Share the Vision (STV) is a UK partnership agency promoting library and information services for visually impaired people and others who experience difficulties in reading print. It is working closely with public library services and the major national providers of reading and information services in the voluntary sector.
The Vision is the local public library as a primary point of access to the range of services available, both local and national. A principal feature of its aims is mainstreaming a national union catalogue of alternative formats to provide local access to the range of reading materials available for visually impaired readers. Two related research projects are assessing the needs of blind and partially sighted people in using the catalogue and identifying effective systems for the co-ordination and delivery of publications.
In this paper, the experience of Share the Vision is used to identify some of the crucial issues which have to be faced when seeking to integrate services into mainstream library settings.
Library and information services for blind and partially sighted people in the UK have been mainly provided by national charitable institutions such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) and the National Library for the Blind (NLB). Until recently, public libraries have not recognised the particular needs of blind and partially sighted people. They have seen their role as offering generalist services to an elderly/disabled population and have been content to leave the provision of specialised service to the national agencies.
Thus the national agencies and public libraries have operated independently with little reference to each other. As a result blind and partially sighted people do not have a composite public library service as provided for the rest of the population. They have depended upon a mix of services, mainly obtained by mail order from national agencies and supplemented by local voluntary agencies and the public library itself.
Share the Vision was set up in 1989 in recognition of this dichotomy between national and local library provision of services and the importance of local access as a fundamental requirement for an effective library and information service. It also recognises that libraries are one step away from 'caring for blindness' implicit in the services of charitable agencies. Their primary preoccupation is the enabling processes of access to reading and information and the design and provision of systems which make this possible. They can therefore offer access in ways which are less associated with blind welfare and the disability labels that inevitably attach.
The main purpose of Share the Vision is to enable blind and partially sighted individuals to use their own local library to access reading and information that is available to them regardless of how and where it is produced and in much the same way as a sighted person.
Dichotomies between national and local provision are not unique to the UK. Some countries, eg. Scandinavia and USA provide services which include the devolvement of national to local to varying degrees. But many countries in the development of services have faced, are facing or will face similar issues presently pervading the UK scene.
The purpose of this paper is to present the experience of Share the Vision. It first provides a background to local and national services as they exist at the present time; then it describes the programme of activities which STV has been providing in pursuit of its objectives and finally offers some assessment of its achievements and shortcomings.
Currently there are over 170 public library authorities in the UK. Most of these are governed by the Public Libraries Act 1964 which requires authorities to "provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof". The Act also provides for government inspection to ensure that standards are met.
In reality, standards of service have fallen drastically in recent years due to the reduction in the spending power of local authorities. Even so, the UK still offers a comprehensive network with access within reach of most members of the community via static libraries in urban areas and mobile libraries serving outlying regions. Additionally, many library authorities extend their services to agencies such as hospitals and other health and home care institutions, prisons, schools and voluntary sector organisations. In total there are more than 5,000 public points of access.
A particular feature of service provision is the principle of a free service at the point of delivery. Legislation does not allow library users to be charged for core lending and reference services. Library authorities can however charge their clients for certain specified areas of service if they so wish. This includes the provision of audiovisual materials. (Most libraries offer concessions to disabled people).
Opinion polls regularly reveal that public libraries are highly valued by the general public. This is reflected in the number of people using the service (estimated at 58% of the UK population) and the number of books which are borrowed - 535 million per annum. (The effects of the current devaluation of services remains to be seen).
Until recently, Public Libraries have generally not identified blind and partially sighted people as a particular consumer group in the provision of services. The general tendency has been to cater for the requirements of a visual impaired population through the generalist services provided for elderly and disabled people as a whole. Such services include the provision of large print and audio books. It can be assumed that there is an unquantified but significant visually impaired population with varying degrees of sight loss who receive a service in this way.
This concept of service remains true for many library services at the present time. Such libraries would not buy in the specialised resources of national providers of Braille, talking book and ancillary information services, but instead would see their role as referral agencies to these services.
However in recent years there has been a change in professional perceptions. A survey carried out by Share the Vision revealed that the majority of public libraries would now see themselves as a primary point of access to services on offer. (Table 1.)
This change in attitude reflects underlying technological and social changes including a heightened awareness of disability issues generally. The recent introduction of a Disabilities Discrimination Act is an added incentive. It is also considered that Share the Vision has itself contributed to change.
It is important to note that in the development of these services there has been little liaison with public libraries. Local contact has been mainly with agencies associated with blind welfare viz. local authority social service departments, local societies for the blind and similar voluntary institutions.
