Creating accessible digital exhibits – a conversation

Photo by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash
Photo by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash

Recently I hosted a virtual conversation, open to staff at all OCLC Research Library Partnership institutions about creating interactive digital exhibits that are accessible and inclusive.  “Accessible and inclusive” in this context means that Web sites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities and learning differences can use them.  Over the course of an hour-long discussion, we compared notes, shared strategies and successes, pooled our uncertainties, and brainstormed about what’s needed in the way of tools, documentation, and collaborative infrastructure.  Participants included librarians from Brandeis University, Emory University, New York Public Library, Penn State University, Temple University, and the University of Minnesota, along with two of my OCLC Research colleagues, Merrilee Proffitt and Chela Weber. 

Web site accessibility is not an area where OCLC RLP staff have expertise, but we do have the ability to reach out across the OCLC RLP membership and bring together staff at affiliated institutions to address issues and challenges of common interest.  Several RLP members have indicated to us that creating accessible interactive digital exhibits is indeed one of those shared challenges. 

Here are our top takeaways from the group conversation.

Web accessibility is an emerging challenge requiring specialized skills and knowledge not always readily available to library staff members or to others within the institution.

Representing distinctive and unique collections online is a top priority for all the libraries represented on the call.  The threat of legal action because of accessibility issues raises the stakes and the level of urgency.  But as one conversation participant put it, “The biggest deterrent to creating [accessible] online exhibits is not having the expertise and the resources.”  One library makes knowledge more widely available by offering office hours with accessibility experts.  Another has embedded an assistive technology specialist within the library IT unit.  Others advocate for leveraging campus expertise outside the library in order to ensure accessibility: “[Our university has] an accessibility office that’s really helpful…We have developers in that area as well.  I think we have a lot of the expertise here, but it’s just pulling it all together and figuring out what technologies we’re going to be using.”

Web accessibility is being addressed by individual institutions, consortia, and professional organizations, but information about these efforts is scattered and not easy to find

Institutions represented on the call are working largely on their own to address the challenges around creating accessible digital exhibits and issues of accessibility in general.  Approaches vary, in method and in scope.  One library is looking into hiring Web developers trained in accessibility.  Another has formed a committee to look at all aspects of creating online content, asking, “How can we provide that really curated experience while also making it accessible, providing an equal experience for all of our users?”  Another participant’s library changed its Web site workflow so that all materials are reviewed for accessibility: “Now we have one main content person who is a content strategist… We just work with people to edit the content on the Web pages, where they are the subject matter experts, but we’re doing the content editing, to make sure it’s accessible.”  And one university is considering a much broader approach to accessibility, namely restructuring “the way they think about how they’re using resources so that they are universally designed from the beginning.” 

There is no obvious place to come together and compare notes on such efforts. One participant joined a Canadian Web accessibility guidelines working group after not finding something closer to home.  Others pointed to listservs and interest groups that have sprung up under various organizations, such as the American Library Association’s uniaccess listserv and Educause’s IT Accessibility Community Group.  The Web Accessibility Initiative was named as a key resource and potential collaborator.  Some suggested the Digital Library Federation, the Digital Public Library of America, and the Museum Computer Network as potential players and rallying points for accessible digital exhibit efforts. 

Many of the systems in use in our libraries do not adequately support accessibility and inclusion

This idea was universally acknowledged during the session.  One participant said, “There has to be a cultural shift around expectations.  I think if you put pressure on…vendors up front, that would make a huge difference in terms of the accessibility.”  One library represented on the call has included language in their RFPs stating that any software to be purchased must be vetted by the accessibility office and IT: “Any exception would come with an alternate access plan…and something in writing from the vendor saying that accessibility is on their roadmap.” 

There is a persistent myth that you sacrifice cool and engaging web design if you embrace accessibility

Several call participants pushed back passionately against that myth: “That really is determined by how experienced your developers are in accessible design.  Are your developers accessibility certified, and do they have years of experience with that?  When we hire people in IT, I don’t think we always ask that that be a well-developed skill.”

There are lightweight approaches to creating compelling curated online experiences that may offer alternatives to developing full-blown exhibitions

Inspired by work that the Digital Public Library of America has done with primary source sets, the Minnesota Digital Library has created a set of “curated collections of materials where there’s kind of an introductory blurb that gives people some context and some understanding of the topic… It’s just a Drupal page, it’s not difficult to create…This has been a good way for us to get into digital storytelling without getting into the complexity and the time involved in creating an exhibit.”  Call participants were impressed with the results, with one exclaiming, “What I like about this is that it’s truly digital – the user gets to curate their own direction.” 

Accessibility goes well beyond Web sites – we need to consider everything that is viewed on a computer, including communications sent through email marketing platforms

Of course, accessible online exhibits represent only a tiny fraction of the accessibility and inclusion challenges faced by libraries and their parent institutions.  As one participant noted, I think everyone should think of accessibility as a possible systemic issue.”

Heightening awareness and providing training on the basics of accessibility would go a long way toward addressing the overall challenge: I think that in addition to training for developers we also need broader training for creators…I think that building greater awareness throughout the institution will be really key.  That is also going to help with people understanding the need for resource allocation and time for planning for a project.”  Some are already providing basic instruction at their institutions, to those who avail themselves of it: “I teach a workshop on designing accessible and inclusive digital projects…and staff do attend.  But, with the inconsistency in knowledge, it can become very challenging…Training staff is a preventative so that, as they move forward, they cease to do things a certain way…Fixing that would go some way toward fixing some of these other problems as well.” 

Bottom line: the more general understanding there is about accessibility, what it means, where the work is being done, and where to go for resources, the better off libraries are

This conversation among OCLC Research Library Partnership members, and our reporting out of the highlights, is a step along that path.