Volume IV Number 1, August 1997

The Virtual Library: Collaborative Data Exchange and Electronic Text Delivery

Steve Noble
Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic

Libraries have been in existence for thousands of years. The earliest known libraries can be traced to early Sumerian cultures where legal documents, business transactions, and even tax records were kept within collections of clay tablets. The Egyptian ruler Ramses II is credited with founding a library of 20,000 papyrus scrolls around the year 1250 B.C. Certainly the greatest library of ancient times was the Greek library at Alexandria, Egypt. Established during the 3rd century B.C., it is thought to have contained somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000 volumes at its largest extent. The library at Alexandria had all the traits we still commonly associate with libraries. It had a designated librarian, a catalog of its holdings, a "copy center" where scribes prepared copies of scrolls, and a reference section complete with dictionaries of various languages. And like most libraries today it even had space problems, as an annex in the Temple of Serapis had to be used to house a spillover of some 40,000 scrolls.

Over these many years, the primary function of libraries has seen only slight change, while the manner in which this function is carried out has evolved along with human advances in technology. The switch from clay tablets to papyrus, and later to vellum, parchment, and paper, together with the codification of written languages such as Greek and Latin, were early technological innovations that helped facilitate an information revolution during late antiquity and into the middle ages. Yet another information revolution was brought about at the height of the Renaissance thanks to the invention of moveable type in 1456. Despite these advances in technology, the mission of libraries has remained fundamentally the same: to provide access to information through collecting, preserving, and disseminating knowledge found within various media.

The intent of this presentation will be to look at two specific tasks which must be performed by libraries in the pursuit of their primary mission of information access--namely bibliographic access and document delivery--and how various technologies used to perform these tasks may either help or hinder the inclusion of persons with disabilities. The pivotal points of this study will focus on two primary highlights. The first primary highlight of this session will be a soon to be completed project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) which will provide a merged electronic database indexing nearly all alternative format accessible texts available in the English language within the North American continent. The second primary highlight of our study will be computer mediated document delivery by the use of various types of accessible electronic texts, including digital audio.


Though the proper usage of the term "virtual library" is still being debated, this expression usually refers to libraries that exist primarily in an electronic environment, and ultimately to the future convergence of all computer accessible information via the Internet. During the 1970s we began to see the first explicit references to the "electronic library," though the underlying concept of libraries utilizing digitally stored information had earlier roots. Most historians of modern library systems are quick to point to statements made in 1961 by the mathematician John Kemeny, who predicted that the library of the year 2000 would consist primarily of terminal connections to distant computer sites holding text materials in central locations across the world. Although the expansion of world-wide computer networks via the Internet has led many to predict the coming age of a true "virtual library" in which any individual anywhere in the world could have full access to all library holdings simply by logging on with their own personal computer, quite a number of obstacles--not the least of which is concerns over intellectual property rights--currently stand in the way.


Access to bibliographic information via electronic methods, however, has even earlier origins. In 1939, the inventor Vannevar Bush wrote his now famous article entitled "Mechanization and the Record" in which he outlined the creation of the "Memex," a "mechanical indexing device to assist the memory." Although the practical limitations of creating library databases on vacuum-tube computers delayed its arrival by a number of decades, the development of semiconductor components made the "online public access catalog" or OPAC a reality in the 1960s and 70s. Even though it was not immediately recognized at the time, the OPAC was a god-send for disabilities access, especially for blind and visually impaired users. Line-input OPACs together with adaptive technology devices such as screen readers and refreshable braille displays made library catalogs fully accessible to many persons with disabilities for the very first time.

Throughout the 1980s, the expansion of computer networks-- especially the Internet--dramatically increased the access potential for users of bibliographic databases. Through facilities such as Telnet, and now the World Wide Web, anyone with an Internet connection can now use the OPACs of libraries throughout the globe, assuming of course that the catalog is connected to the Internet. Libraries designed specifically for persons with disabilities are no exception. The National Library Service (NLS), which provides braille and audio recordings for individuals who are blind or visually impaired, has provided Internet access to its OPAC via the Library of Congress Information System (LOCIS) since the early 1990s. Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), previously known simply as Recording for the Blind, has been running an Internet accessible catalog of its audio library holdings since 1992. The RFB&D catalog also has the extra feature of an online ordering module which allows registered borrowers and educational institutions (now limited to members of a special test group) to order recorded texts as part of the online session. The cassette tapes are then mailed to users. In effect, this database is a hybrid system which combines both the functions of bibliographic access and document delivery functions into one service.


