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66th IFLA Council and General

Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August


Code Number: 024-158-E
Division Number: III
Professional Group: Libraries for the Blind
Joint Meeting with: Public Libraries
Meeting Number: 158
Simultaneous Interpretation:  No


Uri Cohen
Central Library for the Blind, Visually Impaired and Handicapped
Nathanya, Israel


The Central Library for the Blind in Israel recognised the limitations of existing catalogue systems used by libraries for the blind. Neither Braille nor recorded catalogues can provide a fully satisfactory system for the blind user.The "Telebook" was implemented by the Central Library for the Blind in Israel in 1994. Using modern mobile communication technology, "Telebook" allows the user ready access to the library catalogue through the telephone. Operation is quick, easy, and requires only an ordinary telephone.



I will begin by making a general assumption, which seems to me appropriate in these times of dynamic technological progress, that a "printing revolution" is taking place in the world of the blind and visually impaired. There have been two stages to date: the first in 1824, when Louis Braille developed "Braille" writing, and the second with the application of the computer in converting written texts into Braille or voice.

But just as the printing revolution was not relevant to the illiterate, so not every blind or visually impaired person is able to use Braille or the new technologies. Those interested can nevertheless learn Braille and how to use equipment, and thus widen the reading range available to them.
Libraries for the blind, which are the publishers of books in Braille, recorded books and large print books, today have the technological ability to increase their collections of books. The reason for the delay is not technological, but financial, because governments do not provide adequate budgets for this purpose.

Existing catalogues

The majority of Libraries for the Blind provide their readers with information about books in two ways: a Braille catalogue and a printed catalogue. Both of these methods have many disadvantages:
  1. The Braille catalogue - the number of Braille readers is relatively small - in all 0.2% of blind people are skillful Braille readers. Even they have difficulty in locating a title in a Braille catalogue, which has many volumes, and in which each book is listed with additional details. Furthermore, a Braille catalogue does not help many to find the desired book as few readers can store it on their private bookshelves, and possessing one becomes an encumbrance.
  2. The printed catalogue - The printed catalogue increases the blind person's feelings of dependency on others to have it read aloud so that he or she can choose a book. This leads to a sense of indignity, and disappointment that the Library for the Blind is unable to produce a catalogue suited to the limitations of the blind user.

In both of the possibilities mentioned, Braille and print, updating the catalogue on a daily, weekly or monthly basis is impossible, and so the users do not receive information about many of the books which are available to them.
The number of titles in the Library grows, and the catalogue becomes encyclopaedic, but using it is very difficult.

The importance of the catalogue to blind readers

The main mission of a normal public library is to acquire books for the library shelves. The independent reader has many sources of information available to him concerning the book and its contents, whether through the media - radio, television, newspapers, the internet, or bookshops, or the terminals in different lending libraries as well as browsing through the books themselves. This is not the situation for the blind reader. Most of the communication channels which I have mentioned are closed to him because of his visual impairment, and browsing through the books on the shelves is not an option for the borrower.

The supply of books available in libraries for the blind is altogether more limited than in ordinary libraries, and this increases the importance to the blind reader of an updated catalogue with detailed information about the books and their contents. I do not think that it is an exaggeration to state that libraries should give priority to catalogue planning and consider it to be one of their most important activities. It is not enough that the book is on the shelf. It must also be attainable! It is very important for the user to be able to select a book according to his intellectual needs and individual preference. Therefore we have to provide as much information as possible about the books, and in a suitable format.

Many libraries are making efforts to find more suitable formats for their catalogues. A few libraries have recorded catalogues, others have them available on diskettes or on the internet. Both of these systems provide partial solutions. It is true that the recorded catalogue releases the blind user from dependency, but it is very awkward to use for locating books and also to keep updated. Diskettes and the internet are only suitable for blind users who are expert in using computers, the number of which is relatively very small.

There is no doubt that there was a need for some creative thinking in order to find a way to provide users with a flow of information about the books, their contents, the number of volumes or cassettes and the narrators. The solution was found by the Central Library for the Blind in Israel, in the development of the "Telebook."


The Central Library for the Blind contacted "Telemesser" a company specialising in interactive voice response systems, and presented the disadvantages of cataloguing systems for the blind as has been outlined. Our requirement was to be able to use an ordinary telephone, with no extra devices, as a terminal which could be connected to the computerised library catalogue. The basic supposition was that every blind person is able, and likes to use the telephone. No special instructions would be required. The use of computers is still not widespread amongst the blind population, and many are nervous to use them. The telephone, however, is available to everyone, twenty-four hours a day.

The Library for the Blind in Israel also recognised that the catalogue database is an information source which can be used for additional purposes besides ordering books.

The Process

The reader calls the telephone number 03 7652626 and receives a message that he has reached the database of the Library for the Blind. From here he is directed according to his choices - if he wants Braille, he dials 2, for recordings he dials 3, for large print, 4, for the Newsletter, 5. The next instruction will be "to choose a book according to the author, dial 2, according to the title, dial 3, according to its subject, dial 4, for books produced during the last month, dial 5." When searching for books the user has to dial the first letters of the title. In this situation the numbers act as letters, for example A = 01, B = 02 and so on.

The system is relatively straightforward and can be mastered with ease. Its advantages are that a book can be quickly located, and that the user can additionally receive summaries and other details including names of narrators. The catalogue can be updated daily, and ordering is done instantly. Most importantly, using this system, the blind person can order books independently, wherever he is and whenever he wishes.

Below is a diagram which explains how the system works.

The diagram is not available on-line, please contact author.


The Library for the Blind started using "Telebook" in 1994. Like every change, it was received with mixed feelings, and we must take into account that a high proportion of the Library's users are elderly people who find it difficult to embrace the modern technology. In order to help them to accept the new system the Library produced an instruction cassette, and a professional librarian was available to help select books for those who preferred.

Interestingly, we found that many of our users seem to be bad sleepers, and access the "Telebook" in the middle of the night. Statistical information reveals that the number of users of the "Telebook" is constantly growing as the following comparison illustrates: in January 1996 there were 877 calls, in January 1997- 1,014 calls, in January 1998 - 1,020 calls, in January 1999 - 1,021 calls, and in January 2000 - 3,189 calls.

At the beginning of my paper I emphasised that the most important mission of the Library is to supply information about the books, and it seems that "Telebook" provides a satisfactory solution. There are of course other ways of supplying information, for example last month the Library for the Blind opened its catalogue to internet users. With the assistance of a sighted person this gives the blind user an additional means of accessing the catalogue.

Conclusion - Mobile communication technology is developing dynamically. The internet will be connected to the cellular telephone, and information will be immediately on hand. The Library for the Blind in Israel anticipated this development in 1994. Using a cellular telephone, the users of "Telebook" already have at their disposal an informative, mobile catalogue, which can be accessed from any place and at any time.


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