Web-Braille: A New Distribution System for Braille Books

by Judy Dixon

From the Editor: Judy Dixon is the consumer relations officer for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress.

I'm very happy to have this opportunity to tell you about Web-Braille. Joe Sullivan posed the question, "Would Digital Talking Books in any way decrease the use of Braille?" I'm thinking that it won't because we are here to tell you about something like the digital Braille book. While these books won't necessarily have the rich markup that we'll enjoy from Digital Talking Books--and hopefully we'll have Braille from those as well--at least these books are in digital form right now, and we can enjoy some of the benefits of the digital form in that they can be searched and bookmarked and stored and things like that that can happen in a digital document.

Web-Braille is new. It's very exciting for us. It's the NLS's system to deliver Braille books on the Internet. Web-Braille offers immediate, twenty-four-hour access to thousands of Grade II Braille books. We had one user a few weeks ago who wrote very enthusiastically because he needed to help his ten-year-old child with his math homework and found a four-volume book on Web-Braille called Helping Your Child With His Math Homework. He downloaded it that evening and was actually able to be helpful in a way that he would not have been able to do had he needed to wait to get a physical book from his library.

NLS has been saving the diskettes with the files on them used to emboss Braille books since 1992. On Web-Braille we have virtually every Braille book produced by NLS in the last seven-and-a-half years, except for print-Braille books and Grade I Braille books. In October of 1997 we got the idea to create Web-Braille. We had all these books hanging around. We had good Internet ability. We had a server with a lot of storage. We had all the bits and pieces that we needed, we thought. We started by examining the disks and realized that the producers of the Braille books had put the books (we just said, "Give us the disks;" we didn't say how) well, they put the books on there in some very curious ways. For those of you who are familiar with how Braille books are structured, two of the producers had put the preliminary pages for each volume in a separate file from the main volume of the book. All five producers had used completely different file-naming conventions. It was quite interesting.

We established a file structure, with some suggestions from Joe Sullivan, suitable for embossing on a double-sided embosser, and we established a file-naming convention. We then decided to launch a pilot of Web-Braille. We decided to select fifty books that we thought might be very appealing, but there were a number of things that we needed to do before we could launch this pilot. We had to create a security system. No one at NLS was very knowledgeable about these kinds of things, so a couple of us quickly took a few UNIX courses so we could understand a little more about UNIX and directories and files and permissions and all that good fun UNIX stuff. We learned how to set it up with the advice of Library of Congress employees from downtown. We were able to set up a simple security system that requires a user ID and a password.

We selected the fifty books, manually stuck the preliminary pages and the main parts of the volumes together in a reasonable way, and created the HTML pages for how people would select these files and view them online. In March of 1998 we launched our Web browser pilot, and I think a number of you in this room were participants in that pilot. We had 174 people. We asked people to apply to us to participate in the pilot, but in reality we took anybody who came. It didn't matter to us. All we had to do was issue a user ID and a password. So as long as they were eligible, we let them into the pilot. We sent announcements to listservs and consumer organizations and so forth.

We had only one real glitch in the pilot. With the help of Curtis Chong we were able to determine that it was really better for Braille Lite users if we put these files on our server as binary files with a binary transfer rather than as an ASCII transfer. So any of you who have always regarded Braille files as ASCII files (they are), remember they're more usable if you help them preserve their carriage returns and line feeds. Transferring them in a binary way does that.

During the first month of the Web-Braille pilot we had 2,808 hits by the one hundred plus people. In the test we had fourteen public schools and nine schools for the blind. One of our other surprises--and I suppose it shouldn't have been much of a surprise--but we started hearing from schools. "We need Braille. We can't get enough Braille. Oh, this is so wonderful. We're going to be able to get Braille!" Something is wrong with this picture. Libraries are going, "Oh Braille, ho hum, it takes up lots of space."