The practice of merged library databases, where one electronic catalog lists the holdings of several libraries, has been common for several years, especially among academic libraries. Systems such as the Washington Library Network (WLN), the Research Library Information Network (RLIN), and the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), are familiar examples. The sharing of automated data ultimately helps library users to identify where particular information materials may be found without having to contact each library individually. This practice also reduces the need for each library to duplicate the same holdings found at other libraries, since most libraries participate in Inter- Library Loan (ILL) programs. In times of shrinking government funding and increasing costs of monographs and journals, ILL programs have become an essential part of libraries' document delivery operations.

Since the number of organizations producing accessible alternative format materials is very small, and demand for these services is growing at a much higher rate than the supply can accommodate, it has become essential for these organizations to merge their bibliographic resources. To facilitate this transfer of automated data, the NSF provided funding for the development and implementation of a cooperative database exchange program which would eventually give each organization bibliographic information on all accessible text materials in the English language available on the North American continent. This electronic networking project will ultimately provide direct access to users through Internet accessible catalogs such as the one on LOCIS, and will provide essential coordinating information to member institutions thereby eliminating wasteful duplication of resources.

The National Library of Canada, the American Printing House for the Blind, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic- -the four major North American organizations producing accessible materials or maintaining databases of these materials--began initial cooperation to share bibliographic data in 1992. This led to a grant from the NSF in July of 1993 to fund the implementation of the project up to its projected date of completion in January of 1998. By this date, all member organizations will have full bibliographic access to nearly all items available in braille, large print, audio, and digital formats. At the same time, efforts are underway to catalog accessible materials produced by many smaller organizations, and it is hoped to eventually include materials available in English produced outside of the continent. The end result of this project will be the largest "virtual library catalog" for accessible text materials on the planet.


Moving beyond bibliographic access, the coming virtual library age has profound implications for direct access to library holdings. Though a few current online systems--such as RFB&D's Internet catalog--are equipped for direct ordering of materials via computer, the ultimate document delivery system would allow direct digital access to the text itself, making virtually all written materials instantly accessible via screen enlargers, screen readers, or braille printers and displays. There are currently a number of organizations which are producing electronic versions of printed texts via print file conversion or scanning the text using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology. Though many government agencies and corporations are now producing texts only in electronic form as cost saving measures, the vast majority of all information continues to exist primarily on printed paper. Some print-access organizations, such as RFB&D, have been engaged in converting printed books into electronic texts which can be distributed to users on computer diskettes. RFB&D's current Digital Audio project will additionally produce some texts in CD ROM format which will allow access to electronic texts linked to digitally recorded human voice, allowing for richer information access and better suitability for persons with perceptual disabilities that have difficulty utilizing printed texts as well as additional comprehension difficulties when using synthetic speech.

There are currently a number of initiatives underway to get all textual and most non-textual forms of information into electronic formats to facilitate a true virtual library. Project Gutenberg, the Online Book Initiative, the Internet Public Library, the Digital Library Initiative, and the World Wide Web Virtual Library Project are some of the largest projects now under way which may someday lead to the ultimate global virtual library.


The current trend toward Internet access and services is bringing the dream of a virtual library closer to a reality. It is important to keep in mind, however, that some troubling questions remain ahead:

* Who will pay for information access--will we develop into a polarized society of the information-poor and the information- rich?

* Will concerns over intellectual property rights lead to a system where "free public libraries" no longer exist and all information must be on a pay-for-access principle?

* How will we guarantee that the virtual library will be accessible to persons with disabilities? Will popular graphical systems and multimedia delivery methods create new obstacles to the universal access of information?

These are all vital concerns to the development of a 21st century virtual library. It is very important that all members of the disability community remain vigilant in keeping informed of new developments and giving needed critical feedback to those who are now developing the virtual library.

Project EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information) has set up a special listserv to discuss these and other library access concerns. The Access to Libraries Listserv, AXSLIB-L, can be joined by sending an email message to: listserv@sjuvm.stjohns.edu with the subject line blank and the following command as the first and only line of the text: sub axslib-l yourfirstname yourlastname Please be sure to substitute your name. If you have any problems, just send a note to this author and he will add you to the list.

This paper, which was delivered at the California State University Northridge Conference "Where Assistive Technology Meets the Information Age" (March 18 - 22, 1997) is reprinted, with permission of CSUN's Founder and Director, Harry J. Murphy, Ed.D.

Noble, S. (1997). The virtual library: Collaborative data exchange and electronic text delivery. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 4(1).