The Essential Role of Libraries Serving Persons Who are Blind and Print Disabled in the Information Age

by George Kerscher, Secretary General, DAISY Consortium


Traditionally, libraries serving persons who are blind or print disabled have had to create accessible, specially formatted materials and distribute these products to their patrons. As new technologies evolve, there is the vision of a time when materials published for the mainstream can be made accessible to persons with disabilities at the same time and at no greater cost than the versions targeted for the mainstream consumer.

This paper and presentation will both provide you with an update on the "traditional" activities, and reveal the essential roles that many libraries for the blind are playing in the standards, open source software, and the consumer products arena that will lead to that vision of the future.

Libraries for the Blind Section (LBS) of International Federation of Libraries Association (IFLA) and the DAISY Consortium Working Together

LBS and the DAISY Consortium have agreed to coordinate work between the two organizations. While IFLA-LBS represents the interest of libraries serving persons with disabilities, the DAISY Consortium develops standards, implementation strategies and tools, and promotes technology surrounding reading and access to information. It is this simple symbiotic relationship that is proving to be highly effective. The DAISY Consortium focuses on the standards development, builds tools for production, reading, and provides training and technical support. IFLA-LBS libraries produce the accessible books and provide the surrounding services their library patrons need.

The Vision and Mission of the two organizations are different, but they share a common theme, reading, and access to information. It is this shared theme that bonds the organizations together. Without reading systems and without conforming content (books, journal articles, etc.), there would be nothing for the print-disabled library patron to read, but where do the reading systems and the content come from?

Digital content from the Web, Digital Publishing, and Libraries Serving Persons with Disabilities

The technology savvy person with a disability has a huge advantage in accessing information today. Assistive technologies, such as screen readers for persons who are blind, and screen magnifiers, for persons with low vision, along with a wide range of other products that make computers accessible, also can make the digital information accessible. "Can make" must be emphasized, because the data representation of the information and the techniques used to present the data must be designed correctly to be used by everybody in our society.

A major role of libraries serving persons with disabilities is the development of the standards for fully accessible, highly functional information systems. Collectively, the libraries represent the print-disabled people they serve; the libraries are not only collections of books, but they are also centers of expertise as it relates to reading by persons with disabilities. It is natural for these libraries to work together to ensure that data models for information evolve in ways that will benefit not only the print-disabled reader, but the whole of society.

Delivering Services Today, Working Toward Tomorrow

The libraries serving persons with disabilities have a difficult job today. A large percentage of their patrons are not computer power users. This average library patron must be served using the technology that is appropriate for each person. Hence, the libraries are faced with the job of introducing new technologies for reading to their consumers.

But wait, there is more! The libraries are also tasked with:

Libraries Serving Persons with Disabilities Supporting the Formation of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the standards setting body for the Internet. The WAI is one of the four branches of the W3C and is devoted to ensuring that the evolution of the Web includes persons with disabilities. The DAISY Consortium is a member of the W3C and is represented in the WAI activities and in other W3C working groups. Formation of the WAI was strongly supported in many sectors; libraries serving persons with disabilities helped to build that ground swell of support for the WAI. Not only were the libraries represented in the founding groups, but libraries were driving the requirements of persons with disabilities forward in the evolving HTML, SGML, XML, and SMIL standards design.

The role of libraries in the standards setting process is essential. The requirements of persons with disabilities must be put forward, explained, designed, and defended. When we emphasize defend we mean that many, many times it is easy to design information systems that do not take into account disabilities. Perceptual disabilities, such as vision or neurological problems, i.e. blindness, low vision, or dyslexia are not considered in the bottom-line approach of big business. Big business does not consider small market segments; it is the essential role of libraries serving persons with disabilities to put forward the socially conscientious perspectives.

Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL)

Multimedia is without a doubt the direction rich content will take. This offers persons with disabilities significant advantages, because the information can be represented through several sensory channels. Text, image, and audio synchronization can provide the user multiple channels to choose from to get the information. The blind user can select the audio channel, for example. However, the standards and the best practices for the production of content must address issues essential to persons with disabilities; the libraries are represented in the W3C working group charged with evolving this multimedia standard.

DAISY Standards

The Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) Consortium has its roots in Libraries for the Blind Section of IFLA. The DAISY Consortium has gathered requirements from LBS patrons to identify the ideal reading systems for development. It has then integrated key experts in their employment to participate in W3C working groups, and in other technology development initiatives focused on information delivery. Once the W3C standards have been set, the DAISY Consortium applies those standards in the development of specifications specifically designed to serve persons with print disabilities.

The DAISY standards Based on W3C recommendations made their way into standards activities in the USA. The National Information Standards Organization (NISO), with experts from the DAISY Consortium -- employees from LBS members evolved the initial DAISY work into the ANSI/NISO Z39.86-2005. The DAISY Consortium was named as the maintenance agency, the first time NISO has placed that responsibility on an international organization.