It is therefore social and blind welfare which has been the presiding influence with regard to the library and information services most suitable to the needs of blind and partially sighted people. The main thrust of library and information services for people with disabilities people are centred in community and health care services in the statutory sector and local and national agencies in the voluntary sector. All these agencies, whether they like it or not, inevitably attach a disability label to reading and information services. In most public library authorities for example it is often the social worker or rehabilitation worker who is identifying library needs and prescribing services.
The project began with a national survey to assess current provision and professional attitudes already referred to, together with a series of consultative seminars throughout the UK with representatives from individual library authorities. These seminars were well supported and sufficient interest was generated to identify the core programme and agenda for Share the Vision. Although funded by RNIB, the project managed to maintain an independent status and perspective via a National Steering Committee drawn from both the library and voluntary sector. It is now an independent charitable company with representatives from the national providers (RNIB, NLB, TNAUK and Calibre) and the library sector (the British Library, Library Association, Scottish Library and Information Council). STV continues to be funded by RNIB and with contributions from voluntary sector agencies. But it is also grant-aided by two charitable foundations.
The programme has been operating in various ways including a general awareness programme, liaison with individual library authorities, establishing partnerships with other service providers, interested agencies and individuals. As a result an extensive network of over 115 contacts has been developed. More specifically, STV has been operating through a number of managed initiatives.
In its present form the newsletter represents the most comprehensive reportage on matters of interest to libraries and other service providers in the UK at least. Over 70 publications are scanned in its compilation. Library and information services are also encouraged to contribute to the content and a free mailshot facility is offered to other agencies for special features. It is available in clear print, braille, tape, disk and e-mail.
During its lifetime it has created widespread interest and demand which extends well beyond the parameters of library and information providers. While public libraries remain the core recipients there is an extensive mailing list to organisations in the public, voluntary and private sectors including blind and partially sighted people. It is also distributed to major countries throughout Europe and the rest of the world.
Some of these activities have been held nationally or regionally often associated with relevant events, conferences and exhibitions. But of particular value have been the staging of local "roadshows" which have been provided at the request of individual library authorities.
These are usually 2 day events which bring together national providers and commercial organisations with the public library and local community groups. They include exhibitions, presentations and workshops on service issues and consumer needs. Average attendance at these events has been 200 delegates over the 2 days made up of library personnel and representatives from other statutory and voluntary agencies in the area.
Public library authorities have found these events particularly useful for identifying service elements which can be carried into management planning. Examples include:
After consultation with libraries, the original idea to design a self-help multimedia training pack was dropped in favour of 'face-to'face' training days supplemented by the supply of training materials. In conjunction with RNIB a 1 day training programme was devised which could be customised to the requirements of individual library authorities. In addition to basic disability awareness, the programme deals with library needs and service requirements. Visually impaired people are employed to assist with the training sessions. This is an on-going programme which has proved popular with many library authorities.
NUCAF is the culmination of a development programme by RNIB supported by government grant-aid. The database currently contains some 60,000 records of publications in braille, moon and non-commercial spoken word cassettes. It will eventually contain the holdings of over 100 alternative format producers in the UK including the holdings of the major national providers.
Share the Vision is providing agency services for NUCAF by promoting its availability and use in the library sector. Primary objectives are:
As a first step, Share the Vision has engineered the inclusion of NUCAF in UNITY, a national database of some 10 millions records of library holdings and 30 million locations. UNITY is currently being adopted by libraries and the national interlending network for the identification and location of publications generally. The inclusion of NUCAF in UNITY brings together records of the combined holdings of voluntary sector agencies with those held by public and academic libraries and commercial providers. The result - a single bibliographic source for all alternative format publications available in the UK.
It is using the National Union Catalogue of Alternative Formats for the purposes of identifying and locating publications available to library users and aims to establish an interlending network which parallels that already provided by libraries for the general public.
Access to NUCAF is via PC workstations which are being provided at trial sites in three library authorities (Lancashire, Manchester and Tameside). A particular feature of the project is the help of volunteer groups of visually impaired library users. The workstations incorporate access technology (voice, braille and large screen print). Volunteers receive advice and training to enable them to use the workstations and to gain independence in accessing the catalogue. Their experience is being monitored and evaluated with the aim of developing an effective model for equipment and system design.
PIP is also contributing to a the European research project, TESTLAB as part of the EC Libraries Telematics Programme. This involves 5 other countries (Eire, Italy, Holland, Austria and Greece) where similar assessments of access to catalogues and supply systems are being conducted with public and academic libraries. TESTLAB is due to terminate in October 1998.
