An image of an eye

A new vision for digital libraries

Images like pie charts are designed to make information easier to understand, but imagine if you could only hear them. For the 7 million-plus Americans who are blind or have significant vision loss, this is the reality when they’re using the internet.

Many with vision loss use software that reads text from a website, so browsing the web or using email becomes a listening activity. That’s fine with words, but translating more complex graphical elements is a challenge. So determining how a blind person interprets something like an image is just the first step in the ambitious project of Iris Xie and Rakesh Babu, researchers in the School of Information Studies.

Professor Xie says they want to make it easier for people with impaired vision to use digital libraries, including the Library of Congress. Such repositories offer sighted users a wealth of information, but they lack “support for how a blind person would see things,” says Babu, an assistant professor. The researchers think digital libraries could, and should, be as beneficial for those who cannot see.

By studying how people with vision loss process auditory information, Xie and Babu hope to develop better design standards for websites, thus making screen reader interactions less cumbersome. And digital libraries are just a starting point. Those design principles could later be applied to other websites and information systems.

Xie has long studied interactive information retrieval processes and how people use different types of information systems. Babu, who is blind, has devoted his academic career to improving how people with visual impairments can access information on computers. The project will run through 2019 and is partially funded with a National Leadership Grant for Libraries from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.