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CNIB Library for the Blind: Placing Library Service for the Blind in the Community

Shelagh Paterson, Manager,
Advocacy Programs,
CNIB Library for the Blind

Partners in the Community:

In every country citizens who have a print disability are part of a minority group and are scattered geographically. This creates a challenge for delivering library services in a consistent, cost effective, and cohesive manner. Each country has a different approach for the delivery of library and information services to their Print-Disabled citizens. In Canada, The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) Library for the Blind is the largest producer of alternate format materials and is the only national agency delivering library services to all Print-Disabled Canadians. While the CNIB receives funding to exclusively serve people who are blind, deafblind, or visually impaired, the CNIB Library recognizes that its collection can serve a wider community but can only do so on a cost recovery basis. The library is physically located in Toronto in the province of Ontario. Correspondence with clients is done with a toll free telephone number, email, and regular post. Local CNIB offices in each city are responsible for delivering a number of rehabilitation services and for signing new CNIB clients on for library services.

A University of Alberta survey of the information needs of blind and visually impaired citizens in the province of Alberta revealed that over 50 percent of the focus group used their public library because they prefer to receive personal services such as speaking directly with a librarian, and leaving with a book in hand. However, although many public libraries in Canada do have small talking book collections, they are not sufficient to serve the needs of avid readers or all age groups. They also do not provide magazines or newspapers in alternate format, items which are available at the CNIB Library. In Canada, there are over 3,400 public libraries that can potentially serve Print-Disabled Canadians locally. The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada estimates that 10 per cent of the Canadian population has a lifelong learning disorder, and the Statistics Canada Health and Limitations Survey (HALS) indicates that over a million Canadians have a visual disability.

A number of factors have made it possible for the CNIB Library to give Print-Disabled Canadians the kind of service they want to access books in alternate format directly from their local library. The first factor was the development of VISUNET CANADA. VISUNET CANADA is the CNIB Library's national network of information made possible through Internet technology, the telephone, and Canada Post - post free literature for the blind. Key to this network is the implementation of the online CNIB Library catalogue called VisuCAT. Anyone, anywhere in the world can log on to VisuCAT, search for a book and, if they are a registered user or institution, request the book by placing a hold on it. The next available copy will be mailed to them. Another factor supporting direct service is the librarian's duty to uphold the right to intellectual freedom exemplified in the following excerpt from the Canadian Library Association position statement:

It is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee the right of free expression by making available all the library's public facilities and services to all individuals and groups who need them.

In Canada, there is no publicly funded national strategy for delivering library services and there is no direct government funding for the CNIB. This presents a problem for delivering services to Print-Disabled Canadians in a consistent and cohesive manner across such a large geographical area. Librarians in Canada recognize they must serve all members of their community including those who cannot read print. But how to do this in a cost effective manner? Since 1997, the CNIB Library has offered the VISUNET: CANADA Partners Program to enable organizations to provide direct services to members of their own community by accessing the resources of the CNIB Library. Each library can approach the Partners Program in a different way. In Alberta, the program is available to most of the province through a consortium called The Alberta Library (TAL). In Ontario, individual library systems are joining, city by city, rather than as an entire province.

First an inventory of what the Partners Program offers:

Access to over 50,000 titles in the CNIB Library collection including

  • Unabridged talking books available on 4-track audio cassette

  • Braille books titles

  • Electronic text (e-text) titles available through VisuTEXT, our Internet module that allows clients and partners to search, order, and view electronic books (in braille or text format). VisuTEXT also includes such services as VisuNEWS, which provides same-day password access to Canadian newspapers via the web or telephone through a digital file, and commercial electronic databases containing encyclopedias and thousands of journal articles.

  • PrintBraille books which are children's picture books with a see-through braille overlay between each printed page

  • Braille music titles: music scores for all types of musical instruments and music literary works

  • Popular magazines (English and French) available in audio and braille

  • Descriptive video films and television programs with added narration describing setting and actions between dialogue sequences

  • Audio cinema films with added narration describing setting and actions between dialogue sequences, available on 2-track audio cassette.

