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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

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


Code Number: 048-124-E
Division Number: III.
Professional Group: Libraries for the Blind
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 124.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Preparing for the millennium: linking libraries for the print-disabled

Rosemary Kavanagh
CNIB Library for the Blind
Canadian National Institute for the Blind, Toronto, Canada


Michael Moodie

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Library of Congress, Washington DC, USA


High costs and lengthy delays in translating print materials into formats accessible by print-handicapped individuals limit the number of materials available in alternate formats in comparison to print. To close this gap, alternate format libraries must link their holdings electronically to facilitate interlibrary loan and exchange of production masters or copies. While a union catalog is a first step in this direction, use of the Z39.50 protocol promises a more timely, lower-cost solution. Finally, linking to documents in electronic form at other libraries and on the Internet will greatly broaden the scope of materials available.

More frequently today, libraries serving the print-disabled are daring to dream about a world library of alternate format materials. The vision of seamless access to a braille book produced in another country, or to a talking book recorded on another continent, all enabled by a linked network of alternate-format libraries, inspires hope of far greater access by print-disabled people to information resources. It has primarily been developments in information and communications technology that have driven the formation of this vision. But beyond the technology are some profound issues which make it imperative to work to realize the dream.


Overcoming the Barriers to the Virtual Library: Linking Communities, People and Service is the theme of the Open Session planned for the 64th IFLA General Conference, August 16-21, 1998, by the IFLA Section of Libraries for the Blind. The theme expresses the ambition to make more of the world of information accessible to those who in the past have not enjoyed the same level of library service and access to information as the general public. The Section faces the dilemma of underdevelopment of library service for blind, visually impaired, and physically handicapped readers everywhere. Its most extreme expression is in the developing countries of the world but in developed countries this service also lags far behind library service for the general population.

In the United States, it is estimated that just three percent of the trade books (as opposed to textbooks) published each year, and fewer than one half of one percent of the magazines published are available in alternate format. And these numbers vastly overstate the availability of these materials as many are produced in very limited quantities.

The main reason for the limited selection of alternate format materials, of course, is that they are very expensive and very time-consuming to produce. The creation of the initial master for a non-fiction braille book with charts and graphs can cost as much as $10,000. A popular audio book may cost as much as $4,000 to narrate. Studies have shown that the addition of an alternate format title to a collection can take as long as two years from the point of ordering the book to placing it on the shelf ready for circulation. Compared to a print library which may place a copy of a book on its shelf ready for circulation at no more than $50 per copy within six months of its publication, these high costs and lengthy delays present severe limitations on the choices for reading or learning for a print-disabled person. The sighted public also has many other sources of reading material. In addition to the library there are numerous bookstores to browse and almost limitless periodicals to choose from. For print-disabled people, their libraries must serve also as their bookstore and publisher.

Given the high costs and production time constraints for special format books and magazines, the ability to reduce the information gap and to gain information equity with the general public based on traditional solutions is remote. Clearly, new approaches are needed. Linking alternate format libraries to maximize the utilization of shared resources, and linking into information available online, offer real promise to narrow the information gap.

A common fact of library service is that no single library of any type anywhere has developed a complete collection which fully meets the reading needs of the community it serves. Because of this, libraries have established cooperative arrangements and resource sharing networks, supported by interlibrary loan protocols to serve those in a community whose immediate reading needs cannot be met by any single collection. Libraries for the print-handicapped are no exception.

Interlibrary loans are of huge benefit to a library because they make available a pool of titles that can be shared across any boundary. For example, although the CNIB Library for the Blind adds approximately 2,000 new titles per year for its community of users across Canada, it borrows an additional 2,000 titles from a variety of sources. While these titles change every year depending on demand, the fact is that each year through acquisitions and interlibrary loans this community will have available to it approximately 4,000 new titles. The acquisition of 2,000 new titles annually costs the CNIB Library approximately $3,000,000 Cdn but borrowing more than this number costs less than $50,000 Cdn .

