2001 Conference Proceedings

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WEB-BRAILLE: A Library of Braille Books on the Internet

Judith M. Dixon, Ph.D., Consumer Relations Officer
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
The Library of Congress
Washington, DC 20542

A turning point occurred for braille readers on August 24, 1999, when a patron of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) accessed Web-Braille and downloaded a digital braille book from the Internet. At that moment, the essential nature of library service to readers of braille was forever changed. This technological feat, accomplished so effortlessly, represented the successful culmination of a two-year effort to develop an Internet distribution system for NLS-produced braille books. On that day, more than 2,700 grade 2 braille books were made available for download or online use by eligible individuals, libraries, and schools with braille embossers, refreshable braille displays, or other braille-aware devices--with more being added all the time. A user needing immediate access to specific information contained in an online braille book (e.g., a recipe in a cookbook or a passage from a poem) can obtain it in a matter of minutes. Alternatively, readers can browse books online to determine if they wish to order embossed copies from their library.

Because all of the books contained in the system were produced first in hard copy form for the embossed collection, the files used in the Web-Braille system are, in effect, "by-products" which cost the Library very little to mount and maintain. This project represents NLS's first effort to provide library materials in a digital form directly to patrons, and it is expected that obstacles and observations gleaned will be helpful in planning future projects of a much larger scale.

Background

Braille, the system of touch reading and writing for blind persons that has traditionally employed embossed dots on paper, has been in existence since the early nineteenth century. In its simplest form, braille consists of letters, numbers, and some punctuation marks, but much more commonly braille includes contractions representing groups of letters or whole words that appear frequently in a language. This is usually referred to as Grade 2 braille. The use of contractions permits faster braille reading and helps reduce the size of braille books, making them somewhat less cumbersome.

Historically, braille materials were produced by hand using mechanical devices to press dots into heavy paper; later, material was typed into a very complex device that embossed directly onto metal plates from which paper copies were created on a large press. In the late 1960s, technology was developed allowing braille texts to be entered, manipulated, and stored using a computer. At that time, computers still output text to devices that embossed metal plates; but later, paper braille embossers were developed that could be connected directly to a personal computer allowing much greater flexibility for the creation of braille on a small scale.

Thanks to the foresight in the early 1990s of Lois Mandelberg, former head of the NLS Production Control Section, an archive of electronic files created in the process of producing embossed braille books has been retained at NLS since 1992 as backup for possible future use. It was the fact that braille material can now be easily stored on computer disk (allowing their easy storage and retrieval using the Internet) and the fact that virtually all the books produced by NLS are in Grade 2 contracted braille (meaning that these books are in the required "specialized format" allowing their distribution free to eligible users under U.S. copyright law) that made Web-Braille possible.

NLS presently has more than 30,000 hard copy braille titles in its national collection. These paper braille books are circulated to patrons from 32 libraries throughout the country. At its inception, Web-Braille already includes nearly 10 percent of the entire NLS braille collection. On Web-Braille, we have virtually every braille book produced by NLS in the last eight years, except for print/braille, foreign language, and Grade 1 braille books.

Pilot Phase

The idea for Web-Braille was first proposed by NLS staff in September 1997. While many things were known at that time--the files for producing braille books could be easily read by users with portable refreshable braille equipment, many blind persons were becoming familiar with the Internet and were finding it a viable means for getting information, and Library of Congress servers could provide a good host for downloadable files there were also many aspects of the project that needed investigation. These included: the user interface to be used, the security measures to limit access to eligible readers, and the system file structure and file naming conventions.

It was decided that a pilot test needed to be conducted. To do this, fifty titles were selected from the NLS braille collection. These books covered a wide variety of subjects, including cookbooks, short stories, novels, finance, and self-help. Cataloging records were pulled from the NLS CD-ROM catalog, records were reformatted, and a web page was created for the user interface with active links to the braille files. Working with the archived diskettes, each volume of each title was checked, converted to a standard format, and loaded onto a Library of Congress mainframe computer.

In March 1998, the pilot test was launched. Evaluators for the three-month test were recruited using several electronic mailing lists. More than 175 individuals and institutions agreed to download files, use them with their available equipment, report difficulties, and make suggestions for improvement. Participants included individuals who read braille, teachers and librarians in public schools, staff of cooperating network libraries, teachers in schools for the blind, braille transcribers, and braille producers.

Evaluators used a variety of braille equipment and software so that the downloading and reading process was able to be tested under a wide range of circumstances. Sixty-two of the individuals used braille note-takers, such as Braille Lite and Braille 'n Speak fifty-five used braille embossers; and thirty-six used refreshable braille displays.

