April 23, 2014

Accessibility Makes Incremental Gains | Reinventing Libraries

Spaces. Services. Digital content. Collections. Learning experiences. Interfaces. Any way you consider it, there is no library practice that doesn’t intersect with accessibility. Accessibility is the principle that the fullest use of any resource should be given to the greatest number of individuals. More than compliance with laws and guidelines, accessibility is a form of social justice. As the most established cultural providers of public space and digital content, libraries share a responsibility to promote universal access to our full range of services for all users, regardless of whether they rely on adaptive technology or not.

In 2010, I wrote a piece for Library Journal on ebook accessibility, “E-Texts for All (Even Lucy).” At the time, I was the E-Learning Librarian at the University of California (UC)–Berkeley and becoming increasingly concerned with the less than ideal interaction between Cal’s print-disabled students and its digital content. I observed that they suffered from a triple barrier of inaccessible e-texts, incompatible ereading devices, and inadequate means to scan course readings within a reasonable time frame. I came to understand that, at the time, the near-universally dismal accessibility performance of most emerging e-content vendors and the libraries that featured their products resulted as much from a simple lack of insight into web usability as from vendors placing adaptive technology on the back burner in their rush to develop platforms. What (if anything) has changed about how libraries and vendors approach accessibility?

One step back, two forward

In anticipation of LJ’s free upcoming virtual event “The Digital Shift: Reinventing Libraries” on October 16, LJ is featuring a series of essays that raise key questions about the new state of libraries. Char Booth’s essay follows on from Joseph Janes’s and Barbara Fister’s in the August issue and Eric Hellman’s in the September 1 issue. Also look for excerpts from Janes’s Library 2020 collection.

The landscape has undoubtedly changed for the better but not universally. As is often the case with shifts toward equity, improvements have been incremental, and are as likely to be compulsory as voluntary—a recent example at UC–Berkeley illustrates this point. Earlier this year, the University Libraries concluded a negotiated settlement with three print-disabled students vastly to improve scan-on-demand services and library website accessibility. I moved on from Cal in 2011, but my former colleague (and article inspiration) Lucy Greco and I keep in touch about developments at the institution, which often acts as a policy bellwether in academe. According to her, the settlement is a significant win for the print-disabled community and representative of a welcome trend toward increased awareness of inclusivity among academic libraries.

Whereas public libraries have long provided services for those with visual disabilities, libraries in higher education have begun to assume greater collective and individual responsibility for influencing and enforcing print accessibility, often in conjunction with campus disability services and/or information technology offices. In 2012, the Association of Research Libraries convened a task force to examine the state of accessibility practice in academic libraries; it recommended more aggressive action to render collections accessible. Facilitating one aspect of this process, the 2012 Authors Guild v. Hathi Trust verdict radically loosened long-standing strictures on digitized content created for print-disabled patrons. Before this ruling, outside of a limited number of Chafee Amendment institutions, a digital text scanned for a blind student typically had to be scrapped rather than preserved and shared.

Relative to 2010 norms, vendors and content platform providers have also begun to make their products more universally designed. Text-to-speech and OCR are increasingly commonplace interface features, voluntary product accessibility templates are made available by more database providers and learning management systems, and some library-related companies are providing increased accessibility education services, such as OverDrive’s 2011 Library eBook accessibility program. These changes have undoubtedly been influenced by pressure applied by libraries and librarians, who comprise a huge market for digital content and related externals.

Understanding accessibility

Some still consider accessibility to be niche or time-consuming or to have little actual impact on their users. Not so. Developing an accessible mind-set is not only good practice (and in most cases legally obligatory), it is increasingly facilitated by resources that enable inclusive practice. Vast expertise is not necessary to dismantle barriers to access; the first step is cultivating universal design habits of mind such as consistency, flexibility, and simplicity.

It is also useful to distinguish between types of accessibility and the guidelines that inform them—a combination of legislation, performance standards, and design movements formally and informally govern accessibility practices across libraries.

  • Physical accessibility is equitable movement in and through built spaces—the Americans with Disabilities Act, significantly updated in 2008, governs this realm of accessible library practice.
  • Web accessibility and “assistive technology” enables use of the websites, information formats, ereaders, and other tools—Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act guides the formal compliance of federally funded websites and technology services (a much-needed update to these guidelines is currently gridlocked), while industry standards such as World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) aid voluntary design compliance.
  • Educational accessibility is the design of learning materials and experiences that are universally usable; Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is the most prominent “blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone.”

Moving ahead

As the digital transition progresses, it is more important than ever for librarians to advocate for inclusive design within industries we influence. The most encouraging change I observe is a growing accessibility consciousness, influenced in part by the integration of usability, mobile services, and open access in library practices. Related topics are increasingly present in library conference programs and professional development. Professional groups such as ASCLA offer high-quality web- and in-person programming and resources, and current publications provide strategies for moving from compliance to alliance—I edited a 2012 primer that covers basic accessibility in each major area of library operations.

The work to create inclusive libraries will never end, but small and large actions can continue to advance the cause. For those of us who don’t experience disability personally, one of the best ways to understand the importance of inclusive design is by attempting to experience the path users with different types of disabilities take through our stacks, sites, and learning materials. Try accessing and navigating an ebook or online journal article using screen-reading software or another assistive technology, engage with a video tutorial with no sound or visuals and see if you can follow the content, or accompany a patron who negotiates your library with a mobility aid such as a wheelchair or service animal. While you will not be able to experience truly their path, you will perceive why removing barriers to access of any sort should be a priority of all librarians.


Char Booth is Head of Instruction Services and E-Learning Librarian, Claremont Colleges Library, CA; on the faculty of the ACRL Information Literacy Immersion Institute; and a 2008 LJ Mover & Shaker. She is the author of (among others) Making Libraries Accessible: Adaptive Design and Assistive Technology (2012)

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This article was published in Library Journal's October 1, 2013 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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