has been accepted as a participant in this project, an important partnering with Canada's mainstream library community. It positions CNIB librarians to influence the evolution of this product and ensure a commonality of interest with sighted library users.

VISUNET's Circulation module tracks the lending of materials to users. This module was customized to accommodate mail order service as well as lending via patron profile, a feature unique to libraries for the blind. When a client is registered for service, a patron profile is created and maintained by the system. The profile indicates which alternate formats they use; what kinds of books are preferred westerns, romances or mysteries, for example; how frequently they want to receive books and what quantity per delivery; and whether or not they prefer books which contain sexual description, strong language, or violence. The system matches the codes in the patron profile with the related codes in the MARC record and if there is a hit, the book is automatically charged out to that customer. In addition, it maintains a client's complete reading history so as to avoid duplication during auto selection. 70% of CNIB clients currently use automatic profile selection rather than self selection. However, this may be impacted by VISUNET.

The Library circulates over 1,000,000 items per year and expects this will grow sharply in the next 5 years with VISUNET. Books returned in the mail are reshelved onto a turnaround shelf and wanded to make them available for loan again. The precise slot location is recorded in the Circulation database to facilitate charge out. A batch program run nightly charges out books for clients to read in accordance with their reading profile. The system matches the codes in the patron profile with the related codes in the Marc bibliographic record. A mailing card is created indicating the customer's name and address; the title and call number of the book and the exact location of the book on the turnaround shelf. It was found to be faster to charge out books in batch in this way given the volume.

The CNIB offers its services nationwide through a network of local offices. Clients register for CNIB services including library service at the local level. Using VISUNET'S online patron module, local CNIB offices anywhere in Canada can register new library clients for service or adjust their customer profile. This means that, despite the vast distances between the local CNIB office and the Library for the Blind, clients can be served very rapidly within 48 hours of being registered for service. The Collections Department uses cataloguing and acquisitions modules to manage and provide access to the collections. The Library's holdings are catalogued in MARC format, an international standard for cataloguing books and materials, to facilitate access and resource sharing with other libraries including the sharing of our bibliographic records with customers who purchase our products. The MARC record was adapted to meet the Library's unique requirements such as profile selection. The MARC record is infinitely flexible.

The Acquisitions module is used to order library materials. It creates purchase orders and copyright permission requests and also handles the shipping and receiving of materials as well as financial reporting. The bibliographic information initially entered here when a book is ordered is transferred automatically to VISUNET, the online public access catalogue so that users searching the catalogue can verify if a book is on order and place a hold on it if they wish.

The Information Resource Centre (IRC) is an important component of VISUNET. Opened in June 1994, it has been in the vanguard of providing full library reference service to CNIB clients and staff, as well as blind and visually impaired individuals across Canada in alternate format. Using the resources of the Internet, partner libraries major research libraries such as the University of Toronto and the Metro Reference Library as well in house reference resources in print and on cd rom - the IRC responds to all reference queries in the customers format of choice. In addition, it houses collections of material on blindness and visual impairment, rehabilitation, orientation and mobility, special education, volunteerism, management and fund development.

It is a showcase for access technologies and multimedia materials and provides an environment where local blind and visually impaired users can search the Internet, investigate access technologies and perform research privately and independently onsite. Supported by an Information Specialist, access to the Information Resource Centre is provided by an 800 phone line or electronic mail. Questions range from the simple to the most sophisticated.

One of the services of VISUNET which is in further development is the electronic texts and magazine services. This service will allow clients to access the various collections in several different modes. The Churcher Etext Collection is a growing collection of over 1,000 public domain classics or other published materials. The Library plans to continue increasing the etext titles added to this collection as they become appropriate. This may include government or other documents deemed to be of importance to printdisabled Canadians. Additionally, newspapers and magazines are critical to other users. Some clients have indicated in poignant focus group accounts how newspapers are fundamental to their jobs. They not only want to be able to read these newspapers but to reproduce articles for their colleagues at work, staff who may report to them or simply to inform other members of their team. A client who is a lawyer explained the difference that the immediacy of this kind of information made in decisions about court cases he was responsible for. Clients have quickly learned to appreciate the in-depth analysis of current events offered by newspapers as opposed to other news media.

Since it has become the responsibility of the library to also provide the infrastructure for current information, it is planned to develop the VISUNEWS component of VISUNET into two different access modes. One will allow access by computer through the Internet and the other through the telephone for those readers who simply want to scan the newspapers and are not interested in creating their own files, copying or downloading articles. A demonstration pilot project is in place in the Metro Toronto area using the system developed by the National Federation for the Blind and the complete service including phone catalogues has been tendered. It should be clear that both services are not identical and that computer and telephone access fulfill very different needs.

As it matures, the VISUNEWS project will make national and local newspapers, catalogues and other newsletters and information services available across Canada by phone. One of the challenges in a country as large as Canada geographically is how to provide a service such as this in an affordable way. In order to do so, we have tendered to and partnered with government, telecommunication providers and private industry to create a system that is accessible and affordable. Web based telephony, a now developing service is very timely and appears to be a highly feasible solution to this information challenge. Some products presently available in the market provide access to web based electronic information as well as output in a user's format of choice. VISUNEWS is proving to be a major cornerstone of VISUNET.

