Aspects of the Need for InfoEyes
The need for and demand by blind and visually impaired patrons for this type of service is persistent and growing.
Providing an online reference and instructional program fosters patron empowerment and self-sufficiency. Blind and visually impaired patrons are at some risk of developing passive attitudes toward information.
The participating libraries want and need to develop new service programs for their patrons, especially digital and online services. Many of the reference service providers who contribute time and talent to InfoEyes were born digital in the sense that they had little or no previous reference desk experience.
All virtual reference services need to become more accessible for all users and potential users. Creating and testing a virtual reference service designed specifically for blind and visually impaired individuals is one concrete way to address this broader need.
The goals of the beta phase of the InfoEyes project were developed by the Core Project Team in consultation with the InfoEyes Advisory Council, consisting of representatives from each participating library.
- Develop a virtual reference service for blind and visually impaired individuals that meets their needs and expectations regarding accessibility and quality of service.
- This goal has several facets. The first was to deploy a technological infrastructure that is accessible to blind and visually impaired individuals. The second was to develop a service program that was capable of answering the specific questions this user population has concerning visual impairments and related topics, as well as the wide-ranging general reference questions that any diverse, inquisitive population of this type would ask. The third is to provide an instructional program that meets the needs of this population.
- Develop an online learning community for blind and visually impaired individuals that provides library programs, orientation sessions, and instructional training.
- We wanted to investigate how virtual reference and online meeting environments could be used to provide information literacy skills, orientation, and instruction to blind and visually impaired individuals.
- Establish a replicable model for providing virtual reference services and online programming for the blind and visually impaired.
- This replicable model could be deployed as a "separate but similar" virtual reference specifically for the blind and visually impaired, or it could become part of a mainstream virtual reference service.
- Work with OCLC to make QuestionPoint an accessible software platform.
- Determine which software features are most usable and useful to blind and visually impaired individuals.
- Determine which services and programs are most useful to blind and visually impaired individuals.
- Offer direct and mediated access to electronic resources (e.g., FirstSearch databases) to the blind and visually impaired.
- Conduct an evaluation of the beta testing phase of InfoEyes that assesses the value of the service, summarizes activities and decisions made to date, and makes recommendations on how to sustain, expand, and improve the service.
- The purpose of the beta phase evaluation is not to conduct performance appraisals or make comparisons between the quality of service provided by various participating libraries and individual service providers.
Specific Questions Addressed
- Are the specific components of QuestionPoint (e.g., email reference, basic text chat, and enhanced communications) accessible to blind and visually impaired individuals?
- Does audio communication (Voice-over-IP, also known as VoIP) improve the interaction between the reference service provider and the patron?
- Does VoIP work well with dial-up connections?
- Are the necessity of and procedures for downloading a plug-in problematic for many end-users?
- What are the benefits of a multi-state collaborative service such as this?
- What are the challenges and limitations of a multi-state collaborative service such as this?
- What types of publicity are more effective?
- How should InfoEyes be offered in conjunction with mainstream virtual reference services for the general population?
- What improvements or adaptations should be made to virtual reference systems to improve their accessibility and usability for blind and visually impaired users?
Genesis of InfoEyes
During the summer of 2003 the Mid-Illinois Talking Book Center and the Southern Illinois Talking Book Center participated in a trial of the QuestionPoint system from OCLC. The trial was coordinated by the Illinois State Library. In November 2003 the Illinois State Library Talking Book and Braille Service invited other libraries in the national network of libraries service the blind and visually impaired to join InfoEyes and make it a multi-state collaborative. In December an online informational meeting was held. The beta phase of the multi-state pilot project had a soft launch in March 2004. The beta phase lasted for six months, concluding at the end of August 2004. September 2004 was a transitional month from the beta testing phase to the full implementation of the program. It was during September that we learned that our grant application to IMLS for funding to continue for another two years was not funded. As a result, the operating budget for InfoEyes was streamlined. On October 11, 2004 InfoEyes launched as an ongoing collaborative multi-state program.
How InfoEyes Works
During most of the beta testing phase patrons had three options for submitting a question to InfoEyes. First, they could submit a question asynchronously 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 opt to engage in an enhanced virtual reference session involving voice-over-IP, co-browsing, and other enhanced virtual reference features. At the beginning of the beta test phase, we were using QuestionPoint Enhanced Communications 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.