Although the program is offered to any organization in Canada that needs to provide information access to Print-Disabled members of its community, public libraries have been the leaders in implementing it.

Examples of partnership:

A simple partnership between one public library and the CNIB Library will occur as follows:

The partnership is generally a result of member(s) of the local community advocating to their local library for access to a large collection of alternate format materials. A fee is charged to the partner based on the size of its community. The fee covers the cost of expanding the CNIB Library collection to serve this larger population. The community advocate and potential client can be:

  • a registered CNIB Library client who would like to receive services locally along with their brother, daughter, mother, etc

  • a blind or visually impaired Canadian who may not want membership with the CNIB but would like to have access to the collection

  • a person who is not blind or visually impaired but may, for example, be dyslexic or physically unable to hold a book

  • a member of the CNIB Library ACCESS Committee. ACCESS is Advocacy Coordinating Committee for Engineering of Strategic Success. This committee consists of blind or visually impaired volunteers from across Canada. One of its members goals is to advocate for the Partners Program in their province.

An information kit is sent to the local library after a preliminary phone call, usually to the Chief Librarian in a small community or, in a larger library system, the librarian responsible for special needs services. The information kit contains general literature about the library and two Questions and Answers documents that are designed to anticipate questions about the program and to inspire the librarian to consider those in their community who require accommodation. The two documents can also be found on the CNIB Library Web page at:

The partner library will then sign a standard service agreement. The agreement includes such items as an implementation plan with deadlines, training and support details, deliverables, Copyright responsibilities, and confidentiality, among other requirements.

The new partner library generally receives a three-hour training session at their location. The CNIB Library is currently investigating distance learning options. To date, the CNIB library has consistently sent a trainer to the new partner. However, as more remote libraries become interested in the program, it will be necessary to implement training via the Internet and telephone to save on travel costs.

As part of the training, Partner library staff are informed of the required technical set-up to ensure access to VisuCAT, the online CNIB Library catalogue. It is suggested the Partner library should have a number of workstations available so that each staff member can perform the steps at the same time as the trainer. Basic technical set-up includes an Internet connection and telnet software. Web access to the basic search and reserve functions of the catalogue is currently available on a test basis.

The trainees follow a manual during the training and will refer to this manual when serving Print-Disabled clients. A local CNIB district office staff person is available at the training to provide support and answer questions beyond the scope of training at the library. The local CNIB office can also provide an accessibility audit of the local library and give advice on physical accommodation and access technology. A local CNIB contact has proven to be a valuable resource in maintaining the partnership. Partner libraries have stated that one of the challenges they face is justifying the program when so few citizens appear to use it. Like most services, limited resources will be devoted to serving the majority.

During the training, the library staff learn how to use VisuCAT to perform both simple and more complex functions. Simple functions include

  • Performing a search for a client

  • Placing a hold (or reserve) on a book for a client

  • Viewing a client's record to check the status on holds, overdues, etc.

Note: a client can perform the above tasks on her own if the public library has equipped a workstation with access technology such as magnification and/or screen reading software. Recent partners have typically made access technology available at the same time as joining the program to provide their clients with the choice of self service or librarian-assisted searching. Many clients will have their own access technology. The Partner librarian can provide these clients with password access to the suite of CNIB Library electronic services.

More complex functions include:

  • Signing a new client up for service, including creating a registration record containing contact information and designing a reading preference profile. Creating a profile includes selecting a client's favourite subject categories, such as British Mysteries, Health, and Fantasy Fiction, and the desired format and frequency of service (for example, two talking books a week).

  • Adjusting a client record. This can include address changes and reading preference changes.

Public libraries are offered ongoing support after the training through phone queries and more effectively through a Partners email list. The email list enables Partners to share service delivery and funding ideas and to ask specific questions. CNIB Library staff belong to the list to ensure that questions are correctly and promptly answered.

