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Digitized Collection Unveiled

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Toronto Star, November 22, 2003, courtesy of Torstar Syndication Services.

How would you feel if you went to buy a magazine and were told that, of the 100 on display, you could choose from only three?

Until this month, some 3 million Canadians routinely faced such restrictions. Because they cannot easily process anything conveyed in print, they have been denied timely information from sources the rest of the population takes for granted.

Thanks to an ambitious $33 million digital library project unveiled last week by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), a brand new world should open up rapidly over the next few years.

Already, libraries around the globe are wanting to match Canada's performance, says Julia Morgan, communications coordinator for the CNIB library. And the project shows promise for everyone from adults with failing sight to children with learning disabilities that make print tough to decipher.

Before the CNIB library went digital, only 3 percent of all material published in this country was available in so-called alternate formats, such as audiotape or braille. That meant Canadians who are blind, have low vision or struggle with certain types of learning disabilities couldn't necessarily read a newspaper the same day it was published. They had to wait until it had been reissued in an alternate format.

In the case of books on topics not widely in demand, it could take weeks or even months before they could get something in a form they could use.

The journey to digital access began five years ago when the CNIB library started reformatting its vast store of information produced on obsolete recording equipment, such as open-reel tapes. Maintaining this equipment was increasingly difficult and costly, slowing the already laborious process of producing material for clients. So the library launched the $33 million campaign to re-engineer book production and convert its existing collection to digital.

Among major contributors to the project are Microsoft Canada, Corus Entertainment and Toronto-based software specialists Navantis. Among other things, these three teamed up to create a special children's discovery portal.

Billed as the world's first accessible, moderated chat room for children who are blind, the portal includes games based on high-contrast visuals and emphasizing sound rather than graphics.

Games like "Doctor Wacky" and "Crazy Concerto" help kids develop memory skills, Morgan says. Then there's "Dreadnought," the CNIB's version of "Battleship."

The children's discovery portal also lets kids read digital audio books online and offers help with homework through email access to librarians and databases such as the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Among interactive features are online polls and questions, a summer reading club and a creative writing competition.

Overall, the CNIB library has more than 60,000 titles, including more than 300,000 copies of talking books. The conversion to digital will eventually double the size of the collection, while giving more clients easier and quicker access.

Through partnerships with public and academic libraries, the material will be available not just to the CNIB's 105,000-plus clients but also to people who can't easily read print because of learning disabilities.

As a member of the international DAISY (Digital Audio-based Information System) consortium, a group of 40 non-profit libraries for the blind, the CNIB library is part of a team working to create world standards for the next generation of digital audio books. And this week, the library reached a particularly significant milestone, with a $6 million donation to the cause from the federal government. Prior to that, Morgan says, Canada was the only major industrialized country whose government did not fund library services for people who are blind or visually impaired.

There's still a distance to go before the CNIB reaches the $33 million funding total needed to complete the digital library project, but as more people become acquainted with the cause, the group is confident the project will draw the attention--and support--it deserves.

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