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IFLANET home - International Federation of Library 
Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 047-124-E
Division Number: III.
Professional Group: Libraries for the Blind
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 124.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Electronic library services for the visually disabled in the Netherlands

Theo Walraven


Maarten Verboom

Grave, The Netherlands


The creation of the Federation of the Libraries for the Blind in the Netherlands will lead to a more efficient, coherent and accessible service. Also the development of new services will get more attention through the construction of a strong research and development organization. One of the first results is a design for the development of exiting electronic services into a complete electronic library for people with reading disabilities. Despite promising initiatives in adaptive technology, the graphical interfaces that are commonly used in the world of sighted people, are still difficult to handle for visually disabled persons; in fact they are only accessible for a small group of experienced and skilled computer-users. Therefore access to the information-society is given through a specially designed user-interface.


At present the Netherlands have five organisations where visually disabled people can get special reading materials. They are legally referred to as Libraries for the Blind, but they are more and more expected to work not only for blind and partially sighted people, but also for people with other reading disabilities. All of them have customers all over the country. Their regular activities are funded almost completely by the national govern-ment.

The traditional services of the Libraries for the Blind include the loaning of books, the distribu-tion of periodicals and the conversion of docu-ments on individual demand. Materials are produced and distributed in Braille and on audio tape. Practically all of our 25.000 users read material on audio cassette; no more than 10% read Braille material. In the Netherlands there are commercial producers of books in large print. As subsidised organisations we are not allowed to compete with them. In addition to the traditional products, special electronic services have been developed during the last few years. They are used now by approxi-mately one thousand people.

Except that they send off their books by mail, three of the five Libraries for the Blind are comparable with public libraries. They were established some hundred years ago, originat-ing from the three denominational main-streams in the Netherlands. The oldest one is in fact non confessional and the two others are Catholic and Protestant respectively. More recently, two specialised organisations were created: CGL, which we represent, and SVB. CGL is specialising in periodicals and SVB in educational and vocational literature. In the context of the restructuring to be discussed below, CGL and SVB will merge at the end of this year. The new organisation is provisionally referred to as CGL/SVB.

It has been obvious for long that for reasons of efficiency and in order to increase quality and an alertness for innovation, the library system for the visually disabled had to be restructured. About the most preferable way to do sothere have been lengthy discussions among the libraries themselves and between the libraries, the government and the interest groups of the visually disabled. Finally, at the end of last year, definite decisions could be made. The libraries united themselves in a Federation with co-ordinating and policy-making authority.

In the new structure the libraries remain partly independent, in the sense of having their own customers and their own front desks. It is agreed, however, that all of them will give their customers full access to all the products and services of the whole system. In this way we trust to accommodate two goals that tended to conflict in the past. On the one hand, justice is done to cultural diversities within the target group and libraries are challenged to compete in the way they manage the contacts with their customers. On the other hand, visually disabled people don't have to shop around any longer to gather the products and services they want.

The new Federation will have full authority over the allocation of facilitating activities. These activities, which include the production, reproduction, storage and delivery of reading material, will be reorganised to the effect that each of them is carried out by only one of the libraries. The savings to be made in this way will be used, among other things, to cope with the growth of the target group that is expected for the next decades. The latter will be the result of a strong increase of the ageing population and the extension of services for people with non-visual reading disabilities

One of the reasons for the restructuring has been to strengthen the innovative power of our library system. Therefore, it has been decided both to earmark part of the savings mentioned above for research and development activities and to concentrate them in one organisation.

Creating this organisation is the goal of the merger between CGL en SVB. The task of CGL/SVB will also include the management of all the electronic services.

We now turn to the role of modern information technology in the work of the Libraries for the Blind. During the past decade new technologies - automatic text conversion, synthetic speech, digital audio recording - gave an impetus to radical changes in the production of special reading material. More recently, as the use of computers by people with a visual disability had been made possible through special aids, experiments were started with special electronic services, such as electronic newspapers. At present, some of these services are already offered on a continuing basis. An overview of our present system of electronic services will be given below. Their introduction may be viewed upon as the starting point for a fundamental change in the functions of our libraries. In the near future an increasing number of users will make us evolve from a supplier of informa-tion in special physical formats into an information broker or clearing house.

