For the second visit of the year, our destination was the Royal National Institute of Blind People research library on Judd Street, and what an enlightening visit it was! The library is now run by one librarian after staff cut-backs year after year, but the perks of being the only librarian were immediately obvious as it inevitably means a level of professional variety that isn’t always available to librarians working in specific roles.
We were given an initial tour of the library space where the printed materials are kept, mostly for the use of researches investigating visual impairments. This was the aspect of the library with which we were all most familiar, with journal subscriptions, pamphlets, books and magazines built around a rather intricately designed classification system. However in and amongst the usual materials were some absolute gems, including a copy of The Merchant of Venice entirely in Braille and a (very patronising) 17th century treatise on ‘entertainment for the blind’, still in fantastic condition. There were also examples of school books for children with both Braille and raised images created with felt and various other materials to enable them to engage with their subjects.
The key differences between the academic libraries we are all used to and the RNIB library were of course technological. The computers in the main work space have had to be tailored to the needs of users that have considerable variation in the nature of their condition. Therefore numerous settings needed to be developed to enable users to increase the size of text on a screen using JAWS screen reading software, as well as being able to change the colour pallet of a document in order to make it more accessible. The RNIB is actually responsible for accrediting websites as being user-friendly for those with sight problems... it definitely has made me look at the website of my own library very differently – size 8 font? I don’t think the RNIB would approve! They recommend a standard size 14 font for all websites.
We were then given some demonstrations of some of the gadgets available to aid low sighted users including handheld devices that were essentially digital magnifying glasses, and what looked like CD players that were used for talking books, enabling someone to place ‘bookmarks’ at different points so they could refer back to numerous sections with ease. Many of us will never have had to deal with the problems of accessibility faced by the staff at the RNIB library so it was brilliant to see technology working so effectively to really improve the experience of low sighted or blind users.
At the end of the tour we had a chance to have a look at (play with) some of the toys aimed at children with blindness, plus a range of other devices used to aid anyone with sight problems. The RNIB Library visit provided us all with an insight into the issues being dealt with by the librarian when working with blind people, and is well worth a visit to see how libraries and technological advancements are able to combine to vastly improve the library experience for those with blindness.