Building CNIB’s “Next Generation” Digital Library

by Philip Springall

In 2003, CNIB launched one of the world’s first accessible online library services for people with print disabilities. The service let Canadians with a visual, learning or physical disability search the library catalogue, order books to be delivered to their homes, and read books online.

The library includes a wide variety of resources, such as fiction and non-fiction works, magazines and periodicals, as well as reference and research databases. While primarily a resource for leisure reading, the CNIB library is also a fantastic academic resource. Students and teachers can use the library to complete research for projects and assignments, build upon knowledge as part of a class or course, and continue learning beyond the four walls of the classroom.

Developed in partnership with Microsoft, the library site was a custom system designed from the ground up to work with adaptive technology. After almost ten years, however, the underlying technology was no longer supported and users expressed a growing desire for features they had seen on other sites, but CNIB could not provide. It was time for a change.

With funding from the Government of Canada, we were able to replace our aging online service, as well as our back-end library, production, and storage systems. This article describes the process of implementing our new online user interface and the challenges we encountered along the way.

Our three key implementation challenges were scope of change, timeline, and accessibility, as outlined below:

  • Scope of change: We weren’t simply replacing our online user interface. We were additionally introducing a new library system (i.e. acquisitions, cataloguing, account management, and circulation), a state-of-the-art production tracking system, upgrades to our recording studios, a new CD duplication system, and a robust new data storage and archive system. All of this while we launched a pilot project for the delivery of books through internet-enabled DAISY players.
  • Timeline: We had a lot to do with a finite amount of time to accomplish our goals. Starting in early 2011, our funded deliverables were to be in place by April of 2012, giving us just 13 months from start to finish.
  • Accessibility: There are very few products that are accessible straight out of the box, so ensuring the accessibility of any product is always an ongoing process. Our clients asked that our new library system include certain elements that were standard in most mainstream library sites. Unfortunately most mainstream library sites do not meet the standards of accessibility our client base requires.

We began the process of shaping our new library user interface early in 2011 when we polled our clients asking what they would like from a new site. Some of the top responses were as follows:

  • Download DAISY books in a single step
  • Read and write book reviews like on Amazon
  • Search box that works like Google
  • Easier way to sort search results
  • Ability to view and manage holds

With those client wishes in mind, we began building our new digital library service.

In order to better serve our growing number of technically savvy clients we needed a robust integrated library system – a library system where all of the distinct pieces, from the client facing front-end to the staff modules, would “talk” to each other. We also needed a site that provided extensibility, one that could grow along with our client base and provide us with more opportunities to engage clients. And of course we needed all of this to be accessible. After evaluating our options, we selected a mainstream library system vendor that had worked with us in the past and with other libraries serving people with print disabilities in Europe.

Our first task in developing the client-facing side was defining who our clients were and how they used our existing site. We identified 13 distinct user profiles that we felt best represented our library users. These profiles ranged from a library user with low vision to a sighted family member who may be ordering books on a client’s behalf.

After developing our profiles, we sent out a technology survey to gather more information about our user base. We received over 1,000 responses. Some of our key findings included:

  • One third of clients were either JAWS screen reader or ZoomText magnification software users. There were more ZoomText users requiring speech function than those who use the software without speech.
  • Victor Reader Stream was the most popular portable digital talking book player (commonly known as a DAISY player) (49%).
  • Most respondents (72%) used software that could support, or be adapted to support, DAISY books.

With all of this information, we were able to form a test group in September 2011. This group comprised over 30 clients and other stakeholders, to represent the 13 user profiles. The group was sent questions or pages of the site to test on a weekly basis up until our launch.

It was not long before our test group determined that there was a lot of work ahead of us. A mainstream library product may have given us the functionality our clients wanted, but some of that functionality needed to be adjusted in order to make it easier for our clients to use. There was also a variety of accessibility challenges, which ranged from easy fixes (e.g., misleading link labels) to complex issues (e.g., screen reader focus). Our main accessibility challenge was getting the site to behave correctly for the myriad of different computer setups clients have. We found that a client using JAWS 12 and Internet Explorer 8 may not have the same experience as someone with JAWS 13 and Internet Explorer 9.

It was impossible to test out all of the combinations of adaptive technologies, browsers, operating systems and versions of each of those. Rather than tackle each issue as it came up, we focused on compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0. Accessibility is an ongoing process. A website is rarely 100% accessible; instead developers are continuously striving to make the site more accessible. To that end, we are still working on improvements to our site’s accessibility.

After launching the new site on April 2nd, we received client feedback from both ends of the spectrum:

  • From those who loved the changes: “I’m really enjoying the site, especially the ability to download DAISY books. 10 years in the waiting but it was worth it”
  • To those who ran in to challenges: “I don’t want the graphics of book covers slowing down my computer so I always choose to hide book covers. Why can’t I set this as a default?”

Most mainstream library products will display book covers but, as the client stated, book covers are not necessary for some of our clients. We have since added the option for clients to hide covers permanently. We continue to evaluate each suggestion received.

Our big question was whether our clients were getting the features that they had asked for when first polled in 2011?

  • Download Daisy books – Clients can now download entire DAISY books from our site. Previously clients had to wait to receive DAISY books by CD in the mail and now, whenever they want a book, they can download it instantly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • Read and write reviews like on Amazon – Our new system does have this functionality, but we are working to make sure it is accessible for launch in a future update.
  • Search like on Google – We instituted a Google-like search box to mixed reviews. Some people like it and others prefer the ability to have a drop down box to select what index to search in (i.e., Title, Author, etc). We are working to ensure the search function meets diverse client expectations.
  • Sort results more easily – We have added new ways to sort and limit results. Perhaps the biggest addition is facets. Facets allow individuals to limit their search results by audience, format, author, category and year published directly from the search results page.
  • View and manage holds – Clients can view their holds, delete them or prioritize them. In addition they can also view their loan history and current loans.

From a staff perspective, we are excited about the ability to showcase our collection throughout the site using top-ten lists, books in the news, community picks and more. We are also happy to have adopted recent accessibility practices such as landmarks. Landmarks allow you to identify common sections of a web page and navigate through them with technology screenreaders. Now clients can easily jump through sections on the page, from navigation … to search … to the main content.

In the coming months, we will continue to work on accessibility issues while implementing client suggestions. We will also be testing out new features such as a mobile site.

Making large-scale changes in a short amount of time is never going to be easy, but we have come out of the experience with a better CNIB library site, one that will let us meet the needs of our clients for years to come.


Philip Springall has worked at the CNIB library for six years. He is an Information Specialist on the library’s Content & Access team. Visit the new CNIB Library website at:

Published October 2012