The need for such guidelines has been exceedingly strong both in reaching an agreed understanding on what should be provided and as a help to librarians when designing and developing services. As a result of a collaborative exercise between the Library Association and Share the Vision, guidelines which have been validated both by the Library Association and service providers have now been published.
The respective strengths of these agencies lies in the local contact and definition of needs which public libraries can offer and the efficient use of centralised resources and supply systems which national agencies are best designed to provide.
Share the Vision has proved an effective in mechanism of co-ordination and suggests that such a body is a basic requirement for any country where local and national dimensions to service provision exists.
But Scandinavian models demonstrate that co-ordination is most effective where central government has spearheaded development by the provision of funding, legislation and directional policies and the creation or support of national institutions. This is not the case in the UK where the government's interest has been limited and development funding restricted. (None of the UK national providers receive government funding except for a small Braille grant to RNIB). Likewise, the British Library as the national focus for library and information services, unlike its counterparts in other countries, has not taken a lead in this area of provision.
At the present time, all of the national providers raise their revenue from charitable sources. It is the rattle of the collecting box and the private pocket which is the predominant influence, not the public purse.
As a result, national providers compete with each other for funding from charitable sources where success or failure can depend on the extent to which it can market its particular slant on disability. This has resulted in an imbalance in the effective distribution of resources across the range of needs which visually impaired people experience.
In this respect, the shift towards market-led forces which has evolved in recent years is no bad thing. The buying-in by public libraries of services which would be difficult for them to provide themselves can be more directly related to needs. Also competition encourages better standards of service and enables charities to generate income from their products rather than selling disability. On the other hand, this type of economics forces national agencies to protect their own agendas and there is less scope for co-operation with other 'competitors'.
For Share the Vision, therefore, as essentially a self-help agency sponsored by the national agencies it is sometimes a difficult environment in which to operate. This applies particularly in generating its own operational income since it cannot be seen to compete with the agencies it exists to serve.
Without the injection of government funding backed by legislation it is difficult to see how a fully mainstreamed and accountable service to the user can be realised. But the charitable base of service for disabled people in the UK is so inherent as to be virtually irrevocable.
BRUCE, Ian and others
Blind and partially sighted adults in Britain: the RNIB survey, Volume 1. HMSO, 1991. ISBN 0 11 701479 6
Project Libra: the provision and use of reading aids for visually impaired and other print handicapped people in UK public libraries. LIR Report 91. British Library, 1996. ISBN 0-7123-3274-X.
CRADDOCK, Peter (1985)
The public library and blind people: a survey and review of current practice. Library and Information Research Report 36. British Library, 1985.
Voluntary action. Centris, 1993. ISBN 1 85893 064 2
MACHELL, Jean compiler
Library and information services for visually impaired people: national guidelines. Library Association Publishing, 1996. ISBN 1 85604 208
Richard Tucker, Project Manager
1016 GM Amsterdam
Tel. +31 20 6266465
Fax. +31 20 6208459
Table 1. Share the Vision Survey of Public Libraries, 1990 Library authorities reporting provision: total % I. a defined policy on services to VIP 46 35% II. audio book loans from service points 119 92% III. by post or personal delivery 30 23% IV. payment of RNIB Talking Book Service subscriptions 21 16% V. collaboration with Calibre 21 16% VI. collaboration with NLB 16 12% VII. collaboration with TNAUK 33 25% VIII. collaboration with local talking newspapers 81 62% IX. provision of closed circuit television systems 50 38% X. Kurzweil and other OCR/voice systems 50 23% XI. enhanced wordprocessors 9 7% XII. computerised Braille input/output devices 15 12% XIII. magnifiers 93 71% XIV. special staffed VI section/unit 37 30% XV. ad hoc contact with VI voluntary agencies 92 71% XVI. service agreements with VI voluntary agencies 12 9% (BASE 130 library authorities)
Table 2. Braille, talking books, newspapers and magazines and other alternative format publications in the UK. Publications (titles not copies or volumes) RNIB NLB Calibre TNAUK Total talking books 13,000 5,000 18,000 other audio texts 15,000 15,000 Braille and Moon books, music and magazines 20,000 48,000 68,000 Talking newspapers and magazines (digests). some 180* 180 Table 3. Number of Users of national services (overall totals do not signify as some people use more than one service). Publications (titles not copies or volumes) RNIB NLB Calibre TNAUK talking books 60,000 13,000 other audio texts 4,000 Braille and Moon books, music and magazines 7,500 5,350 Talking newspapers and magazines (digests). 17,000