The partner library is responsible for marketing the program to their community. The CNIB Library also informs its library clients of any new partnership programs in their communities. The CNIB Library provides a How to Launch the VISUNET CANADA Partners Program in your Community kit. We have noticed that many libraries do not have a dedicated media relations or communications person and are therefore working towards providing support materials to help the Partner raise the profile the program. Librarians recognize that launching the Partners Program in their community is a great way to showcase their library. This is also the time to advertise the program to a segment of the community that may have not visited the local library.

As mentioned earlier, the partnership approach has varied. One partner built the partner fee into their operating budget and a local community organization raised funds for the talking book machines. The majority of their clients reside in senior nursing homes so they were able to allocate a few machines to each home. They also have a few registered CNIB clients who enjoy visiting their local library and discussing their reading preferences directly with a librarian who in turn will search VisuCAT and place a hold on preferred books.

The Alberta Library is an example of another approach to the program. The province decided to network their libraries by creating a consortium for school, public, academic, and special libraries called The Alberta Library. By belonging to this consortium an individual library has access to greater purchasing power at a lower cost for their programs and resources. The consortium also means that a citizen can use any library anywhere in the province at no extra charge. Currently 40 libraries in the province are actively using the Partners Program with another 145 scheduled to initiate the program in the next year. They also intend to implement a 'train the trainer' approach, a plan that will enable The Alberta Library to truly 'own' the program and allow CNIB staff to train other provinces and libraries.


One of the more frequently asked questions about the Partners Program pertains to funding. Each library system has approached the issue of funding differently. Funding needs to be considered for the annual fee, the four-track talking book machines, and access technology. The latter two fees can be considered optional. A library may require a patron to purchase her own four track talking book machine, and not implement access technology. In Canada there are a number of government funding opportunities and local community fundraising groups that local libraries have access to. One such program is called the Community Access Program (CAP). More information can be found at:

Such programs aim to provide Canadians with affordable public access to the Internet and the skills they need to use it effectively. The CNIB Library was involved with three pilot CAP sites in which access technology was taught to Print-Disabled citizens.


All of our partner librarians fully endorse the spirit of the program. They are dedicated to serving all members of their community. However, there are a number of challenges that are frequently cited:

  • The four-track tapes do require a special four track player. Librarians do have to decide if they would like to purchase and manage them, or direct patrons who are not also CNIB clients to purchase their own.

  • The minimal 'traffic' through the library. For many libraries, they have not previously been serving community members who are Print-Disabled. The library may have had very little to offer, and the in-house collection of talking books may be 'read out.' It takes constant outreach activity to encourage these community members to start using the library on a consistent basis. Librarians have compared this situation with serving multicultural communities.

  • The complexity of access technology. Some libraries have enthusiastically purchased access technology only to watch it gathering dust. When a Partner or prospective Partner inquires about access technology, we ask what their staff and patron training plan will be. Often, they have only planned for staff training, assuming patrons will receive some instruction if they happen to come in and happen to ask.


What are the possibilities for partnerships among libraries for the blind and community organizations? During the CNIB Library's strategic planning process we were encouraged to dream about future directions and goals without barriers. A number of people stated that if we do our job really well at the CNIB Library, then one day we will cease to exist. Realistically we know that such a dream will not be realized until well into the future. However, consider this: a recent National Library report revealed that an average of 82,000 library inquiries are made each day in Canada. An average of 750,000 items are borrowed each day in Canada. Public libraries are one of the most heavily used public resources. Seventy five per cent of blind and visually impaired Canadians between the ages of 19 and 30 currently use the Internet to access reading materials. When you factor in high use of public libraries with a clientele willing to link to these materials via Internet technology, then it is clear that the stage is set for Print-Disabled Canadians to access global resources directly in their own community.


Balini Bala, A Needs Assessment of CNIB Library Services, University of Alberta (April 12, 2000): 25.

Canadian Library Association, " A Statement on Intellectual Freedom, (1985):

Alvin M. Schrader and Michael R. Brundin, A National Core Library Statistics Program: Statistical Report 1996," National Library of Canada (1996): 16.

Robert Shepard, "Battling the System," Maclean's (June 22, 1998): 46.

Strategis, 'About CAP', Government of Canada (April 2000):

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