An estimated 20.6 million adults with significant vision loss live in the U.S (American Foundation for the Blind, 2014). Blind and Visually Impaired (BVI) users comprise an atypical group of users who interact with Digital Libraries (DLs) in entirely different ways from sighted users. In our research, BVI users include those who lack the functional sight to see information on a computer screen. They interact with the Internet by listening to information read aloud by a screen-reader (SR), which identifies and interprets textual content on the screen and presents this aurally through a synthetic voice. Screen readers are the most common type of assistive technology used by computer users with vision loss.

BVI users have unique needs, challenges, strategies, and preferences in their interactions with DLs. To design DLs that meet the needs of BVI users, DL developers and researchers must first understand these special needs. DLs are comprised of digital content created by libraries and cultural heritage institutions, and include manuscripts, images, audio, and video. Currently, DLs are sight-centered by design. There is no single design model for DLs; the DL structure is highly complex where the content is inherently heterogeneous in format and system dimensions. Such complexities, combined with the sight-centered design, can present significant problems in retrieving information non-visually, giving rise to help-seeking situations for BVI users.

Our research team works on three research projects that investigate the unique help-seeking situations that BVI users encounter, design help features, and create guidelines to support the accessibility, usability and utility of digital librarie for Blind and Visually Impaired Users. These projects attempt to improve BVI users’ access to digital libraries in three ways:

  •  First, it fills a critical gap in literature about an understanding of the unique help-seeking situations faced by BVI users in DL interactions;
  • Second, it develops design knowledge on help features that support the unique needs, abilities, and strategies of BVI information seekers on the Web;
  • Third, it creates design guidelines on accessibility, usability and utility of DLs for BVI users.


Iris Xie, Ph.D.
School of Information Studies
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Phone:(414)229-6835 Fax:(414)229-6699