Volume II Number 1, January 1995

Developing an Accessible Online Public Access Catalog at the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library

Charles Hamilton
Public Access Catalog Program Coordinator


During 1993, the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library (WTBBL), formerly the Washington Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, undertook a project to develop an online public access catalog. Patrons can now search all titles in the collection, including old and new titles, and titles produced locally. Access is available seven days a week, 24 hours a day. From the comfort of their homes and at their leisure, patrons can use their personal computers with adaptive output devices to look at all titles by an author or within a particular subject area, or search for a specific title, and then request specific books, or leave other messages for the staff. WTBBL staff members process these requests the next working day, thus bypassing the delay in receiving mail requests. In addition, agencies such as public libraries have access to this online catalog, which enables them to enhance the service currently offered to members of their community.

WTBBL provides a free, state-wide public library service to individuals who cannot read standard print due to a physical disability. As part of the national network of 56 libraries cooperating with the Library of Congress' National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), WTBBL receives books in alternate formats, the special government-issued equipment necessary to play the books, and the latest catalogues. The collection of books provided free by the NLS is similar in content to that found in neighborhood public libraries--classics, best sellers, westerns, mysteries, romances, and a range of non-fiction titles. This free public library service provided by WTBBL is administered by the Seattle Public Library under a contract with the Washington State Library. The funding of this contract is a combination of state and federal funds.


The focus of the online public access catalog (OPAC) project was to ameliorate two major problems for patrons: finding specific books and receiving them quickly.

Locating specific books. Because this service is statewide, WTBBL and its patrons are dependent primarily upon the U.S. Postal Service as the medium of communication. Prior to 1993, patrons unable to visit the library could locate books by reading bi-monthly catalogues of new books on tape, in Braille and in large print. These publications and their annual cumulations were the only means of browsing our collection. Back issues of catalogues are not available due to the finite number of catalogues produced annually and a national policy of not reprinting older catalogues.

To locate a title, author or subject of interest, users could pore through their personal collection of catalogues--a time-consuming and laborious process at best--or ask for individual assistance by telephone. There was no way for patrons to search the entire collection by author, title or subject. For this reason, many patrons never selected books at all. Rather, they informed the library of general categories of interest such as mysteries or political biographies and had our computer system issue books at random in these areas of interest.

Receiving books quickly. Prior to the current project, when a patron located a book, it was ordered by phone or mail. Order forms sent by mail result in a one-to four-day delay, as discussed below. Books requested by the patron are sent as part of the selection process used by the automated system.

As technology has become more readily available, more persons with disabilities are using personal computers with adaptive output devices which produce Braille, auditory or large print output. Many of these individuals urged WTBBL to provide online access to its patrons, and the vendor of the automated circulation system used by WTBBL, developed OPAC software.

To substantiate the informal user comments noted over the years about online access, WTBBL conducted a 1992 survey of its patrons and asked whether they would be interested in direct and up-to-date access to the WTBBL collection. Forty-six percent of those responding indicated that they either presently have a computer or access to one, or that they would be willing to go to a public library which offered computer access to the WTBBL collection.


In the spring of 1993, the additional computer hardware needed to operate the online catalog was installed, including additional memory, storage and peripherals for WTBBL's VAX computer. The online catalog software was also installed together with an additional telephone line used specifically for the catalog. The software vendor subsequently wrote a program that transfers additions and changes from the circulation title file to the MARC-formatted OPAC database. It is being run weekly.

One of the advantages of the Data Research software is that it is relatively easy to redesign the screens displayed to users. We have continued to make modifications to the screens to customize the program for WTBBL's needs and in response to patron and staff comments. For example, since almost all OPAC users do not have access to DEC terminals, we have deleted references to special keys found only on those terminals. We have minimized the use of bold and reverse video, since these create extraneous characters for some users who do not have communication software with terminal emulation capability. We have added a number of specialized help screens and have modified the main menu screen to increase the prominence of the option for searching by subject keyword.

Other improvements added recently include an option that allows patrons to find out whether a selected book is on the shelves before they request it. Electronic versions of applications for library service and order forms for magazine subscriptions are also available.

Another useful option included in the OPAC software is a function in which patrons can type "news" and obtain information on any subject the library wishes. We have created a menu system for this function that allows users to view information about the library, about community events, and about the Evergreen Radio Reading Service's schedule.

The library has also established an accessible location in the lobby where patrons may use the OPAC. An accessible computer terminal, equipped with speech synthesis and screen-magnification programs, and with the ability to produce hard copy in large print or Braille, can be used to search the OPAC. This terminal has been popular with patrons and staff.

As of December 1993, the library was in the process of taking advantage of another feature of the OPAC software--the ability to create screens in multiple languages. A library volunteer was in the process of translating the OPAC screens into Spanish, and these were to be added as options for users needing them.


