LOUISVILLE, KY. Managing the growing amount of vital information on accessible materials for the blind and visually impaired is no easy task. These materials are available from hundreds of agencies across the nation, making the location of a single item very difficult. Gathering and organizing this information, then putting it into the hands of those who need it, is critical.
Accessing this information with a computer can be equally challenging. In a world of graphical user interfaces and snazzy, image-laden Web sites, additional components such as a voice synthesizer and speech access software are required by the blind and visually impaired. State agencies charged with providing materials for blind student and their teachers also need direct access to this information.
Despite these obstacles, information covering the availability of Braille books, large type books, music scores, electronic books, sound recordings and tactile graphics is now available in a single database. This database - which is now fully accessible through the Internet - is the result of the dedication of the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) and the behind-the-scenes work of a unique information management and retrieval system called STAR.
A long-time advocate of the blind, the nonprofit APH was established in Louisville, Kentucky in 1858 to promote the independence of blind and visually impaired persons by providing special media, tools, and materials needed for education and life.
In addition to being the largest organization devoted solely to creating products for the blind, the APH offers unique services that enhance the lives of visually impaired people across the United States. Their latest project, a complete software and hardware upgrade of their Database of Accessible Materials for the Blind and Visually Impaired, was undertaken to provide this segment of society with direct access to the database via the Internet. Nicknamed "Louisä" in honor of Louis Braille, the recently completed database is the nation's largest clearinghouse of available materials for the visually impaired.
Like most modern databases, the evolution of Louis to its present day status has been a circuitous one. It began with 5 x 7 index cards, advanced to a mainframe and is now finally open to full access on the Internet.
In 1950, under the guidance of Director Carl Lappin, the APH established its centralized listing of accessible books on index cards to facilitate the location and provision of special titles for the visually impaired and to eliminate duplication of effort among producers.
In the ‘80s, the database made its way onto a HP computer. In the ‘90s, the information was moved to a mainframe. Named in honor of Lappin, "CARL ET AL" served its purpose for many years by providing state institutions responsible for locating materials for the blind with direct dial-in access to the database.
Soon there were new concerns for the APH. They quickly found maintenance costs to be prohibitive. They also felt the system was too inflexible for the changes they wanted to make in the future.
"Like the rest of the world, we found that the maintenance costs on a mainframe were too high," said Christine Anderson, Resource Services Manager at APH. "We also felt the mainframe environment was not as speech-friendly as we had hoped."
The next logical step for the APH was to put the database directly into the hands of the people who needed it most: teachers and students. That meant converting the data to a more flexible platform that could be accessed on the Internet by anyone, regardless of their ability to see.
"Our three big motivations for switching to a new database system were more friendly speech access, Internet access, and getting off the expensive mainframe," stated Anderson.
With a background as a librarian, Anderson used library resources to investigate the top twenty database software vendors in the field. Her main objective was finding a product that would work with speech access software. Knowing such a product didn't currently exist, she was more interested in the vendors' willingness to invest time and effort in the project before the sale was final.
"Cuadra Associates showed a great willingness to explore this issue with me," noted Anderson. "That was not at all evident with the other vendors."
Since 1982, Los Angeles-based Cuadra Associates has been developing and refining their flagship product STAR, the industry's most comprehensive suite of ready-to-run information management and retrieval solutions on the market.
Not to be confused with a DBMS, STAR is a unique multi-user information management and text retrieval software package for managing information and record collections of all types and sizes.
An "all-in-one" software package, STAR offers a comprehensive array of built-in text search features, including built-in indexing tools and fast retrieval of complex searches.
The APH's first task was to migrate all the data from the mainframe and onto the UNIX-based platform on which STAR runs. The process involved transferring MARC (a standard library communications format) information on tape from the mainframe to STAR. "Switching from the mainframe environment to Cuadra was so easy I still don't believe it," remarked Anderson.
STAR can import many different formats of information and can be customized to convert one character set to another, remove or replace particular characters, expand abbreviations, translate or expand embedded codes or control characters and add markers or delimiters around particular characters.
Once the information is imported into the STAR database, users can quickly and easily access information through its comprehensive array of built-in text management and information retrieval capabilities. Using STAR, site visitors can search Louis by ISBN, title, author, publisher, copyright year, subject, or medium. With information supplied by Louis, users can place orders or request services.
According to Anderson, STAR's versatility is evident in its combination of user interfaces: a character-based interface; a Windows-based graphical user interface; and a Web interface that allows easy access to a STAR database from browsers.
Louis is a prime example of why a character-based interface is still relevant in the 1990s: several of the speech access software products still in use today are DOS-based. To reach this segment of their constituency, the APH realized they needed to provide more than one interface.
"Most database software vendors point to their GUI and Internet capabilities," said Anderson. "Because Cuadra offers three different interfaces in one package, it offers great flexibility for speech access. That was extremely important to us." With STAR's Web interface, organizations such as the APH minimize the overhead in "going up" on the Internet by taking advantage of information already organized in the STAR database.
Based on a common gateway interface standard, STAR Web provides fully interactive information retrieval on the Internet. It is customizable and works with any standard commercial Web server, on a UNIX host, for access by standard Web browsers such as Netscape, Explorer and the text-based Lynx (2.71 or greater).
"The variety of STAR interfaces allow us to serve all our users, whether they have Internet access and the latest in computer and speech access equipment, or are still using older DOS-based systems," explained Anderson. "We were able to completely customize the text-based interface for direct dial-in as well as the Web interface to suit the needs of our users by changing color, contrast, spacing, drop-down box content, search strategies, and adding ALT text to graphics. Cuadra worked with us every step of the way to insure the accessibility of these interfaces."
Today, Louis is a comprehensive listing of over 135,000 items including Braille books, large type books and paToday, Louis is a comprehensive listing of over 135,000 items including Braille books, large type books and pamphlets, music scores, electronic books, sound recordings, and tactile graphics. Approximately two hundred agencies across North America (volunteer, government, non-profit, and commercial) report their holdings to the APH, so Louis is updated daily to provide the most current information.
Louis can be searched at no charge from the APH Web site at www.aph.org. mphlets, music scores, electronic books, sound recordings, and tactile graphics. Approximately two hundred agencies across North America (volunteer, government, non-profit, and commercial) report their holdings to the APH, so Louis is updated daily to provide the most current information.
Using Louis, a blind or visually impaired person equipped with a voice synthesizer and speech access software can independently locate the materials they need without going through a teacher or an agency. Teachers can search the database to find textbooks and other education materials; recreational reading for children, youth, and adults; music; and computer instruction for the blind.
"By putting the information on the Internet, we are putting it directly into the hands of teachers and students," says Anderson, "With the help of STAR, we've effectively broadened the ability of the audience to access the materials they need."
For those without Internet access, the APH provides CTE telecommunications software (free of charge) that works with speech access software and a toll-free line for direct dial-in to the database.
Throughout the entire implementation process, Anderson claims that Cuadra's support never wavered, despite numerous requests for modifications to the software.
"Their customer support has been outstanding. I've never had service like this in my life," reported Anderson. "They were very patient even though we had some time pressure to get this database up. We wanted to make sure we could launch Louis at our annual meeting in October."
And the result?
"We received a standing ovation," said Anderson.