Volume 27, Number 4, Winter 2005

Access to Online Library Resources for All: The Role of Policy and Policy Change

by Axel Schmetzke, Coordinator of Instructional Materials Center, Reference Librarian, Coordinator of Instruction, University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point

Quite different from five years ago, more and more librarians now understand that Web resources need to be properly designed in order to be accessible to all people, including those with disabilities. While librarians have begun to act on such understanding with regard to Web pages—data show that library Web pages tend to be more accessible than those of other academic units —they seem to disregard the need for accessibility at crucial junctures of their professional practice. 1 For example, it is rare that librarians raise the question of accessibility when considering indexes or databases for procurement. Members of search and screen committees hardly ever ask candidates about their awareness and skills in this area. To the extent that librarians are involved in the planning and design of digitization projects, the needs of people using assistive technology is seldom on their radar screen. Most libraries themselves do not have their own accessibility policy. They rely on campus-wide policies to address the issue—policies that, if existing at all, are typically limited to Web pages (as opposed to all Web-based resources). Even the guidelines issued by our own professional organizations often do not address the need for barrier-free address. A case in point is the current ACRL document “Guidelines for Distance Learning Library Services.” 2

What can we do to improve the current situation? How can we bring the issue of accessibility onto our radar screens whenever and wherever it matters? In this article, I will focus on a policy-oriented strategy for promoting an accessible online campus and library environment. In a nutshell, I propose to start out by examining all the policies that govern our professional thinking and practices, to determine whether they adequately address accessibility issues, and where they do not (or where they do not exist at all), work within suitable committees within the institution’s organization towards getting the right policies, or policy revisions, in place.

Why would we want to spend considerable time and effort on policies? Aren’t these just pieces of paper that quickly disappear in people’s drawers and are rarely consulted during our daily routine? True, when policies are created solely for the purpose of meeting some bureaucratic requirement, they may have little impact. However, this situation does not apply here. For accessibility advocates, the revisiting and rewriting of policy serves two important functions. It helps spread awareness about the whole issue, and, after approval, it constitutes a handy reference point for further accessibility-promoting action. There will be no need for accessibility advocates to fight the battle from scratch every time they criticize an existing practice or suggest steps towards removing existing barriers.

Where should one turn first—towards the larger campus policy or towards the policies within the library or some of its departments, such as collection development? The answer to this varies with the institution, depending on factors such as the possibilities for participating in self-government and the presence of fellow advocates whom one can rely on for support. In the following, I will describe the situation on my campus, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP). Its strong tradition of self-governance, in which both faculty and staff are involved, made it possible for accessibility advocates to tackle directly our campus’ old and inadequate “Web Accessibility Policy.” After two years of hard work by the members of our “Online Accessibility Taskforce,” and after some pushing and shoving as they sought the approval, first by other committees and, then, by the Faculty Senate, UWSP’s new “Online Accessibility Policy and Implementation Plan” was finally approved in March 2005. 3 Despite some compromises, it includes two important changes: It now requires that Web pages are made accessible; and it mandates that anyone involved in the development or procurement of online resources must strive for compliance with the accessibility standards issued by the federal Access Board under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended. 4

With the campus-wide online accessibility policy in place, the trickle-down effect kicked in almost immediately. Our campus’ Information Technology Committee promptly incorporated an accessibility component to our “Multi-College Educational Courseware Guidelines.” A proposal is currently afoot to amend our Library’s Collection Development Policy so that decision-making pertaining to the procurement of indexes and databases need to involve, among others:

  • taking into account the accessibility of products or services under consideration,
  • requiring vendors to provide documentation pertaining to their products' accessibility (conformance to Section 508),
  • inquiring about their products' usability for users of assistive technology (outcomes of usability testing),
  • consulting the literature about the accessibility of resources under consideration,
  • discussing more accessible alternatives,
  • documenting the reasons for selecting an inaccessible resource, and
  • including accessibility as a desired resource quality in RFPs (requests for proposals).
Not to be mistaken, the new policy does not require that each and every product, such as our online indexes and databases, must be barrier-free. At this point in time, such requirement would be rather counterproductive; we would simply shoot ourselves in the foot. What is required instead is that the librarians involved in selecting electronic resources for procurement must, among other important criteria, consider their accessibility. As they begin to do so, a strong message will be sent to vendors; they will come to realize that accessibility is an important aspect that—if not already now, then certainly in the future—gives barrier-free products a competitive edge.

