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Keynote Address: "Building Bridges - Library Advocacy and Reaching Out" by Margaret Andrewes

Issued May 1997

Western Conference of Talking Book Libraries
Anchorage, Alaska
May 11 -14, 1997

Tuesday, May 13, 1997, 9:15am - 10:15am

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) Library is "building bridges" these days. With its all-encompassing advocacy program to advance information and access equity, the Library is developing new partnerships and coalitions to bring its collection and services closer to blind and print disabled readers across Canada. In her keynote presentation, Margaret Andrewes will highlight the vision of the CNIB Library and its leadership in engaging the library and information services community in Canada to share the responsibility of bridging the information gap for Canadians, unable to read print, no matter where they live.

Margaret Andrewes, Advocacy Coordinator
CNIB Library for the Blind
1929 Bayview Avenue,
Toronto, Ontario M4G 3E8
Telephone: (416) 480-7670
Fax: (416) 480-7700
email: andrewm@lib.cnib.ca

I want to thank you for this extraordinary opportunity to participate in your conference here in Anchorage. As I recall, John Brewster's invitation came in a voicemail message a few months ago. It was a message that warmed me from head to toe as I experienced an immediate sense of what I believe your conference theme, "Reaching Out", is all about. In the moment, I realized that a connection had been made when we were altogether in Pittsburg last spring.

"Reaching Out" is about building bridges and making connections. Within the context of this forum, we have been exploring the human and technological linkages needed to share the responsibility for advancing information and access equity for all people who are blind or print disabled. In this journey of exploration, I hope that you will find inspiration and opportunity in my story about the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) Library for the Blind as I have surely found in my time with you both in Pittsburg and here in Anchorage.

My story begins just two years ago when Rosemary Kavanagh, Executive Director of the CNIB Library, called to tell me that the library board had determined that it would pursue library advocacy as a leadership initiative and ask if I would be interested in the job as Advocacy Coordinator for the CNIB Library. I couldn't believe my ears! For 15 years, I had worked diligently as a volunteer library advocate and the chance "to go professional" in the advocacy business seemed almost too good to be true. In addition, I was thrilled with the prospect that one library would put its stake in the ground by making a such a sound commitment to library advocacy.

LIBRARY ADVOCACY - What is it? It's about telling library stories. No matter who you are, you have the "right to know". Because library is the "one place to look" for information and knowledge, it is critical that the people who make decisions about access to information understand the importance of libraries in upholding our democratic right. They must hear the stories that we have to tell about what library means to each of us and what barriers to equitable access to information exist.

Library advocacy is also about respect! There are hundreds of thousands of citizens who take library for granted and are unaware of the complex nature of information management. With respect, we must help them understand the role of library, as the primary source of information and knowledge in our democratic society in this information age, and engage them in joining other library advocates to amplify the voice for library across the nations.

In this grand scheme, the CNIB Library Advocacy Program focuses on promoting public awareness of the library and information needs of people who are blind, visually impaired, and print disabled. It is estimated that there are 500,000 Canadians in our population of approximately 30 million who are unable to read print and need to access information in alternate formats - braille, tactile, large print, audio, electronic text and descriptive video. The program also features some major projects which are meant to serve as models in overcoming barriers to information and access equity for all Canadians. In "reaching out" and building the bridges necessary to make human and technological connections with other stakeholders, the CNIB Library is truly working in the human cause.

The CNIB Library is unique because it is the only national library for the blind in the developed world that does not receive government funding for its operation. It has a circulating collection of more than 50,000 titles in alternate format, direct access to other sources of materials in alternate formats, including the Library of Congress, through interlibrary loan agreements, a unique reference service, and is the largest and most sophisticated Canadian producer of information materials in alternate formats.

At this point, I invite you to experience the CNIB Library for the Blind story as depicted in a video presentation called "A Jump Ahead". This video was prepared two years ago just prior to the launch of the CNIB Library Advocacy Program. It features Library users, staff and volunteers telling their individual stories which are fundamental to the purpose for our library advocacy program.

Video Presentation - "A Jump Ahead"

The CNIB Library Advocacy Program has been crafted by the ACCESS Committee of the CNIB Library Board. The members of the committee include current members of the board and members-at-large who are representatives of both the blind and print disabled community and the library community in Canada.

One of the members of the committee is Louis Vagianos, a library leader who has contributed much to the advancement of information policy internationally throughout his career as an academic librarian and administrator. In my endeavour to recruit him as a member of the ACCESS Committee, I took him on a tour of the CNIB Library. I was a titch apprehensive about my bold expectation that Louis would "buy in". Nevertheless, in "reaching out", the connection came when he exclaimed that he realized that, for the first time in the history of civilization, the technologies exist to enable "the potential for parity" for access to information for those who have been forever sidelined because of their print disabilities.