However, although interlibrary loan is economically attractive, it is in fact a relatively weak service solution. First, it satisfies a smaller number of users, as the number of copies available is quite limited. Second, it involves long periods of waiting since the material only becomes available when not in use by the host library. For these reasons, it cannot be counted on to support the core reading needs of a community. But for less popular material and non-time-sensitive needs, it is a cost-effective means of expanding available collections.

A second approach to sharing resources is to exchange shelf-ready copies or duplication-ready masters. Master tapes of recorded books can be purchased at a fraction of the cost of narrating a book from scratch. And, generally, shelf-ready braille or recorded books will cost far less than a copy produced in-house. Regional accents within common language groups limit somewhat the international exchange of recorded books, but there are successful partnerships operating today, and more will likely become possible as the globalization of culture breaks down current barriers. Reducing duplication among alternate format libraries with a common language will free up resources for the production of a greater number of titles by each member of the partnership.

Before a strong interlibrary loan program or title exchange system can be developed, a foundation must be laid in the form of uniform cataloguing procedures. Most, if not all, libraries of any significance have a standard way of noting their holdings. This process called cataloguing has seen the evolution of the MARC record as a standard way of formatting items for automated use and record transfer. Properly-catalogued items can be recalled and presented in many ways. Standardizing the cataloguing process also makes it easier to migrate collections to other platforms and systems. The catalogue, therefore, is the first step in preparing for a world library of alternate format materials.

The second step is to mount the catalogue online, so it is accessible via the Internet. In the world library envisioned, an array of catalogues for alternate format libraries would be interlinked by a standard protocol, Z39.50, making all these privately-developed catalogues provide to a user anywhere in the world information on documents available in the format required. A user could be library staff or a blind reader working a user-friendly system, selecting privately and independently from the world of libraries the precise information needed in the format preferred.

Z39.50 is an American National Standard prepared by the National Information Standards Organization which is used for searching and retrieving information. It is a messaging standard between an originating library (Z-client) and a target library (Z-server) and is compatible with ISO standard 10162/3. (1) Many Canadian and American libraries have been attracted to its development and promotion as a way of dealing with the concept of a distributed union catalogue. Major players have been the Library of Congress and the National Library of Canada. In 1996 the National Library of Canada announced its Virtual Canadian Union Catalogue Project (vCuc).

The concept of the vCuc is a decentralized, electronically-accessible catalogue based on linking the databases or holdings of a group of participating libraries. It is merely an expression of the drive towards a catalogue which is always current and the recognition that, while union catalogues provided precise location information and are technically easy to access, they are never up to date and are primarily a librarian's tool.

The trend towards greater accessibility involves more than simply knowing the location of a book. It is also about the user being able to initiate a search, control the results, and borrow the item without reliance on an intermediary to expedite any or all of this. The opportunity to link active catalogues rather than replicate them in a single database suggests a faster, more efficient way of using the resources in a region or community. It is not that union catalogues do not have their place, but their maintenance is costly, requiring that hundreds of thousands of records be loaded regularly. Even with the advent of machine-readable files, which mostly eliminated manual handling of millions of records when creating a union catalogue, the cost of manipulating these records and of entering some manually is still quite high. And, as mentioned above, the content of these large, monolithic, union catalogues is consistently out of date as each contributing library must first create the catalogue records and mount them on its local catalogue and then forward them for addition to the union catalogue.

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) of the Library of Congress was the first to initiate a union catalogue of alternate format holdings, first on microfiche, then on CD-ROM and online. This service has provided invaluable support for interlibrary loans, primarily of English-language materials. The catalogue contains holdings of alternate format libraries in the United States, Canada, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Efforts are underway to include libraries from South Africa and the United Kingdom as well. This service will continue to be required for a long time and many more libraries should be encouraged to participate in sending their holdings information for inclusion.

Evolving a distributed catalogue for libraries for the blind using the Z39.50 protocol presents challenges that are similar to and in some cases greater than those involved in building union databases. Libraries for the blind would benefit from developments in mainstream library services and from cooperation with national and research libraries for whom the building of national or distributed catalogues is part of their mission.