Gradually, vendor-independent studies that evaluate the accessibility and usability of commonly used online library resources are becoming available and should enable librarians to make better-informed procurement decisions. Most recently, a study by Stewart et al. reports on data collected between November 2003 and January 2004. 5 In a nutshell, the findings reveal that while most of the thirty-seven index/database interfaces included in this study were compliant with Section 508 standards, they tended to be difficult to use by people who use screen-reading software to interface with their computers. Another study spearheaded by Stewart that evaluates the accessibility and usability of some thirty e-journals is currently in the works. 6 Even when the findings of these and future studies pertain to older versions of the products under consideration, they still inspire a powerful question to be directed to vendors: “Stewart et al. found that your product was difficult to use by screen reader users for reasons x, y, and z. What assurance can you give us that your company has rectified these problems?”

With an accessibility component becoming incorporated into pertinent library policies, this component also becomes an aspect of the librarian’s job description working in the respective area (collection development, Web development, distance learning services, etc.). This, in turn, should be reflected in future position announcements, the qualifications expected from job applicants and the questions asked during job interviews. Here is just an example of one such question:

In the current library environment, in which information services are increasingly offered online, what do you regard as some of the major access barriers for people with disabilities? If hired, what would you (as library director, collection developer, automation librarian, etc.) do to help remove these barriers?
As vacancy postings include awareness and skills in the area of accessibility, our schools of library and information studies are likely to take this issue more seriously and put forth more effort to address it within their curriculum. 7

Among the policy-type documents issued by our professional organizations, the "ACRL Guidelines for Distance Learning Library Services" deserves special mention—for three reasons: They have been influential in shaping policies and practices at individual libraries; they currently do not address the needs of people with disabilities (a group that, potentially, could benefit a good deal from distance education); and they are currently undergoing revision. It is the third reason that I wish to emphasize, for it provides a great opportunity to get involved and help bring the issue of a barrier-free online environment onto the radar screen of librarians who plan for and manage distance education library services. Luckily, the Guidelines Committee of the ACRL’s Distance Learning Section (DLS), which is preparing the new revision, seems to be very open to input and encourages interested parties to participate. If you wish to make your voice heard, contact the DLS Guidelines Committee Chair, Rob Morrison, at 435-797-1477 or Guidelines committee member Harvey Gover. Information about the revisions and opportunities on how to participate in this process will be posted to the DLS Web site. 8

Networking with like-minded librarians is also important to promote the creation of an accessible and user-friendly online environment for all. In closing, I therefore wish to encourage my colleagues interested in this area to join the AXSLIB-L discussion forum supported by EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information) and dedicated to any access issues concerning people with disabilities within the library environment. 9 Membership in this group, which is not overwhelmingly busy, offers up-to-date information on events and publications, and it provides a venue for questions and discussion.

References and Notes

  1. Axel Schmetzke, "Web Page Accessibility on University of Wisconsin Campuses: 2005 Survey Data and Seven-Year Trend Data," Web Accessibility Survey Site. Accessed April 18, 2005, http://library.uwsp.edu/aschmetz/Accessible/UW-Campuses/Survey2005/ contents2005.htm.
  2. Association of College and Research Libraries, "ACRL Guidelines for Distance Learning Library Services." Accessed Oct. 4, 2005, http://www.ala.org/ala/acrl/acrlstandards/guidelinesdistancelearning.htm.
  3. "UWSP Online Accessibility Policy and Implementation Plan," 2005. Accessed Oct. 4, 2005, http://www.uwsp.edu/it/policies/accessibility/AccessibilityPolicy.htm.
  4. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board), "Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards." Accessed Oct. 4, 2005, http://www.access-board.gov/sec508/standards.htm.
  5. Ron Stewart, Vivek Narendra and Axel Schmetzke, "Accessibility and Usability of Online Library Databases," Library Hi Tech 23 no.2, 2005: 265-286. An electronic version (possibly abridged) will soon be posted at href="http://tap.oregonstate.edu/research.
  6. Ron Stewart, Oregon State University, "Accessibility of Online Databases." Accessed Oct. 4, 2005, http://tap.oregonstate.edu/research/ahg.htm.
  7. For further information on the extent to which services to individuals with disabilities is (or is not) incorporated into the curricula of the North American SLIS, see Linda L. Walling, "Educating Students to Serve Information Seekers with Disabilities," Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 45 no.2, 2004: 137-48.
  8. Association of College and Research Libraries and American Library Association Distance Learning Section (DLS), "Guidelines for Distance Learning Library Services." Accessed Oct. 4, 2005 http://caspian.switchinc.org/~distlearn/guidelines .
  9. To subscribe to the AXSLIB-L list, send an e-mail to listserv@maelstrom.stjohns.edu with “sub axslib-l” followed by your first and last name (omit the quotation marks) in the subject line. Searchable AXLIB-L archives are located at http://maelstrom.stjohns.edu/archives/axslib-l.html.