That interchange was a defining moment for both Louis and me. Louis has since embraced the CNIB Library Advocacy Program with much vigour and enthusiasm and I often reflect on that moment as a touchstone in my ongoing endeavour to support the program. After all, it is influential leaders like the Louis' of this world who need to be engaged in "reaching out" and building the bridges that will make a difference for blind and print disabled people.

My job as the CNIB Library Advocacy Coordinator is to make the connections to ensure the success of the program. I characterize my role by stating that I am a "bridge builder". It is somewhat akin to what my youngest daughter hopes to become. She is studying materials engineering at the University of Western Ontario. When I ask her about her future, she explains that she will be able to make steel. Steel is a a primary element in bridge construction. You and I are manufacturers of the stuff of bridges - bridges that secure the future for those who would depend on us for information and knowledge.

Initially, the ACCESS Committee established the foundation for the CNIB Library Advocacy Program by defining a new paradigm for the Library as follows:

"Over the next decade, the CNIB Library for the Blind will become fully integrated with other libraries across Canada and throughout the world. In this endeavour, the primary focus is access equity emphasizing the delivery of quality and timely information in braille, tactile, large print, audio, descriptive video and electronic formats.

The integration will be achieved through partnerships with other libraries and information providers; cooperation with publishers and all levels of government; and the application of a multitude of technological tools to build a national information infrastructure.

The CNIB Library for the Blind will assure a vital resource for every blind and print disabled person in Canada in support of each individual's "right to know". It will demonstrate the opportunity for information equity for every Canadian."

The following principles serve as the underpinnings for this new model:

The "right to know" is a fundamental citizenship issue in our democratic society. Blind and print disabled Canadians have the same right as their fellow citizens to publicly funded library service in their schools, colleges, universities, and local communities.

Braille literacy for blind and visually impaired individuals is as essential as print literacy for sighted individuals. Blindness is censorship enough.

Equitable access to information is a technical issue. A blind person is NOT less able than others to access information and gain knowledge. Blind and print disabled people require information, generally published in print format, in alternate formats - braille, tactile, large print, audio, descriptive video, and electronic text. Information infrastructures must be employ relevant technologies to achieve access equity for blind and visually impaired people. Information technologies must be implemented at the design stage when the cost is marginal in comparison to the cost of retrofitting after the fact.

Each individual's need will be recognized in serving the WHOLE COMMUNITY. Library service for blind youth will not be compromised for library service for the growing population of older blind people.

If a "book" exists, it's available. Resource sharing among all libraries and other information resource centres is essential to ensure resources in alternate formats are readily available to blind and print disabled people no matter where they live.

Building on the paradigm and principles established as the foundation for the CNIB Library Advocacy Program, we are undertaking a number of projects to make a difference for Canadians who are blind or print disabled. Our utimate goal is to ensure that every Canadian has equitable access to library and information services. After all, the potential for parity exists.

In this endeavour, we have a major challenge given the complex nature of the country, Canada, and the organization, the CNIB, in which we operate and serve...

From the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic Ocean, Canada is an expansive space, covering some 3,852,000 square miles, where there area few large population centres and many, many small and remote ones. Rivers and lakes make up about 10% of this area and the Trans Canada Highway, which runs through southern Canada east west, is about 5,000 miles long. The great majority of the 30 million Canadians live within 250 miles of the American border.

For the past few weeks, the Red River flood has continued to threaten the homes and livelihood of approximately 500,000 people living in the southern part of the province of Manitoba, as in North Dakota which has been equally inundated. I often think about the fact that on my commute between my home near Niagara Falls, Ontario, in close proximity to the US border, and the CNIB Library in downtown Toronto, I pass by the homes of more people than there are in all of Manitoba with its population of 1,000,000.

The CNIB delivers its services in this vast landscape in every one of the ten provinces and two territories. The CNIB is organized into ten divisions, each with its own board and staff, representing the regional character of the country. For over 75 years, the CNIB has existed as a private, not for profit charitable organization providing rehabilitation services for the majority of blind and visually impaired Canadians. The number of individual clients, who receive direct service, has steadily increased over the years and now stands at an all time high of approximately 90,000. The CNIB also acts as a resource agency to other disability service providers, government, and private industry.

The CNIB Library for the Blind is one of the oldest divisions in the CNIB, and predates the parent organization by several years. It was established as The Canadian Free Library for the Blind in 1906 and was merged with the CNIB in 1918. Because the Library is a national service, integrated with the rehabilitation services offered through the other CNIB Divisions on a regional basis, it has a profound presence in the organization.

