March through August 2004
Tom Peters of TAP Information Services
This is the final report on the first six months the beta test phase--of the InfoEyes Program, which ran from March through August of 2004. InfoEyes is a multi-state virtual reference, online instruction, and information community for blind and visually impaired individuals. Seventeen libraries in thirteen states have participated to date in InfoEyes. Resources for the project, including software, systems, trial access to databases, orientation, and technical support were supplied by OCLC and Talking Communities. All other direct and indirect expenses related to InfoEyes have been donated by the participating libraries.
The goals of the beta test of InfoEyes included:
- Developing a virtual reference service for blind and visually impaired individuals that meets their needs and expectations regarding accessibility and quality of service.
- Developing an online learning community for blind and visually impaired individuals that provide library programs, orientation sessions, and instructional training.
- Establishing a replicable model for an accessible virtual reference service.
- Working with vendors of software and systems to improve the overall accessibility.
During most of the beta testing phase patrons had three options for submitting a question to InfoEyes. First, they could submit a question via email using the OCLC QuestionPoint system. The InfoEyes service team attempted to respond via email in 48 hours or less. Second, a patron could engage in a synchronous, basic text chat session using the OCLC QuestionPoint system. Third, a patron could use the enhanced virtual reference mode involving voice-over-IP, co-browsing, and other enhanced virtual reference features. At the beginning of the beta test phase QuestionPoint Enhanced Communications was used as the software platform for this enhanced reference interaction. After a six-week period in May and early June when no enhanced reference option was offered, the InfoEyes team switched to the iVocalize software platform from Talking Communities.
In terms of management and governance, the Illinois State Library Talking Book and Braille Service provided overall management and served as fiscal agent for the project. Each participating library had one vote on the InfoEyes Advisory Council, which served as the governing body. The day-to-day operation and management of InfoEyes was a collaborative effort.
A total of 295 total sessions occurred during the first six months of the InfoEyes service. Of those, 233 were defined as countable sessions. Of the 184 days during the six-month period, 102 (55.4 percent) contained at least one InfoEyes session. The average number of countable sessions per active day for the six-month period was 2.28. However, there was a noticeable downward monthly trend in the average number of countable sessions per active day, starting in May with 5.14 and concluding in August with 1.17.
Of the 233 countable sessions, 161 (69.1 percent) were real (i.e., based on the logs, these appeared to be real information needs expressed by real patrons), 25 (10.7 percent) were interest sessions (i.e., the person was interested mainly in learning more about InfoEyes), 41 (17.6 percent) were practice sessions involving two or more InfoEyes service providers, and 6 countable sessions (2.58 percent) were of unknown basic intention.
The general finding of the beta testing period is that InfoEyes appears to be meeting the anticipated need. Use of the service was strong in the first two months of the beta testing phase, then dropped off during the summer months. InfoEyes created a new awareness - among the target service population, talking book centers and libraries serving the blind and visually impaired, mainstream libraries, and virtual reference services - about new service opportunities.
Numerous recommendations and ongoing challenges have been identified. The hours of service should be increased. Overall, more effective means must be found to announce and promote the service. The relationship between InfoEyes and mainstream virtual reference services (i.e., VR services designed for the general population) needs further discussion and exploration. Additional funding must be found in order to maintain the vitality of the service.
In order for a virtual reference service to be accessible to blind and visually impaired individuals, the software used must be accessible. The software must work well in conjunction with major screen reader software programs, such as WindowEyes and JAWS for Windows. The use of frames and automatic screen refreshes tends to create access hurdles. Keystroke alternatives to all buttons and dropdown menus should be available. The use of voice-over-IP is not an essential component of an accessible virtual reference service, but experiences during the beta testing phase of InfoEyes indicate that it is a very helpful feature that is much appreciated by users. The expertise and approachability of the staff providing the service are as important as the accessibility of the software.
Virtual reference software, systems, and services that are accessible to all citizens benefit everyone, not just individuals who happen to be blind or visually impaired.
Please note: Listed below are the InfoEyes participating libraries as of August 2004. The Indiana School for the Blind participated early in the InfoEyes beta testing phase, but, due to external factors, had to withdraw. Several libraries have joined InfoEyes, and several have left since August 2004. Please see http://www.infoeyes.org/participating.html for a current list of InfoEyes participating libraries.
District of Columbia
- Illinois State Library
- Illinois State Library Talking Book and Braille Service
- Mid-Illinois Talking Book Center
- Southern Illinois Talking Book Center
- Andrew Heiskell Braille & Talking Book Library, part of the New York Public Library
- Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
- Free Library of Philadelphia, Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
- Washington State Library
- Washington Talking Book & Braille Library, administered by the Seattle Public Library
This is the final report on the first six months - the beta test phase - of the InfoEyes Program. InfoEyes is a multi-state virtual reference, online instruction, and information community for blind and visually impaired individuals. Seventeen libraries in thirteen states have participated to date in InfoEyes. Resources for the project, including software, systems, trial access to databases, orientation, and technical support were supplied by OCLC and Talking Communities. All other direct and indirect expenses related to InfoEyes have been donated by the participating libraries.
Core Project Team
- Sharon Ruda, Director, Illinois State Library Talking Book and Braille Service (Project Director)
- Lori Bell, Director, Mid-Illinois Talking Book Center
- Diana Brawley Sussman, Director, Southern Illinois Talking Book Center
- Tom Peters, Founder, TAP Information Services (Project Evaluator)
Various groups had a stake in the outcomes and general success of the beta testing phase of InfoEyes. Stakeholder groups include:
- The Core Project Team
- Service providers from the participating libraries
- Administrators from the participating libraries
- Librarians from other libraries who are involved in other virtual reference services
- The library profession as a whole
- OCLC and Talking Communities
- Other vendors of software that could be used as part of a VR program
- Other organizations serving the blind and visually impaired population
- Blind and visually impaired individuals who have tried the service
- Blind and visually impaired individuals who have not yet tried the service