As a consequence of this, our work for visually disabled computer users will not be confined to the provision of special services: we will also have to help them to find their own way in the world of regular services. Until recently it seemed to be certain that, after the development of some special peripherals, the computer would provide for a nearly universal solution for the information problems of visually disabled people. Meanwhile, our optimism has decreased, since the use of graphical interfaces has become mainstream practice. It is not the place here to give a thorough analysis of the problems that arise from this for our target group, but their severeness may easily be demonstrated. It is sufficient to imagine what it means to translate all the information that is simultaneously visible on a Windows-screen into a sequence of eighty character strings (the size of a standard Braille display). It is the more so alarming as these problems arise at a moment where it has become normal for so many non-disabled people to use the computer for a wide range of purposes, both professionally and privately. Several hardware and software producers have developed devices to help visually disabled users to work with graphical interfaces, but up to mow such provisions are only suitable for a small group of experienced and high-skilled users.

What should the Libraries for the Blind do to help overcome these difficulties? Of course they should, together with interest groups of the visually disabled, engage in attempts to strike at the root of the evil: attempts to get standards for universal accessibility accepted by software developers. But this is a long way to go, and it would be an illusion to expect that such standards, even if they would have been officially established, would be actually observed by everyone. Therefore it makes sense to develop adaptive interfaces that are capable to solve at least part of the problems.
In order to do so the Dutch Libraries for the Blind have developed a special software user-interface.

We tried to achieve a system that is fully accessible for all segments of the target group, including inexperienced and low-skilled computer users. This interface is meant to create access to the information society. How this is done and which electronic services are offered in this way will be discussed in the following section.

Since the beginning of this decade the Dutch Libraries for the Blind produce the so-called "electronically readable newspapers", newspapers which can be read on a PC by means of a special reading programme and Braille bar, speech synthesis or screen enlargement. A few years later electronically readable magazines, study-materials and other documents were provided as well. Initially these documents were put on diskette and sent off by mail or they were distributed through "datacasting", a broadcasting-technique. At present the information is delivered by a bulletin board system.

Up to this spring two bulletin board systems were running. CGL and SVB delivered their electronic services by the BBS "VISUel " and CBB, the Protestant library, operated the "Electronic Mailbox". One of the first results of the co-operation in the Federation of the Libraries for the Blind was the integration of these two different systems and the development of the blueprint for a complete electronic library for visually disabled people in the Netherlands. The ultimate goal is a system in which visually disabled people have access from their homes to a library-system in which they can find all the information they want, and through which they can communicate with the outside world.

The new system is called "Elnet" and offers at present a quite extensive assortment of information.

Today's services of Elnet are:

Teletext-pages of the Dutch public broadcast organisations, which are refreshed with high frequency.

New services are being prepared. Some examples are:

The interface of Elnet is developed in accordance with requirements that have been assessed through systematic consultation of visually disabled people. It does not only meet the demands of the skilled computer-users, but is also suited for the beginners. The interface is intuitive, menu-structured, easy to handle, easy to configure to personal demands, sober, consistent and suited for the relevant types of adaptation like Braille-bar, speech synthesis and enlargement.

At this moment almost one-thousand people make use of the services of Elnet. The majority of the users can be characterised as relatively young and higher educated. It proves to be difficult to create a broad willingness to make use of technology like Elnet. Important factors are the high costs of the hardware required, fear for new technology, especially amongst elderly people, and the quality of Dutch speech-synthesis.

To lower the threshold, Elnet is developed in such a way that the system-requirements are low. The Elnet-software and reading-programme can be run even on 286 and 386 personal computers. Communication-costs are reduced to a minimum by off-line facilities, which enable users to prepare all their communication with the system before dialling in.

A big effort is being made in communicating the possibilities and user-friendliness of the system and software, also for the beginning computer-user. To answer questions and to assist people there is a support-department for Elnet-users. The Dutch Libraries for the Blind stimulate and are involved in the development of Dutch speech synthesis.

The functionality and the interface of Elnet are being improved continuously: well-registered user-feedback, panel-research and application of information-technology provide for the most important input.

The present choice for a bulletin board system with the special Elnet-software and not for the infrastructure of the Internet has several reasons:

Nevertheless, if promising Window-adaptations offer solutions for a part of the visually disabled people, Elnet will be made accessible though the Internet as well. Because difficulties in access will exist for at least the next few years, Elnet may be used and will be developed as an intermediate browser for the World Wide Web. Naturally, as soon as the Internet does become fully suitable as an infrastructure for the services, and when adequate alternative user-interfaces for Windows are available, the electronic services of the Dutch Libraries for the Blind will be incorporated into the Internet. The sooner visual disabled people can use standard software applications, as used by sighted people, the better.