Over more than 90 years, the CNIB Library has served as the "public library" of choice for hundreds of thousands of CNIB clients. And, as the predominant publisher of library and information materials in alternate formats in Canada since its origin, it has been a primary source of these materials for blind and print disabled Canadians, currently estimated at 500,000, who are served by other information service providers, including all types of libraries, schools, businesses and all levels of government.

Within this demographic and historical context, my story continues...

The strategy for implementing the CNIB Library Advocacy Program is three-pronged. First, we are "reaching out" and "building bridges within the CNIB. Second, we are "reaching out" to build bridges with the Canadian library and information services community. Third, we are "reaching out" to the whole community of Canadians, specifically our politicians, government officials and key citizens who influence the development of public policy.

The projects, which we are undertaking under our advocacy program, represent the continuum necessary to promote public awareness of the library and information needs of people who are blind and print disabled and demonstrate the means to address their needs.

Last spring, the CNIB Library staged "Rising to the Information Age: Partners in Advancing Equity" - a series of forums in twelve locations across Canada for CNIB clients, staff, volunteers and representatives of other libraries and disability service agencies. In these forums, Victoria Owen, Director of Information Services, and I had the opportunity to have a dialogue with our "partners", both within the CNIB and in the broad community, to identify and address the issues that are prevalent in achieving information and access equity for blind and print disabled Canadians. It was a phenomenal journey! The information and knowledge that we garnered through our "partners program" was immeasurable in substantiating the premise for our advocacy program.

Of most significance currently, is a project in the Province of Alberta, called Alberta ACCESS. In recognizing the vast and diverse nature of Canada, the ACCESS Committee determined that there was a need to focus on one regional jurisdiction to establish a model for the new paradigm which I described earlier in this presentation. We chose Alberta over the other nine provinces and two territories because the library community in that province has defined a unique plan for the future based upon a "grassroots" approach.

Funding for public, academic and school libraries in Canada is provided at the provincial and municipal levels of government. In recent years, the quest for balanced budgets has produced massive cutbacks in this funding. In dealing with this challenge, the Alberta library community has taken its life into its own hands. In the early nineties, it began with a strategic planning process which resulted in Libraries:ASAP, A Strategic Action Plan for Information Services in Alberta. The plan represents the vision, the ideas and the energy of a community of people whose aim is to work together and with partners, to ensure that all Alberta citizens have access to the world of information - "The Alberta Library".

"The Alberta Library" is a concept that includes a wide range of ideas - an attitude that the library community has adopted to express its interdependence; a slogan to describe all libraries as being interconnected to deliver service; a strategy to create a province-wide library network - all those and more.

Throughout the planning process, the community subscribed to two underlying goals: that the process would be as consultative as possible; and that the resulting plan would be primarily self-implementable. In fact, library leaders in Alberta who enabled the development of the plan were extremely successful in engaging many stakeholders both within and beyond the immediate library community in the process. "The Alberta Library" was incorporated last fall. It has a substantial membership, including all types of libraries, a board of directors and an executive director who are now working to implement the goals of Libraries:ASAP. Do check "The Alberta Library" website to learn more.

To develop and implement our Alberta ACCESS Project Plan, we have recruited a team of six library champions who represent blind and print disabled Albertans and the "The Alberta Library". Over the next year, the team is mandated by the CNIB Library Board to plan and implement the strategies and means to integrate the services of the CNIB Library with those of "The Alberta Library" as a model for other provincial and territorial jurisdictions in Canada - a leadership prospect which is both exciting and achievable in the minds of all involved.

We are also endeavouring to "reach out" in other ways through the CNIB Library Advocacy Program. Last fall, we staged a major forum in Ontario targetted for librarians and special needs services personnel in post secondary institutions to promote awareness of the sources for information in alternate formats for their students, faculty and staff.

Next month, we have organized a similar forum for members of the Canadian library community who recommend and establish policy in publicly funded libraries. It will be held as a full day preconference session at the 1997 Canadian Library Association Conference in Ottawa and is billed, "Making Connections: A Forum on Bridging the Information Gap for Blind and Print Disabled Canadians". Another advocacy initiative, the forum is an opportunity to highlight the issues that policy makers, administrators and managers in public, academic and school libraries need to address in advancing equitable access to information for ALL members of their communities. As well, we will promote awareness of the "potential for parity" through the plethora of technological resources and linkages that are now available.

There are seven library schools in Canada. By the end of 1997, the CNIB Library will develop an instruction module for the schools in an endeavour to encourage heightened knowledge and understanding of the information and access needs of blind and print disabled library users among students in their formative stage as librarians.

