Digital library project could take blind beyond Braille

To meet the increasing technical sophistication of its clients, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) will digitize its library of more than 60,000 titles.

The project will cost $33 million any may take up to 10

years to complete, but the end result will mean significantly improved access to written and audio materials for Canada’s three million “”print disabled.”” Those include the blind and visually impaired, but also Canadians with conditions like cerebral palsy and dyslexia.

“”We’re really just beginning the project,”” said Barbara Freeze, director of systems and operations for the CNIB library. “”We determined that we should transform ourselves into a digital library when we forged out strategic plan in 1998.””

The digitization process is under way for small parts of the library collection, but the work will start in earnest this fall. The goal is to convert audio and written material into digital data that can be accessed online, as well as the CNIB’s customary methods of reaching clients by mailing tapes, CDs and Braille books.

Audio content is currently stored on reel-to-reel technology. Once digitized, the CNIB could circulate it in either CD or tape or deliver it over the Web in FTP or streaming delivery mode. “”We’re broadening our scope of delivery mechanisms,”” explained Roger Beatty, an independent consultant who has been attached to the CNIB project since the get-go.

More than $8 million of the necessary $33 million for the project came from donations from the private sector, foundations and service clubs. Contributor Microsoft Canada will also provide consulting expertise and Microsoft partner Navantis is helping to build a new Web portal for the CNIB. A children’s portal will be built chiefly by media giant Corus Entertainment Inc., which owns Nelvana Ltd., producer and distribution of children’s television.

“”Increasingly our clients are online and using the Web, so we already delivery some of our library services over the Web. This is an extension of that,”” said Freeze. “”We’d like to make our digital content that way so clients can search for it and download if they wish to get it that way.””

There is technology available to the blind and visually impaired to help them access Internet content, added Beatty. A special zoom program can increase the size of words or individual characters to fill the entire screen or screen-reading software which interprets text from a video display and reads it back in a synthetic voice.

Java and Flash technology can seriously complicate this process, said Beatty, since a screen reader may have trouble making sense of the text. “”You have to be very, very aggressive with your Web developers, making sure that the products that you use for content are appropriate for the end users. The margin for error is very slight when dealing with adaptive technologies,”” he said.

“”This system is being created for the CNIB and their audience in particular, but I think the applicability here runs far beyond that. The CNIB right now is probably about 100,000 clients . . . but we envision that this could be modeled and utilized as a way to enable the visually-impaired to access information. We do have that in the back of our minds as a design point.””

The planned CNIB portal will exceed the expectations laid out government Web pages in the U.S., which in its 508 statute mandates that all such content be accessible by the visually-impaired. The CNIB’s private sector partners are building the portal specifically for the CNIB’s needs, but, “”I think the applicability here runs far beyond that,”” said Microsoft Canada consultant Frank Battiston, adding that it could serve as model for similar libraries across the world that cater to the visually-impaired. “”We do have that in the back of our minds as a design point,”” he said.

The sheer volume of data created by digitization will add up to 90TB by the time the project is completed. Much of it will be stored as audio wave files, which are difficult to compress, said Beatty.

As a charity organization, the CNIB is exempt from certain copyright laws, said Beatty, but in the interests of being a “”good corporate citizen,”” it is beginning the digitization process with public domain or publisher-approved material.

“”We went to the marketplace and as many of the major players as we could and found that most of the DRM-type of services are just not quite there,”” he said. “”When the digital rights management market becomes mature then we can turn it on and extend our full content to our full customer base.””

As time goes on, it will be easier to add digital content to the library. In some cases new content is being supplied ready-digitized, said Freeze.

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