In March of this year, the National Library of Canada surveyed Canadian libraries regarding their digital collections, digitization activities and their provision of services in a digital mode. Libraries demonstrating significant development and advanced capabilities in the above areas were invited to participate in a National Consultation on Digital Collection. The CNIB Library for the Blind was one of the 35 libraries invited to the table where the course of Canada's digital library future is being mapped and strategized. This project is called the Canadian Initiative on Digitization and encompasses content creation, access and searching, interoperability and exchange standards, copyright and preservation. The CNIB Library is recognized as performing a defining leadership role in this initiative. It is to Canada's credit and the leadership provided by the National Library of Canada that library services for the blind are at the table as an equal player with national, academic and public libraries in strategizing a future library service. As a further development, the CNIB Library for the Blind became one of the first libraries in Canada to submit MARA (MAchine Readable Accession) records to AMICUS, the national union catalogue operated by the National Library of Canada. This maturing of the service to a standardized approach typical of other libraries advances the credibility not only of the CNIB Library for the Blind but also the printdisabled community it serves. In developing its Union Catalogue service, the National Library of Canada will also be implementing a system which integrates both print and alternate format holdings records. While a search of the catalogue by format will still be available, it emphasizes the importance of information content over format. A very important service of the CNIB Library is the transcription service offered to government, education, and the private sector in order for them to provide their information in alternate format for the use of blind and visually impaired Canadians. The Library aggressively advocates the importance of information access for blind Canadians and offers to work with an organization to formulate affordable effective transcription solutions. A major transcriber of educational materials for Canadian schools and universities, the Library transcribes textbook material into audio, braille and etext. Masters are retained for future loan. VISUNET will make it easier for all clients and service providers to determine whether a title or book required is already part of the collections of the Library or by linking to other libraries from the Library's OPAC to verify that costly production may be unnecessary. These clients can request service or more information by electronic mail.

In a two pronged effort to integrate blind and visually impaired Canadians into their local library service as well as to develop and enhance local public library service to these users, and other print disabled Canadians, the CNIB Library has initiated a number of pilot projects with public libraries across Canada. The launching of these demonstration projects has attracted considerable media attention. Targeted at local blind and visually impaired individuals, public libraries register CNIB Library clients with VISUNET using remote access to the Geac system or alternatively may borrow from the collections to serve other printdisabled clients not served by the CNIB. Many families have hailed the success of these projects by indicating how important it is to be able to browse the collections of their local libraries and the CNIB Library as well or to visit the local public library with their families, knowing that they can also search an expanded catalogue for their own needs. The success of these projects has been overwhelming. In one of Canada's largest provinces, Ontario, the Minister's Award for innovation was presented to one of the projects and in Saskatchewan, the Lieutenant Governor launched the pilot project at the Regina Public Library. This has lead to further demand and the initiatives to expand VISUNET as a national service in both french and english to all types of libraries across the country.

User involvement and feedback are profoundly necessary in the development of library service. WORDSworthy, an audio newsletter to clients is distributed 3 4 times a year. It contains announcements of new services and initiatives, listings of new materials in the collections and feedback from users. It has proven to be an important tool in keeping users plugged in to VISUNET and one day will be distributed through its VISUNEWS services. A newsletter for children, KIDSworthy, is to be launched shortly.

In 1995, SkyClub, an Internet list serve for blind and visually impaired people was initiated. Each month, an invited guest provides a forum for discussion on topics of interest to them from access technology and using the Internet to bagpipes and music. SkyClub provides a virtual environment for its subscribers across Canada where they can air and resolve issues of concern to them as well as find out about new technologies etc. that would be useful to them. This is an informal information environment much like a discussion room in a local public library. Monitored by library staff, it also provides an invaluable way to find out how library service measures up and fulfills their needs.

Canada is uniquely placed to carry out the further development of VISUNET. Proposed changes in the Copyright Act will provide greater and easier access to Canadian materials for the printdisabled community. There is commitment in both the public and private sectors to develop innovative solutions which enable those with disabilities. Industry Canada, a Federal government department, has made it a goal to connect rural and remote communities via the Internet through its Community Access Program. Its SchoolNet and LibraryNet programs have simply burgeoned the opportunity for more groups to be linked to vital information resources such as VISUNET. Industry Canada has worked closely with the CNIB and other agencies serving the disabled community in supporting the efforts of Canadian industry to create technologies that assist the disabled and their access to information. In so doing, it has created opportunities for entrepreneurs and those who need their products. For example, the development of electronic newspapers for the blind, distributed nationally, first occurred in Canada as a result of Industry Canada initiatives. Industry Canada is working closely with the CNIB in the next evolution of this electronic newspaper service. It is also keenly interested and has funded Canadian presence in the DAISY project. This willingness to support private sector solutions raises the profile of the disabled community as a legitimate consumer, a market to be served, and creates opportunities for entrepreneurs in the private sector. VISUNET will be an unusual convergence of these events and of the private and public sector partnerships between Canadian technology, industry, federal and provincial governments, and libraries which can only augur well for the growing success of the printdisabled community of Canada.

In its most ambitious escalation, library service in knowledge based societies will give those unable to read print access to the best information content from all over the world. By assembling an array of services and service providers, VISUNET blends the unique features of libraries for the blind with the Internet, mainstream library services, other commercial databases and private sector partners to ensure best content. In its present iteration, VISUNET is only the first step towards a resolution of the information resource gap but, as a national service, it invites all types of libraries at all levels of government to participate with blind people as part of their community. It acknowledges that, while the information age may use the latest technologies, not everyone will develop these technological skills at the same pace. As it progresses towards a different iteration for some, VISUNET protects many of its clients from the very paradigm shift it energizes. Both seniors and children can use the services in the way that is most convenient for them. The next generation of talking books may resolve distribution efficiencies but content and its timely availability remain the foremost challenge facing those whose task it is to keep printdisabled clients informed, educated and well read. In the greatest age of Information experienced by mankind, resolving the information resource gap is certain to mean linking with other libraries and service providers nationally and internationally to prevent information poor communities in the very heart of information rich countries.