Campus Voices: Library Research
by Karen A. Myers
St. Louis, Missouri
Michele Chittenden
Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Welcome to "Campus Voices." In each issue you hear the voice of a college student and learn about college life from the student's perspective. Each article features a composite of real life experiences taken from students with real voices. What is it like to be a college student with a visual disability? How do you use the library? How do you work in a lab? Do your professors provide the accommodations you need? Let's listen in ...

Hello. I'm Mia, a third-year history major at a large research university. I have been totally blind since I was 5 years old. I'm a little overwhelmed right now because it is almost finals week, and I have a 30-page paper due in my British History course. I don't mind writing research papers. In fact, I enjoy the writing part. I originally wanted to be a journalist, but then decided that teaching history was my life's ambition. It's the library research part that can be a bit daunting.

Fortunately, I have gotten to know the university librarians quite well over the years, and they are extremely helpful. As I continue my college career, I realize that it is incumbent upon academic libraries to create and provide an environment that is welcoming to all. Many library information resources are now available in an electronic format. The migration of these resources to the online environment has opened unprecedented opportunities to users with visual disabilities.

For me, conducting library research can be both satisfying and frustrating. The development of full-text networked databases, online reference tools such as encyclopedias and dictionaries, e-book collections, open access scholarly journals, electronic reserve collections, new communication technologies and the provision of reference services in the Web 2.0 environment have dramatically changed the way all library users search, access and retrieve information. The proliferation of electronic materials has significantly improved information access for students who have visual disabilities.

Students with access to electronic information are less dependent on others to provide them with needed information and are also able to access information in a timelier manner. However, the extent to which these new opportunities become realized depends largely on the design of the Web environment, good access to assistive technologies, and a committed library staff. These variables are not the same at every college and university.

Let me share with you how I go about conducting library research. Using the library's Web proxy site, I can access the library catalogue, online databases and electronic book collections from home. In a virtual environment, a library is redefined. I am able to conduct my initial research without even leaving my residence hall room. This is ideal for all students, but particularly beneficial to students with disabilities.

In spite of technological advances, online catalogue and database searching can be difficult. Inaccessible library Web pages pose barriers preventing students with visual disabilities from reaching the desired resource or service. I use a screen reader, and I have found that many library databases are not screen reader friendly. Many provide access to articles in PDF format. Although articles produced in newer PDF formats are now accessible, older articles or those "tagged" improperly remain inaccessible. One option is to try to recognize PDF files using an OCR program. Both Kurzweil and OpenBook facilitate the conversion of PDF documents.

Using a screen reader takes more steps when searching for information online. The navigation process is longer, as the screen reading technology often requires searching in a linear fashion. The databases that I used to conduct most of my research (for example, JSTOR and America: History and Life) can be used with my screen reader, JAWS. Students in other disciplines might use the Factiva database, which is also screen reader friendly. During my first year at college, I worked closely with the librarian who coordinates services for students with disabilities to learn about the research process, including how to search online databases effectively using a screen reader. The librarian assisted me with finding background information on my research topics, breaking topics into key concepts, identifying types of resources that should be considered, locating and searching subject-specific databases, understanding journal citations and evaluating sources. Now in my third year, I rely less on the librarian as an intermediary between myself and online resources; however, I do still need assistance when an article is not adequately accessible.

My professors often recommend a list of books that may be useful for my research. Although I have little difficulty searching for these titles in the library catalogue, I must rely on the assistance of others to retrieve the books from the library stacks. I can either telephone or e-mail staff at the library's access services department. Doing so guarantees that books can be retrieved for me within a 24-hour turnaround time and placed on the hold shelf at the circulation desk for me to pick up. I also have the option of telephoning or e-mailing the librarian who coordinates services for students with disabilities. The librarian ensures that the items are ready for me by the end of the workday. Of course, I can always ask friends to help me find books on the library shelves.

Another challenge is that I must plan my research and essay writing well in advance of the time my assignment is due because of the time it takes to navigate the online databases, solve access issues, retrieve materials, convert print items into electronic format, and read the material. Unlike some of my friends, I can't begin researching my essay a few days before it is due. Not all of the information that I require can be found through the library's electronic resources. If I plan my research well in advance, I order research materials through Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (  or 800-221-4792) and other agencies. I also use Internet sites such as Project Gutenberg ( ) to access copyright free titles.

Once I have obtained the print sources that I need to write my paper, I have to convert the print into electronic format. Most of this can be done through the disability services office using a scanner and Kurzweil 1000 software. Materials that cannot be signed out of the library such as reference books, some government documents and bound journals, however, must be accessed in the library's adaptive technology lab where I use a speech synthesizer to read the research aloud, or scan the material, save it on my USB key, and use my braille display on my home computer to read it.

And then there is the problem of determining what pages in books and/or government documents are relevant to my research. Fortunately, the disability services office provides me with an educational assistant whose primary responsibility is to help me "browse" and summarize my print research materials (books, articles, etc.) to determine what information needs to be scanned. Sometimes the best option is a human reader.

I am privileged that my university offers quality disability and library services such as the well-equipped adaptive technology lab with trained personnel and extended hours, the access service department, instant messaging (IM) reference service, and virtual reference service that gives me 24/7 access to a network of librarians and remote resources in an online environment. Some university libraries are now using Web 2.0 technology (blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, etc.) and social networking software applications such as Second Life, MySpace and Facebook to promote library services such as library tutorials or workshops. Unfortunately, some of these Web 2.0 tools are not accessible with a screen reader. This may be problematic for me in the future as more libraries embrace this technology. I do like receiving the library's RSS feed, which is screen reader accessible, to obtain current library information in an automated manner without having to check for it manually.

Although it may take me longer than my sighted friends to do library research, it is well worth it when I receive that "A" paper and eventually that history degree. My advice to everyone is to make friends with your librarians. Thanks to technology and highly-skilled library personnel, research can be as enjoyable as writing.


For more information about library assistance and adaptive technology related to library research, contact Michele Chittenden, Coordinator, Library Services for Students with Disabilities/Research and Instruction Librarian and Acting Coordinator, Queen's Learning Commons, Adaptive Technology Centre, Room 119, Stauffer Library, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6; Phone: 613-533-2833; Web site: .

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