Volume I Number 2, April 1994

Department: Libraries

Ann Neville
University of Texas, Austin

This column discusses library applications of information technology. Instructions for obtaining the resources discussed below can be found at the end of the item.

The Internet and its various navigational tools -- Gopher, for example, or Mosaic, a format for the World Wide Web, provide new ways to get to information, and are becoming standard resources at reference desks that have ready access to them. Developments in this, as in other computer applications, are trending toward graphical and multimedia formats. Mosaic is a very attractive way to package information, and its hypertext access points make it easy to use. Like other multimedia sources, however, Mosaic at first appears to be inaccessible to blind users who have become accustomed to independent access to (text-based) Internet tools and sources.

The information provided below presents a way to make Mosaic accessible to blind users. Darrell Shandrow, a student at Arizona State University and burgeoning Internet expert, sent the information which follows to the EASI discussion list a few weeks ago. Based on his information, we installed it on a server, and users get to it by telnetting to the text-based version of Mosaic.

Below is a revised version of Darrell's post.

A couple of months ago I began to notice something interesting happening on the enormous world of the Internet. It horrified me at first but I have found that there is a solution.

I have been on the net for over 2 years now. At first, email, telnet, and ftp were the only standards in wide use and they were great things. Not only were users able to use these tools to retrieve vast amounts of information but there was nothing in the way of graphics that hampered access to the blind. While the requirement to remember an incredible amount of information necessary to keep track of the various domains for all of the systems was quite a pain, it worked quite well.

Then the wonderful world of gopher came along. Many information resources became available on a great little critter that even allowed you to search much information stored on hundreds of computers around the world. Yes, it was headed for graphics but it was still very friendly to blind users on the net. The gopher critter is still frequently utilized to provide information on the Internet. However, I began to notice a disturbing trend on the Internet. Applications were becoming graphical in nature. There have sprung up numerous Internet tools for Microsoft Windows, Macintosh systems, and Unix boxes running interfaces like X-Windows. I began to think we were going to have a problem. We still might if screen access doesn't improve faster than its current rate but we still have some time. I will now discuss the new trend of providing information via a new interface known as World Wide Web.

When I first heard about World Wide Web (WWW) I began to worry. Those who discussed it on the net and here at school talked about it in terms of X-Windows and the X-terminals down in our Computing Commons. I thought, "Wow, here is another system we are locked out of until adaptive technology companies and researchers get their acts together." I also noticed new services coming online with no gopher access. I was worried since I had become dependent on the friendly interface of gopher. Two examples of Web only services are the mtv.com system operated by Adam Curry and the Palo Alto Weekly newspaper experiment. (Actually, the gopher on mtv.com still exists but Adam was quoted as saying that he was only going to be updating the material on the WWW server.) Well, I used my ability to get around and found us blind users a solution.

I have been a member of the National Federation of the Blind for a considerable time now - over 6 years. (Well, it's a considerable time for me anyhow.) I remembered mentions of a program called Lynx which was a text-based WWW interface. Before my revelation I figured, "well, the web uses hypertext and this depends on highlighted text so how can it possibly work for the blind?" I decided to give it a fair chance.

I was quite surprised to find that the Web is fairly accessible to us after all. No, we can't access any of the image files in a meaningful way but we can most definitely see the text. As I mentioned earlier, the web uses hypertext. WWW uses the concept of a universal resource locater (url) which keeps track of documents that are stored on computers throughout the world. It works like this: The user activates the web program and is placed on the home page of a default server. This page not only has relevant information for that institution but also points the way to other resources. One selects items on the web by placing the cursor on various parts of the screen that contain highlighting. These are known as hypertext links. When a link is selected the relevant document or page is brought up. I guess it's supposed to be like using a hypertext document on a stand-alone computer from something like Hypercard but I wouldn't know that yet. The user also has the option of specifying an url on another machine directly to facilitate quick access to needed information. So, I will now spill the beans on how Lynx works.

As I have stated earlier, Lynx is text-based. However, there are still hypertext links and all the concepts that come with them. Lynx allows the user to select links by pressing the up and down arrow keys only. The cursor is placed on the first letter of the current link. The up and down arrows move between links. There are often several links on a line. The up key moves to the left and wraps up while the down key moves to the right and then wraps down. The user presses either the right arrow or the enter key to select a link. The left arrow key is used to go back up to the previous level. That would be where you were before selecting the link.

Reading links is not difficult. As I said earlier, the cursor is put on the first letter of the link you are pointing at. The user simply directs his/her screen access software to read the current line. Often, there are several links on that line. The user then gets more specific by reading the current word. This word is the first word of the link in question. Since links normally consist of a couple of words it is easy to figure out which words on that line consist of your link. Once the user figures out this process he/she will master reading lines that consist of 3 or more links.

A braille display completely solves this problem. Since at least a forth of the line is on the braille display at one time the user can feel where the cursor is located and the words following it. Often, the link is right under the user's fingers or one advance of the display away from complete visibility. Of course, the display's cursor tracking function must be active when using Lynx in order to have this benefit. I recommend, if possible, the use of both speech and braille when using Lynx. It's this easy, even for a sighted person: after just a few minutes working with Lynx, I was able to turn the screen off and interact effectively and easily with Mosaic. Anything I use routinely at the Reference Desk, and particularly any electronic resource that I use there regularly, I want to make available to library users with disabilities. For blind users and users with other visual impairments, Lynx is a way to make WWW accessible. It seems to work readily with screen review programs; at least, I know that VocalEyes and Flipper present no problems. There seems to be some inconsistency, however, between different communications programs, and it may be that sometimes the tab key will work better than the arrow key.

For the resources described:

NCSA mosaic: ftp.ncsa.uiuc.edu

LYNX for vt100 sites: ftp2.cc.ukans.edu in pub/lynx

For more information:

Darrell Shandrow
600 E. University Drive
Manzanita Hall
Box 233
Tempe, AZ 85281-2030
(602) 784-0211.
Internet: nu7i@indirect.com
Other Internet addresses:
GeNie: d.shandrow2 Packet radio: nu7i@n6qmy (directly forwarded to Internet) nu7i@kc7y.az.usa.na (home pbbs)

Libraries and Distance Education

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education has published a _Guide for Planning Library Integration into Distance Education Programs_. The document, by Vicky York, presents a planning guide which addresses general planning elements as well as specific management issues relating to library service within the context of distance education. In addition, the report presents and analyzes the results of surveys conducted at six institutions of higher education:

In addition to survey results and institutional profiles, The _Guide_ provides a bibliography on distance education and library service, as well as "ACRL Guidelines for Extended Campus Library Services." Requests for further information should be directed to:

Mollie McGill
Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications
P.O. Drawer P
Boulder, CO 80301-9752
telephone: 303 / 541-0233

The Libraries Department is Edited by:

Ann Neville
Coordinator, Services to Users with Disabilities
The General Libraries
P.O. Box P
The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, TX 78713-7330
FAC 101
(512) 495-4451
Neville, A. (1994). Libraries. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 1(2).