Why are schools having trouble? We talked to several of the schools, and it turned out that in fact let's say a curriculum in Michigan required third graders to read Charlotte's Web. There might be twenty third graders in Michigan who were Braille readers. But in fact they couldn't afford to buy twenty hard-copy Braille versions of Charlotte's Web. The library didn't have twenty. If the library had scraped them up from all the other libraries around the country, they might have gotten twenty. It was very difficult for them, and they could not manage the process.

They said, "We can buy all the paper it would take," And they were delighted. They were happy and willing to print twenty copies of Charlotte's Web. The schools are really looking at Web-Braille as a very, very exciting thing for them to make Braille books for their students and also to provide Braille and Braille Lites and other kinds of refreshable Braille displays.

After three months we surveyed all the participants in the pilot and found that the results were overwhelmingly positive. We had about seventy-nine people respond to the survey, and only one person rated it as anything other than excellent. So we decided to go full-scale and begin the process of launching Web-Braille in all its glory. We had thousands of archived disks, and they had to be gone through manually. This process really involved over a dozen NLS staff doing quite a lot of things like sorting through disks and making lists and doing lots of yucky, tedious things like that.

Michael Moody, the NLS research and development officer, worked with a contractor to take all the disks and put those preliminary files back together with the main parts of the volume. They did that for 55,553 disks. It was quite an undertaking, and it took several months. The contractor wasn't very good at this, unfortunately, because Braille didn't make a lot of sense to them. We manually checked all the documents they did. This took quite a while, several more months.

We also had to set up a system whereby the libraries could register people for Web-Braille and all that involved. We had about 2,600 titles to put up at this point, and we had to create HTML lists. So we created nine HTML files that went on the main page of Web-Braille. We also now have a frequently asked question section--we don't have two questions, so we call it frequently asked question. If we ever get another question, we'll change its name.

As of July of 1999 we have nine HTML lists, and some of these files are great. They have over seven thousand links. We created an automatic link checker to check all the files and make sure that each file is one volume of Braille. When the files were ready, we had to get more storage, and interestingly enough, for those of you who are into this kind of stuff, right now we have over 2,758 books on Web-Braille. We're adding about ten books a week; 2,758 books is still less than a gigabyte. We have enough space for about six years of growth on our server.

At present 304 people have registered for Web-Braille. We have established a mechanism for the NLS quality assurance section to upload the files. For those of you who are Web-Braille users and who may be in a situation where you are going to help other people understand it, here's the only sort of confusing part of it. The files on the main Web-Braille pages are static. They will not be added to. We have no really easy way to do that. But starting with the July/August Braille Book Review, all the books are linked to the Web-Braille files. So if you select a link to a particular volume in Braille Book Review, you'll then be prompted for your user ID and password. So Braille Book Review will contain the newest books.

Here's a great Web-Braille trick. If we're near the end of the Braille Book Review cycle--and they are generally put up in the middle of the odd-numbered month (so November/December will go up around November 15), as we get closer to November 15, you know that the newest books are really there. You can actually access them by entering the whole URL with the book number. So you really can get them even though they're not on any list yet. They will be when Braille Book Review is put up in the middle of November. Our books are put up first, so they're really put up during the preceding two-month period.

We launched Web-Braille officially on September 10. As I mentioned, we had 304 users. It will be announced in the November/December Braille Book Review. It is also beginning to appear in other libraries' lists. There still has not been a work day that someone wasn't added, so it's still continuing to flow very nicely.

Planning for the future: what are we going to do now that we have launched Web-Braille so successfully, we hope, and it all seems to be going well? Our next step is Braille magazines. We will be starting a pilot on magazines. Magazines may actually prove to be a bit trickier, but we're going to look at magazines, make some decisions, and I welcome input from any of you who care about these things: whether we should put them up in their parts, whether we should put them up as one file, whether we should "article-ate" them, not to be confused with articulate--and just exactly how to do it in the least labor-intensive but most usable way possible. That's the balance here--labor against usability.

We will start with the pilot of a magazine from a producer, probably some time in December or January; then we will see where to go from there as far as how magazines on Web-Braille work. We need to make some decisions, so those of you who are good Braille users and Braille readers, let's talk about that.