One of the most exciting features that the Z39.50 protocol will make possible is the ability to search simultaneously the holdings of several libraries. For the user, the experience will be much like searching a union catalogue. When initiating a search, a user would select one or more target libraries from a group of libraries. The user would then enter the search terms on their local system which are sent to a "Z-client," a piece of software operating as part of the library system. This software translates the search terms into 'Z-speak' and contacts the target libraries' Z-server software which translates the Z-speak into a search request for the target libraries' database and receives a response about the number of matches. The records are presented to the user via the local online access catalogue interface. So the user not only has the ability to search multiple databases simultaneously, but is able to use their familiar local interface. Z39.50 enables a variety of systems to communicate seamlessly with each other. A Mac Z-client, for example, can access a Unix and a Windows NT system simultaneously.

Z39.50 systems have been configured in many different ways to address different requirements. Even for well established library systems however, establishing a Z39.50 link to other libraries presents numerous challenges since there is no consistency among different vendor systems and each may support a different subset of Z39.50 attributes or search terms. Clearly both the libraries planning to use this protocol and the vendors of their library system need to agree on and develop a set of common attributes if they want to control the mapping of attributes in each local system. Reducing false hits also means that libraries have to be consistent about the data that is necessary to support matching records to search queries. Local variations in cataloguing rules or the application of MARC standards present challenges to a group of libraries planning to cooperate. There are further issues around symbols that identify the name of the holding library. Both the Library of Congress within the U.S. and the National Library within Canada have for a number of years standardized symbols which uniquely identify a library. These symbols are intended to be used with a country identifier to provide an international version. However, local variations have resulted in libraries with several identifiers, creating confusion. An infrequent user cannot be relied on to interpret a multiplicity of symbols. The development of a world virtual library of alternate format materials through a series of linked library databases must follow a carefully planned and coordinated strategy in which standards for establishing and maintaining records must be agreed on and adhered to and protocols for linking collections put into place.

While the linking of the databases of libraries for the blind is a critical step in creating a world library of alternate format material, the linking of these libraries to other libraries with greater depth of collections is equally important in the long term for creating best content for the blind community. This will become more important as the number of digital and electronic collections grow in the larger libraries. It is also necessary for libraries for the blind to stay close to developments initiated by national libraries in this area and to actively seek their support and partnerships in addressing these issues.

An extension of the concept of linking libraries to provide best content is harvesting information resources on the Internet effectively. As web content grows the opportunities for electronic publishing will become increasingly important. It is the best hope for the blind community to reduce the information gap both for timeliness and best content . Many research and government documents are already available on the Internet on a variety of topics including health. In canvassing clients at the CNIB Library for the Blind, health and hobbies were the most popular topics. However, searching the Web for information can be frustrating because of the many different search engines and user interfaces. But it can be a source of instant information which if selected, organized, and linked to a catalogue is of immediate benefit to print-disabled clients. It can also materially influence choices about which books are to be produced in alternate format. Because it can take several years to produce in alternate format a title which dates quite quickly, it will be far more practical to seek certain kinds of information from electronic databases and to link these websites to the catalogue. This information can be converted into either braille or e-text and can be distributed in a shorter time frame to readers who do not have the time, skills, or equipment to perform web searches.

Linking libraries for the print-disabled to create a world library of alternate format materials is a dream based on cooperating jurisdictions, consistently prepared databases meeting commonly-accepted cataloguing standards, linking records, and building a digital library. It rests on a shared vision of service to print-disabled people and acceptance of the economics that enable scarce resources to provide more. In the past the banner of difference was used to isolate libraries for the blind from mainstream developments and sometimes this was necessary to protect a very specialized service. However, technology has made abandoning this difference a necessity in realizing information equity today. Linking libraries for the blind is not a different concept from the distributed virtual catalogues of the new millennium and it is only a first step towards linking all types of libraries towards the goal of best content. The tragedy would be if libraries for the blind missed the opportunity or arrived upon it too late and that well into the next millennium information and books continue to arrive in the hands of blind people long after the general population have consumed them and in such marginal amounts that comparable access and library service still are only an illusion waiting to be fully embraced.


  1. Biblio Tech Information Technology for Libraries, Z39.50: Part 1- an Overview
    URL: http//www.bibliok-tech.com/htmlz39.50.html