Accessibility, UX, and Digital Libraries

We discussed accessibility as part of our UX week in Digital Libraries, which is a topic that has interested me for a while. As I generally say about libraries and information resources, they are fairly useless if they remain inaccessible; this goes doubly for digital libraries, especially because digital technology has the power to make information more accessible for users with disabilities. Font resizing, captioning, alt text for images, formatting toggles to increase contrast–those are all things we can build into our digital libraries to ensure the information is accessible for all sorts of people. Many e-library resources house an “accessibility statement,” such as this one from the University of Louisville, which outlines how the pages are set up, various access keys patrons can use to browse the page, and information on how pages can be used without certain kinds of software. I wanted to get an idea as to what the current conversation is surrounding accessibility within digital libraries, and what sorts of studies are currently being done.

I found one recent case study by Michael Fernandez (2018) at American University. He decided to conduct a review of AU’s e-resources to see what sorts of commitments the vendors of these resources had to accessibility, how uniform these statements were, and if there was any room for improvement. Fernandez found that of the 528 e-resources subscribed to by AU, about 71% of all resources (376 total) had at least one accessibility indicator by means of a formal accessibility statement, Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT), or language within the license (Fernandez, 2018, p. 83). These findings left me somewhat surprised, mostly because I know that laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act are meant to provide legal protections for people with disabilities to ensure that resources remain open and accessible for them. I figured that by 2018, this would be language that would be used by every e-resource vendor. Then again, I know that truly ensuring that resources remain accessible for those with disabilities is perhaps an easier job said than done; while bigger vendors may use accessibility language more consistently (perhaps, one thinks pessimistically, to keep themselves from being sued), there may not be the same level of oversight for smaller e-resource vendors.

Fernandez (2018) also points out that larger e-resource vendors, such as ProQuest and EBSCO, are more likely to have designated manpower to examine issues of accessibility; a smaller vendor may have one customer service agent who may manage everything from sales issues to technological bugs (p. 84). It’s worth reminding ourselves that features that would make a website more accessible do not automatically pop up by themselves; they require separate coding and testing to ensure they work properly, which means time and money on the side of the vendor. It’s definitely money that is well worth spending, in my book, but some smaller vendors unfortunately may not have the budget to create accessible designs from the get-go.

Perhaps one of the more interesting features of Fernandez’s study for me was his suggestion that libraries should more actively advocate for vendors to confirm that they are committed to providing accessible resources by adding this wording into licenses and contracts. The author notes that vendors may end up using qualifying language to avoid fully committing to accessibility language so as avoid ending up in legal hot water, which is disappointing, but nonetheless the move remains one towards opening up a larger conversation between librarians and vendors on the subject (Fernandez, 2018, p. 86). I do hope that libraries take note of this suggestion and do not doubt their power in requesting these changes to be made. If more libraries begin using this verbiage and requesting (or even requiring) vendors to commit more fully to accessibility practices, sooner or later the industry will be pressured into changing more rapidly. Libraries owe it to their patrons to ensure that the materials they provide will be as accessible as possible so all parties can find the information they need. E-resource vendors may not be beholden to the public quite as directly as libraries are, but it’s definitely something I’d like to see them focus on overall. It’s not just smart for business; it’s the right move to make as library resources become increasingly digital. Ensuring equity of access to information is hugely important, and I hope that e-resource vendors, both big and small, keep this in mind moving forward.


Fernandez, M. (2018). How accessible is our collection? Performing an e-resources accessibility review. The Serials Librarian, 74(1), 81-86. doi:10.1080/0361526X.2018.1430424

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