In addition, the DAISY Consortium is participating in the following standards developments:

Implementation of Standards

Unlike other standards organizations, the DAISY Consortium has a major focus on implementation of the standard. The Members of the DAISY Consortium are, for the most part, LBS members as well. The requirements are gathered from this group and from other related companies and organizations. With these requirements in hand, a long term "Road Map" is maintained to keep a clear vision of the implementation of the standards before the organizations. Standards, production tools, conforming content, and interoperable reading systems must all be in place for successful implementations.

It is instructive to detail some of the mechanisms that are currently in place:

DAISY Knowledge Network: A Neuro Approach to Information
A comprehensive community-based information system to share the collective knowledge of companies and organizations implementing the DAISY standards.
DAISY OK: Interoperability between Reading Systems
Producing the content once and having it render (play and present) on any conforming reading system is essential. DAISY OK self-certification makes this possible.
Production Guidelines
Knowing how to structure and produce content, convert books to a digital form, is one of the basic functions for the LBS organization. Building on the shared experiences of the organizations and putting them into guidelines are one of the services provided.
Production Tools
Identifying requirements in production tools and then setting out to make the tools, or encouraging vendors to produce tools that meet the requirements is fundamental in the overall process.

services to Individuals

The Libraries for the Blind Section, in addition to contribution of expertise to the standards activities, must continuously engage in the provision of their basic services, which includes:

Maintenance of the library catalog
Develop and continuously update the accessible catalog of books and publications. In many cases, the catalog access is provided by library staff on the telephone.
Delivery of Reading Materials
Distribution to the patron through the post or internet of the titles and publications they have requested.
Distribution of multiple formats, including powerful DAISY content
Patrons require different formats, including braille, large print, and the DAISY format materials. The DAISY materials must be produced to meet the navigation and the high performance needs of the library patron.
Descriptions of Graphical Content
It is the libraries role to provide access to graphical content. This means that the important images, photos, flow charts, and diagrams must be described within the context of the publication in which it appears.
Braille services
Many of the libraries engage in the delivery of braille to their patrons. This is an invaluable service to those individuals who are braille readers.
Tactile Graphics
Many graphical concepts are best communicated through tactile graphics. Having expertise in this area and selecting the right graphics to produce and deliver to the individual is essential.
Mathematics, Music, and Specialized Content
These types of items are extremely difficult to make accessible. They require special treatment. It is expected that the libraries will continue to produce this.

Development of a Global Library

Now that DAISY Standards have spread throughout the world, libraries are looking to share content across international borders. It is envisioned that production of a publication would happen once in the DAISY format and then share that title throughout the world. There are copyright laws and exceptions that must be addressed both nationally and on a global basis. In addition, the terms and conditions of collaboration among the libraries will need to be established.

Integration Into the Mainstream

While the DAISY format is pervasive in the Libraries for the Blind Section, the mainstream of publishing has not embraced the standard. Competing standards and proprietary formats for digitally published materials abound; no format has yet risen to the forefront to be adopted. It is possible, and the DAISY Consortium is proposing, that the DAISY Standards could evolve to become the leading Standard for published content.

If a Standard for publishing, that is founded on accessibility could become the global standard for published content, then the function of libraries throughout the world would completely change. Of course, this is the vision we share.

Open Source, Raising the Bar, breaking down barriers

The DAISY Consortium engages in extensive open source developments. This open source is in the areas of:

Conversion tools that:
Validation utilities
Open source validation utilities that can be incorporated into other products or used as stand-alone products.
Reading systems
Open source reading systems, such as AMIS, that can be localized for any language.
Multimedia data model and SDK
It is expensive to build a comprehensive multimedia environment. The DAISY Consortium is breaking down the barriers to moving into software development by providing a comprehensive object oriented data model and a software SDK to be used in the building of products.

United Nations World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)

The United Nations in 2003 and again in 2005 held the "World Summit on the Information Society". At both of these conferences, the DAISY Consortium and the libraries that make up the organization promoted the importance of including persons with disabilities in the design of our "Information Society". At both conferences, forums were held that brought together leaders in the disability community and raised a single voice that the United Nation's delegates could hear. This is yet another example of the essential role of libraries serving persons with disabilities in the Information Age; there is nobody else to raise the difficult issues.

Need for Continued Funding of Libraries Serving Persons with Disabilities

All the Full and Associate Members of the DAISY Consortium are non-profit organizations. Funding for the libraries in the world comes from a variety of sources. Please consider supporting your nation's library system that serves persons with disabilities. In addition, please consider supporting the DAISY Consortium through our online donation opportunities. Visit: to learn more.