For Internet web browsers, sixty-four evaluators used Lynx (a text-only browser popular among blind persons) for downloading the files from the Internet, twenty-four used Internet Explorer, and fifteen used Netscape. People logging on to the Internet site were presented with a web page that featured information about the fifty braille books. The listing was arranged by book number and included the title, author, and annotation for each book. Because the files were originally created during the production of the hard copy braille version, the text was separated into braille volumes. Links on the web page led readers to each volume, which could then be downloaded for embossing or read online with a braille display. In a seven-week period, there were 2,808 "hits," on the Web-Braille web page and the braille volumes.

Upon completion of the pilot, users were surveyed to gather information that proved crucial in designing the full system. Pilot testers gave the service an overwhelmingly favorable review and expressed interest in continuing the program on a permanent basis. Evaluators also provided valuable technical suggestions regarding file structure and naming, downloading instructions, searching capability, adjustable line length, and other issues.

Implementation Phase

In July 1998, the decision was made to make Web-Braille a permanent part of the NLS program. Implementing Web-Braille on a full-scale basis meant there were many things that needed to be done. We now knew that user satisfaction was high, and we knew how users would use these electronic materials, but the challenge remained of how to integrate Web-Braille into a system that previously had not included electronic materials.

The next tasks included:

Once Web-Braille was opened to all eligible users, it was necessary for staff to respond to dozens of questions from network libraries and patrons. We created a "frequently asked questions" section to answer some of the more frequently occurring concerns.

Lessons Learned

Piloting and implementing Web-Braille has been a very instructive process, and many aspects of this effort will no doubt provide invaluable lessons when similar activities are pursued for NLS's digital talking book effort. Among the most significant were:

Scope of Audience. Throughout the initial planning stages for Web-Braille, it had been our assumption that the primary and probably only audience for braille books on the Internet would be technically savvy braille readers. However, early in the pilot phase, we began hearing from classroom teachers, special educators, media librarians, and the like, all telling us that they desperately needed braille materials for their students. At first, this was puzzling--our libraries had vast quantities of braille books. What was the problem? After many conversations with such educators, a clearer picture emerged. Apparently, all braille readers in a given state in a specific grade are likely to need the same book at the same time. This could mean that as many as twenty or thirty copies of Pride and Prejudice might be needed and the library would have only one or two copies at the most. In addition, the problem was a matter of budget. It seems that few states have a budget that would allow them to purchase twenty or thirty copies of Pride and Prejudice (even if it was available for purchase), but it is possible for them to emboss that many copies.

At the present time, nearly half of those who have registered for Web-Braille are, in one way or another, connected with the educational system. We have communicated with dozens of teachers and educators who are enthusiastic about braille for their students and are encouraged to be able to get these materials from the Internet.

Staff training. The ongoing activities to maintain Web-Braille have meant that a number of NLS staff have found it necessary to acquire skills not previously needed for their jobs. These have included electronic file preparation and checking; server maintenance; and various skills associated with using the Internet. In addition, many regional library staff have also had to acquire skills to register Web-Braille users online and knowledgeably respond to patron inquiries.

User Support. Users of Web-Braille employ a dizzying variety of software and hardware to access the system including operating systems from Windows 98 to dedicated notetakers, more than a dozen different web browsers, a variety of speech and braille screen readers, numerous brands and models of braille displays, braille embossers, and other specialized products. For this reason, user support has been especially challenging because each user's problem has presented its own unique set of issues. We have found that only the most general situations can be addressed with "Frequently Asked Questions."

The Future of Web-Braille

Books are being added to Web-Braille at the rate of about forty per month. As each Grade 2 braille book embossed for the collection is approved for shipment, the files are routinely transferred to the Web-Braille system. Titles can be accessed by searching the NLS on-line catalog or by browsing the on-line version of Braille Book Review.

NLS has recently launched a pilot test of braille magazines to Web-Braille. While this is technically feasible, there are many additional issues to resolve since NLS does not receive the braille files used to emboss the hard copy. In addition, we are also considering scanning older braille titles with newly-developed optical braille recognition software which can scan physical braille books and store them as Grade 2 braille files. In this way, we could add classic literature, prequels to existing Web-Braille titles, and other books of interest to Web-Braille users.

As of this writing, Web-Braille has been launched for more than a year. We have over 1,100 registered users and nearly 3,200 titles on the site. User feedback, from individuals and schools, continues to be extremely positive. For many, Web-Braille is providing a whole new way of accessing library materials--a chance to browse and select a book after having given it a thorough perusal. Web-Braille also represents another element in the overall movement toward enhancing braille literacy among blind persons--a movement that is heartily endorsed by blind persons and librarians alike.


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