As the project began, we were unsure how much assistance patrons would need in order to use the OPAC. We knew of many library users who were quite computer-literate, but in order to ensure that the system and the instructions were understandable, a draft set of instructions for accessing OPAC was written in May 1994. These instructions were produced in regular print, large print, Braille, and on computer disk, and distributed in June 1994 to a group of 26 testers representing library patrons, libraries, schools and other interested groups. Their feedback was used to draft the final access instructions. These were distributed to cooperating libraries, schools, the press, regional and national organizations, and to the general public in large-print, computer-disk and Braille versions.

The OPAC Program Coordinator provided telephone assistance to many patrons who had questions about connecting to the catalog. In almost every case, we were able to resolve user questions by making changes to the setup of their communication software and/or the initialization string sent to their modem. The dial-in instructions and a newsletter entitled the OPAC Oracle both discussed some possible remedies if users were unable to connect to the catalog. We have also recruited and trained several extremely talented and knowledgeable volunteers who assist patrons in using the OPAC, as well as conducting searches for those who do not have access to computers. One volunteer is in charge of updating the news function.


Any request received before 4 p. m. is processed at that time. Labels are then computer-generated and printed for mailing the following morning. We have refined the processing system to improve and speed service by:

Processing requests in the afternoon rather than in the morning so that there would be more books available.

Requesting older titles from the NLS multi-state center for direct mailing to patrons.

Producing extra copies of cassette titles requested frequently by students.

Removing titles and formats that are no longer available from the computer.

Clarifying the on-screen instructions for library requests.

Giving patrons the option to receive books immediately as they become available, or more gradually.


The library hired a Program Coordinator to manage the installation, testing, training and publicity needed to make the OPAC a success. Since maintaining the catalog has proven relatively simple, the program coordinator position was eliminated as of December 1993, and its functions were taken over by other library staff members.

Evaluation of this project has been conducted in three ways: through collecting statistical information, through surveys, and through informal observations of users.


We received considerably more requests than anticipated: 163 in July, 232 in August, 248 in September, 177 in October, and 195 in November, for a total of 1,015 (as of Nov. 30). We surpassed the 800 messages we expected in late October.

MONTH # connections # requests # books # books %issued received issued reserved
Jul 188 163 76 81 46.63%
Aug 203 232 125 93 53.88%
Sep 145 248 104 135 41.94%
Oct 154 177 106 65 59.89%
Nov 160 195 102 89 52.31%
TOTALS 850 1,015 513 463

NP = Not Patron NCF = Book requested in format patron does not take MSC = ordered for patron from another location
MONTH # other messages Comments
Jul 5 1 NP, 5 NCF
Aug 2 11 NCF
Sep 1 8 NCF
Oct 1 1 MSC
Nov 4 4 NCF

OPAC requests represent approximately one-half of one percent of the total circulation. It would appear that OPAC has not yet had a significant influence in the library's circulation. It is possible that availability of the OPAC will not affect the library's circulation very much if books requested through the online catalog replace books that would have been sent to patrons through the automatic book-selection process. Use of the OPAC is unlikely to increase patrons' reading speed.

It may also be that patrons are actually reading more of the books that they receive. Patrons may have previously requested more books in the hope that some of them would be of interest. With the ability to select specific books, patrons can be assured of receiving something more of interest to them. Discussions with patrons indicate that many books received through the automatic selection process are not read, but are sent directly back to the library. Naturally, the circulation statistics cannot distinguish between books that are read and those that are not.


Although not required under the terms of the grant, the library undertook a survey of those who had requested dial-in instructions. We received 27 completed responses to the survey, which was included in The OPAC Oracle newsletter. Generally, people who have used the system are very pleased with it. Almost everyone liked 24-hour availability and the ability to order books at home. A few have mentioned getting extraneous characters (brought about because their systems do not have VT-100/102 emulation). Patrons consistently mention long-distance charges as a reason for not using the catalog.

Of the 27 respondents, 16 have used OPAC; 11 have not. Those who have not used OPAC listed the following reasons (multiple reasons were permitted):

4 Too expensive
2 No access to computer
1 Trouble connecting
1 Too confusing
5 Other, including "just found out about it," "no modem,"
"need MORE information," and similar.

Reasons for liking the OPAC included:
16 Available 24 hours
12 Ordering books
9 Easy to use
8 Browsing at home
8 Searching by keyword
8 Ability to check whether a book is on the shelves
7 Receiving books quickly
7 Finding new books
3 Leaving messages for staff

Things respondents don't like about the OPAC:
10 Long-distance charges
3 Difficulty connecting
3 Hard to use
3 Instructions unclear
1 Doesn't work well with my computer and/or adaptive
equipment 0 Can't get access to a computer
6 Other, including "hard to browse because of low vision," "hard to look through long search list and see all details," "get lots of garbage characters, very awkward to access" "works OK on home computer but not on office computer"

Six respondents requested a telephone call. The rest did not. The program coordinator spoke to everyone who requested assistance and was able to solve several technical difficulties.


