Web-Braille: NLS Braille Books Online

Library Hi Tech News

ISSN: 0741-9058

Article publication date: 1 June 2000



Johnson, D. (2000), "Web-Braille: NLS Braille Books Online", Library Hi Tech News, Vol. 17 No. 6. https://doi.org/10.1108/lhtn.2000.23917fad.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Web-Braille: NLS Braille Books Online

David Johnson, Column Editor

Web-Braille: NLS Braille Books Online

David Johnson

[Ed.: "EASI Access to Library Technology," a regular feature of Library Hi Tech News, examines new technology, information sources and services, and other news of interest to librarians concerned with providing quality services to their patrons with disabilities. EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information), in affiliation with the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE), is concerned with new and emerging technologies for computer users with disabilities.]

Braille Literacy

Sighted people tend to assume that a blind person must know Braille. It is part of the cultural stereotype of blindness. However, the fact is that many blind people are not fluent in Braille, and among people in blind advocacy organizations there is an opposite tendency to that of the sighted, namely a tendency to lament the decline of Braille literacy.

There are several reasons fewer blind people are fluent readers of Braille today than were a few decades ago. A major reason is that fewer blind children today are taught in schools for the blind, where Braille is more likely to be a focus of the curriculum than in regular public schools. Blind advocacy groups have made it a goal to increase Braille education for blind children in public schools, and in response about 30 states have passed Braille laws aimed at ensuring that blind students and visually impaired students who face future blindness will receive an education in Braille. (For a model Braille bill, see http://www.nfb.org/modelbrl.htm)

Another reason for the decline of Braille literacy is that a larger proportion of blind people today have lost their sight as a result of age-related conditions, and, although older adults are usually capable of learning Braille, they often resist it, just as for a long time older adults resisted learning to use computers.

A third reason for the apparent decline of Braille literacy is that much less is out there in Braille than in print, and what Braille exists is harder to get hold of than print, so Braille is less able than print to resist the attractiveness of recording, broadcasting, telecommunications, and the Internet. So much information is available in print, and it is so easy to obtain, that few users of modern communications and information technology actually give it up. But there are more than a few blind people who use only recordings, reading machines, and screen readers. Ironically, a possible way to counteract this tendency is by using technology such as the Internet to make more Braille more easily available.

In the meantime, Braille is still the preferred reading mode of large numbers of blind people, who would greatly appreciate having more of it.

Web-Braille, A Way to Get Braille Books Online

Web-Braille is a service introduced last year by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) that allows eligible Braille readers who have registered for the service to access NLS Braille titles directly from the NLS Web site (http://www.loc.gov/nls). These electronic Braille book files can be read directly using a refreshable Braille display, or printed using a Braille printer. Around 3,000 NLS titles have already been made available (i.e. every Braille book produced by NLS since 1992), and each new Braille book from NLS (about 40 a month) will be available immediately through links from the online version of Braille Book Review, the NLS bimonthly magazine that announces new titles to participants in the NLS Braille program. The titles are mostly new, copyrighted, popular fiction and non-fiction.

Web-Braille service is available for qualified individuals, some libraries, schools and universities with qualified students, and other agencies serving the blind. For individuals, the qualifications for Web-Braille service are the same as those for regular NLS Braille or Talking Book service, but it is necessary for persons already registered with NLS to put in a new application for Web-Braille in order to get a password. Like any other application for NLS service, an application for Web-Braille service goes through the patron's regional library for the blind and physically handicapped, not directly to the Library of Congress. At the time this column was written over 800 of the approximately 15,000 people registered for NLS Braille service were also registered for Web-Braille.

Any public or private school or university that has blind students can acquire an institutional Web-Braille password and use this resource to print Braille books. This is likely to be very helpful to schools as they seek to comply with Braille laws, although there is no guarantee that the titles schools most need for their students will be found among the initial 3,000 Web-Braille titles. Braille laws typically require publishers selling textbooks to the schools to supply electronic versions that can be used for blind and visually impaired students, but many school districts have had trouble with the task of getting electronic text properly formatted for Braille. Now, if a school finds a required text in Web-Braille, it can print out however many Braille copies it needs directly from an online electronic version that is already Braille-formatted.

Regular public libraries (as opposed to special needs libraries or libraries for the blind) will not be able to use Web-Braille themselves, but if a blind library patron has a personal Web-Braille password, the patron can use this password on the public library's computer to read or print Braille books, assuming the library has a Braille display or a Braille printer. If the library does not have a Braille display or Braille printer, the patron can download the file to a disk and use it at home.

