For some years now, I've met for two or three class sessions each summer with a group of students with visual impairments in the "college prep" course at the nearby rehabilitation center (Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center). The first session is a lecture with handouts on library resources and the role of the library research assignments in their college courses. I stress that the research they are assigned in the courses they take is part of what they are supposed to be learning in the course. It is their obligation to make the intellectual decisions involved in the research process: to choose this topic, not that one, to choose to read certain books and articles and not others, to focus on this aspect of a topic and not another, and to come across the unexpected, the exciting new insight, on their own. Not too many years ago, that lead to a discussion of what the librarian can do to help the student and reader to get started, why the student had to direct the reader, and other issues of that nature. The possibilities have certainly expanded in the past few years.
Three years ago, few students in this group had any experience with computers, and some couldn't type. This year, everyone in the group of 45 knew how to use a keyboard. This year, only two in a group of 15 blind students had no previous experience with computers. Over half considered themselves to be "very experienced" with computers.
Last year, we were able to introduce students to gopher as a library research tool. For the first time, the students in the prep class got genuinely excited. Instead of feeling intimidated by all the technology they were going to need to learn to use, this group found less intimidating technology, and much less complicated ways to get to resources. There were easily understandable ways to get to periodical indexes and book catalogs. It seemed odd to me, but many were downright thrilled with the weather report! The students last year seemed to be much more comfortable with the idea of doing their own research.
However, as that group of students went on to their colleges and universities, I began to get phone calls, just a few, from students who said they had no online catalog or Internet access on their campuses, and what could they do? I didn't have a good answer then. But now the Texas Commission for the Blind has an answer. For students who need internet access in order to do research independently, their transition counsellors can authorize an Internet account. It's a resource, "just like a textbook," said Andy Weir at the Texas Commission for the Blind.
This year's crop of students came to yet a different online library...the World Wide Web provides new resources and new formats for familiar resources. This year's session featured LC MARVEL and CARL UnCover as library research tools available over the Internet. World Wide Web wowed the students with visual impairments, since we were able to give them a hands-on demonstration of the Mosaic interface to it. Using a line reader such as LYNX to access World Wide Web is harder to learn to use than gopher is, but information is migrating to that format really fast. The list Web4Lib@library.Berkeley.edu can provide a forum for librarians interested in influencing how information is organized and accessed on the Web. On this list, in mid-July, the University of Waterloo library announced its Web page.In one place, it combines Web and gopher access to information arranged by subject discipline with traditional library approaches to guiding users through a library research process. Under each discipline, there are pointers to the library's research sources in that subject and instructions on how to use them; there are sections an electronic journals and books; there are pointers to discussion groups on the topic, and there are guidelines on evaluating sources. It seems to me to be a good way to organize information for library users.
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