A long term goal of the ACCESS Committee is to bring together representatives of the "disabled community" to participate in a Canadian "think tank" for the purpose of influencing the redefinition of public policy as it relates to information and access equity. Currently, we are "reaching out" and making the connections necessary to build the foundation for working as a collective in a public policy think tank. For instance, we have engaged the involvement of the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada in our forum in June.

Through its advocacy program, the CNIB Library is endeavouring to provide the leadership necessary to encourage the broadest range of stakeholders to take ownership in advancing equitable access to information for blind and print disabled Canadians. The Library is also seeking to establish the distinct role it must play in the new paradigm as a producer and/or distributor of information in alternate formats.

In your attentiveness to my story, you may be wondering how on earth, the CNIB Library will cope with increased demands on its collections and services as a result of this outreach. Well, while the ACCESS Committee has been crafting away, so too has our illustrious executive director, Rosemary Kavanagh, and our staff team at the CNIB Library.

If you hearken back to the video presentation earlier, you saw Rosemary expounding on the CNIB Library as a "library without walls". This concept, which has been the way of libraries serving the blind throughout the world over the years, fits perfectly with the paradigm shift in public libraries where more and more members of the general public are choosing to access libraries from their homes and workplaces. The emergence of digital libraries is also not new for libraries for the blind which have been dealing with rights management, electronic text and multi media formats for quite some time.

As a result, VISUNET:Canada is currently being rolled out across the land by the CNIB Library. VISUNET is a matrix of systems and services which in combination forms a national library service for blind and print disabled Canadians in both official languages, English and French. It attempts to resolve the issue of accessibility over geographical and other regional boundaries. It integrates the CNIB's alternate format collection with the resources on the Internet and of other libraries making them available in any community and in any home or office across Canada providing one place to look for Canadians who have a print disability.

As a virtual library, VISUNET, in its ultimate form, will be less about a warehouse for copies of books and more about an assembler of sources of information in which library users may digitally immerse their intellectual souls while determining the format and type of delivery that best meets their needs.

Using "here and now" technologies, VISUNET places the user at the centre of the service. It is meant to serve the entire Canadian community of print disabled people. It supports any individual or library intervening on behalf or an individual. VISUNET does not require clients to be sophisticated computer users but offers a choice of technologies to ensure timely access to books, magazines, newspapers and other materials in a way that is most comfortable and convenient.

Presently, the CNIB Library's Online Public Access Catalogue, a component of VISUNET, is accessible for browsing on the World Wide Web to all visiting the CNIB website. Extended access privileges are available to individuals and organizations once a password is granted. For example, CNIB Library clients can use their computer at home to manage their own service independently and privately by exploring the collection, placing holds on the materials they wish to read and checking their patron file. Staff in CNIB service centres across Canada can register new Library clients online thus avoiding the paper chase that existed before. Other libraries and information providers have the opportunity to enrich their services for the print disabled members of their communities by expanding their collections of materials in alternate formats simply by going through the electronic door to the CNIB Library via VISUNET.

The Library's Information Resource Centre is another important component of VISUNET. It is a full reference service for CNIB clients and staff to call on a toll-free telephone line or email from anywhere in Canada. Using the resources of the Internet and partner libraries, the Information Resource Centre responds to all reference queries in the client's format of choice.

In the near future, VISUNET will offer access to current information in magazines and newspapers through VISUNEWS. It is planned that VISUNEWS will have two access modes - one by computer through the Internet and the other through the telephone.

In all of this, VISUNET is the means to advance information and access equity for all Canadians who cannot read print once our advocacy program advances the will of the people in our libraries across Canada to truly serve the whole community of information hungry print disabled people.

Indeed, my tale could go on but I don't want to "rock the bridge" which you provided to enable me to join you here at this conference by carrying on any longer.

In closing, I resort to the words of the keynote speaker at the Alberta Library Conference last month. Moses Znaimer, a renowned Canadian television magnate, said: "As well as choice, people yearn for meaning and understanding; knowledge that is relevant and timely and personal. Surely this is the fact at the heart of what libraries can/should/must and will do; and seems imminently more valuable than being just snazzy lenders of content."

In response to Moses, I suggest that we will find the way to work together to enable uninhibited access for blind and print disabled people to readily find what they yearn to know and understand through their library.

Again, thank you for "reaching out" and extending such a warm welcome to me as a representative of the CNIB Library for the Blind to bring you this library story. I look forward to our next intersection when you are invited for a day in Quebec, Canada during the 1998 NLS Conference to be convened in Burlington, Vermont.

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Posted on 2010-11-12