Throughout the beta testing phase InfoEyes operated as a loose, multi-state federation of libraries. Each participating library was asked to contribute resources to the project. Initially, each library was asked to contribute four hours per week of desk time providing service directly to patrons. As the beta test progressed and more libraries joined, the amount of required desk time decreased to three hours per week. During these desk shifts the InfoEyes service providers monitored all three communication modes, answering any new or unclaimed email reference questions, engaging in basic text chat with patrons, and engaging in enhanced reference interactions as needed. Staff members from participating libraries also were asked to attend online training sessions (offered both by OCLC staff and by members of the InfoEyes project team), as well as the online monthly meetings of the InfoEyes Advisory Council. Participating libraries also were asked to publicize the service through their websites, newsletters, local media, and other communication channels. Last but not least, participating libraries were asked to provide both OCLC and the beta test project evaluator with feedback on experiences, preferences, and suggestions.
The contributions of OCLC to the beta phase of InfoEyes were substantial and deeply appreciated by the participating libraries and patrons. These contributions include:
- Throughout the beta test phase OCLC contributed considerable e-resources and expertise to the InfoEyes project. For example, OCLC provided access at no charge to the QuestionPoint and QuestionPoint Enhanced Communications software programs.
- They assisted with project planning and provided management advice.
- OCLC also provided access at no charge to 12 FirstSearch databases.
- They conducted initial training on QuestionPoint and FirstSearch to InfoEyes project participants.
- Throughout the beta testing phase they provided technical support.
- OCLC also developed a generic press release and brochure about InfoEyes that each participating library was free to adapt to meet its particular needs.
- OCLC even helped InfoEyes develop a logo.
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. Whenever a vote was taken, a roll call of the participating libraries was conducted. A simple majority was sufficient to pass any decision presented for a vote by the InfoEyes Advisory Council.
The day-to-day operation and management of InfoEyes was a collaborative effort. A few of the operational tasks and the lead person are enumerated below:
- Constructing, maintaining, and updating the project website: Lori Bell from the Mid-Illinois Talking Book Center, with assistance in the accessibility aspects of the website from Will Reed from the Cleveland Public Library.
- Creating and maintaining a desk schedule: Diana Brawley Sussman from the Southern Illinois Talking Book Center. Note: once the schedule was established, desk coverage changes were the responsibility of the participating library that was originally scheduled.
- Creating an agenda for and facilitating the monthly online meetings of the InfoEyes Advisory Council: Diana Brawley Sussman from the Southern Illinois Talking Book Center. The responsibility for taking and distributing the minutes of these meetings was shared among several people.
- Hosting an email discussion list for staff members from the participating libraries: The Illinois State Library initially hosted the list. After a few months, the list moved to a server at the Southern Illinois Talking Book Center.
- Training and mentoring staff from new participating libraries: Lori Bell, Diana Brawley Sussman, and Tom Peters from TAP Information Services shared this responsibility.
- Compiling and distributing monthly statistical reports: Tom Peters from TAP Information Services.
- Conducting online group orientation and training sessions for InfoEyes patrons: During the summer of 2004 Tom Peters conducted a series of online training sessions on tips and techniques for searching Google and FirstSearch databases.
- Maintaining the InfoEyes administrative module with QuestionPoint: Lori Bell moved questions from the active file to the archive and performed other basic tasks in the administrative module.
- Inputting iVocalize sessions into the QuestionPoint administrative module: Tom Peters input information forwarded from other InfoEyes service providers into the QuestionPoint administrative module.
- Reporting out to the profession and the public about InfoEyes: This responsibility was shared by numerous individuals.
- Summer 2003:
- Through a trial offer coordinated by the Illinois State Library, the Mid-Illinois Talking Book Center and the Southern Illinois Talking Book Center perform some preliminary tests the QuestionPoint virtual reference system from OCLC to determine accessibility and general usability.
- Jan.-March 2004:
- The multi-state project is organized. Training in the software and e-resources to be used is provided to InfoEyes participating libraries.
- Early March 2004:
- InfoEyes has a soft launch. Initially only email and basic text chat service is offered.
- March 22, 2004:
- Enhanced reference service is offered using QuestionPoint Enhanced Communications.
- April 2004:
- The InfoEyes Advisory Council decides to discontinue using QuestionPoint Enhanced Communications for its enhanced VR service.
- April 29, 2004:
- Public access through InfoEyes to the QuestionPoint Enhanced Communication mode was discontinued.
- June 7, 2004:
- Following five weeks where no enhance virtual reference option was offered to InfoEyes users, we begin using an iVocalize room from Talking Communities for the enhanced service component of InfoEyes.
- August 31, 2004:
- The six-month beta testing period officially ends, but the service continues indefinitely.
- October 11, 2004:
- The ongoing InfoEyes service program officially launches.