User response to the system has been overwhelmingly positive. Patrons and staff have become avid users within a very short time. Patrons are discovering new ways of using the system practically every day--from searching for favorite authors to looking up complex and obscure subjects. Following are some random excerpts from the comments we have received:

"The online system certainly is an exciting development and I plan to exercise it posthaste. Methinks it'll be fun once again to 'browse the stacks,' so to speak."

"What I like about your new system is that I can browse for hours. I was before limited to outdated catalogs or Talking Book Topics....Now I can look up a new book or special interest book and begin listening to it in two days. Wow! I have used your system over a dozen times! THANK YOU!"

"The ability to know if a book is available online was a great idea and a welcomed addition."

"Thanks for helping out. When I get my SCAN [state long-distance] line installed we will be calling again!!!!!"

"First I would like to thank you for the great service. I've been getting a lot of great books very quickly. The OPAC service has been very helpful and a great source of information. If the budget ever allows it would be nice if you had a 1-800 or Tacoma line for OPAC users...."

"I would like to...remark what a great service you are providing and you are doing a great job. Again, the service [is] incredible. It's amazing how fast you react to requests. I really like the OPAC computer system. If possible, please consider getting a 1-800 WATS line. Thank you."


Based on statistics, the user survey and informal comments, the library believes that this project has been overwhelmingly successful. The OPAC is a necessary addition to our services, and it allows the library to improve its service to patrons. The central focus of this project was to help patrons locate books in the library's collection, and, having found them, to receive them more quickly.

Locating books. Users are certainly taking advantage of the OPAC to locate books. A larger number of requests has been received than was anticipated. Patrons are able to search the entire WTBBL catalog for the first time, at home, through local libraries and other agencies, and at the WTBBL facility in Seattle. In addition, the OPAC has allowed users and staff to conduct sophisticated searches. Bibliographies can be created in response to specific patron requests.

Speeding availability of books. OPAC users have bypassed the delivery and processing delays of mail orders. Patrons can receive books on the shelves several days more quickly than was possible before the project.

The title file is being updated and additional copies are being obtained when possible. It is our intention to take all feasible steps to improve the percentage of requested books available.


Hardware. With few exceptions, the hardware needed to operate the OPAC has worked flawlessly. The additional memory, disk drive and server have developed no problems.

We had some difficulty setting up the modem to be used with the OPAC, although it now works fine. We had been told (erroneously, it turns out) that our hardware would communicate only through DEC brand modems. The modem we purchased had to be replaced three times due to hardware failures. The current modem has worked without difficulty for several months, and we have purchased another (of a different brand) for backup purposes. In addition, the library's VAX computer uses slightly different communication protocols than those commonly used by PCs and modems. We were able to create a successful setup, both with the DEC modem and with the Hayes-compatible backup modem. For patrons using modem speeds of 2400 bps or less, the unusual setup is not noticeable. Those with high-speed modems are obliged to turn off error correction in order to connect successfully. Another minor problem: the VAX does not hang up immediately upon logoff, which can cause 5-7 seconds of "garbage characters" to display in some communication software packages.

Software and vendor support. While we have been generally satisfied with the products and service that Data Research has provided, the OPAC system is somewhat limited, as it is one module in a new circulation system they are writing. WTBBL's other circulation functions (including the automatic circulation features unique to libraries for blind people) are still being handled by the vendor's old LBPH software. Until such time as the new software is written (and the libraries involved can afford to purchase it), the OPAC will not be completely integrated into the circulation system. This lack of integration means that while patrons can find out whether books are on the shelves, they cannot view their own histories (what books they have had, what books they have on reserve, and so on), and when they order books, these orders must be manually entered into the circulation system.

The only (very small) bug we have confirmed in the OPAC program has been fixed by Data Research. Book numbers consisting of three letters and five numbers did not display correctly on the holdings screen. As this is being written, we are tracking down a possible bug that precludes records in the circulation database from being transferred into OPAC in some cases, apparently when author information was entered incorrectly.

While the basic OPAC program is very customizable, some of the subsidiary programs OPAC uses are not. We have been unable to modify screens in the keyword program. Although the keyword function works well, its command structure is very different from the OPAC and its menu and help screens are less than clear. In addition, patrons cannot use the book request function from keyword, meaning that anyone who finds a book in keyword must remember author, title or book number and return to the main OPAC program to place the book request there.

Since, as mentioned above, patron book requests cannot be entered automatically into the library circulation system, we have been using a Data Research program that creates electronic mail including book information as well as the patron's name, phone number and so on. While this program can be edited to a limited extent, we have been unable to modify it so that it will show the book number requested by the patron. This requires the staff member processing requests to search for books by author or title before the book can be issued or placed on reserve.

It should be reemphasized that these problems have been very minor, and do not adversely affect the daily operation of the catalog.


Maintaining the catalog will be relatively easy. Changes to catalog entries are updated automatically on a weekly basis. The reader advisory staff has taken over processing of book requests and messages received through the OPAC. Volunteers are updating news items and assisting individuals wishing to use the system. All activities related to the online catalog will be continued using local funds.

Hamilton, C. (1995). Developing an accessible online public access catalog at the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 2(1).