There are no Web-Braille sample files, so it is not possible for a librarian to download a sample file in order to try it out on the library's system. NLS has plans for expanding Web-Braille to include Braille magazines. By the time this column is published, The New York Times Large Type Weekly should be available on Web-Braille, as well as several other magazines. NLS is also considering putting some of its older (pre-1992) Braille titles online. Since the older titles are not now in electronic format, this will require scanning Braille texts using optical braille recognition, a type of program similar to optical character recognition (OCR) for print.

Development and Security

The major technical hurdle faced by NLS in developing Web-Braille was reconciling inconsistent file structures and file-naming conventions used by its five producers (see Dixon, 2000, p. 76). NLS does not produce its own books, but contracts this work out to such organizations as the American Printing House for the Blind, and although it has been requiring its producers since 1992 to supply files of Braille books on diskette, it had not been requiring them to follow any particular convention.

Another major NLS concern in developing Web-Braille was security. Most of the books on Web-Braille are copyrighted, and the publishers would not be willing to have their books available in this form without protections against copying. Therefore, the Web-Braille page is accessible only to persons registered to use it; if you attempt to reach the page, you will be asked for a registered user's name and a password. Although Web-Braille books are not encrypted, NLS hopes security will be sufficiently protected by the combination of eligibility requirements, a password-restricted Web site, and rules limiting use of Web-Braille files. The following is a quotation from the Restrictions on Use document posted on the Web-Braille site:

Restrictions on Use

Web-Braille materials can be made available only to eligible users who are residents of the USA or American citizens living abroad. NLS will inform users of the restrictions and will instruct them not to share their user ID and password with anyone or any organization.

Each network library may establish its own Web-Braille account.

Network libraries may also establish Web-Braille accounts for three types of institutions providing library service to eligible readers in their service area: schools for the blind, public or private schools providing Braille to blind students (this includes colleges and universities), and organizations for which a primary purpose is to produce Braille books for the use of eligible readers in the USA (e.g. instructional materials resource centers and nonprofit transcribing agencies). Web-Braille service must not be extended to other types of organizations. Refer to the chief of the NLS network division requests for access to Web-Braille by agencies that do not fall into one of the three classes mentioned above.

Agencies may use Web-Braille files only to produce Braille copies. Under current copyright law, agencies may not make large-print or unencrypted e-text versions of books without the permission of the copyright holder.

Other Sources of Braille Books Online

  • Two other organizations in the USA offer downloadable electronic Braille ­ The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) has a file repository on Louis, its online database of school texts; and the International Braille Research Center has the International Electronic Braille Book Library.

  • The APH file repository ­ APH has been the officially designated printer of schoolbooks for blind children in the USA since the nineteenth century, and, although it also provides other services (such as producing NLS Braille and Talking Books), its primary focus is on educational resources for the blind. Louis was created to provide an online catalog of these resources. The APH file repository that is part of Louis contains Braille textbook files from agencies and schools for the blind and from APH itself. A useful set of FAQs about the file repository is at http://www.aph.org/reposfaq.htm The goal of the file repository is to enable agencies to share the results of their efforts in creating Braille versions of schoolbooks. Therefore, a decision was made not to attempt standardization in order to allow inclusion of all potentially useful files. According to the file repository FAQs, the APH files are in .brf format, meaning they can be read by all standard Braille translating programs (Duxbury, Ed-It PC), but the files received from other agencies can be in any Braille format. There are also plans to include the files that textbook publishers provide schools for use in creating Braille versions. The APH file repository is only available to designated educators and students. Others can obtain information online and search the repository, but nothing can be downloaded without a password.

  • The International Electronic Braille Library ­ This service is available to anyone, with no eligibility restrictions. The books are mostly out of copyright, although in a few cases they are books the copyright holder wishes to distribute in this way. There are over 1,000 titles, mostly English and American literature, including 26 selections by Jack London, all the plays of Shakespeare, and 15 Tom Swift novels. (Tom Swift, for those who don't know, was the hero of a series of boys' books popular in the early 1900s. Typical titles: Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout, or The Speediest Car on the Road.) The files are ASCII text files that appear as grade II Braille on a refreshable Braille display or when printed on a Braille printer. Books can be downloaded as wholes in zip files or chapter-by-chapter. At the time this column was written, it was not possible to do an author or title search of the collection except by scrolling through two listings in which, unfortunately, authors are sorted by first names, and titles are sorted using articles (e.g. A Tale of Two Cities comes before The Call of the Wild).

Internet Sites


Dixon, J. (2000), "Web-Braille: a new distribution system for Braille books", The Braille Monitor, Vol. 43 No. 1, pp. 75-9.

David Johnson is an abstractor/ information specialist at the National Rehabilitation Information Center (NARIC). Readers with questions, comments, or suggestions may e-mail him at DJohnson@kra.com

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