Especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, students, staff, and faculty will most often encounter a library through its website. The library home page, while designed to welcome users, may have features that some patrons find challenging. The text might be too small. The navigation might be hard if the user cannot see very well. The page might use terminology that the uninitiated do not understand. There might be links to videos that someone who is deaf cannot hear and, without hearing it, cannot understand what to do. There might be icons on the screen that a user can click on, but a screen reader cannot figure out. In these and other ways, the library’s website might hinder or even exclude some users.
The library world is seeking to make libraries more inclusive — everyone gets to participate and use the resources available — and more equitable — every user can successfully access all the same resources and tools. However, that’s not always the case. Someone who is significantly visually impaired will have a difficult time and may not be able to do so at all. Many library websites use the well-known vertical triple-dot icon for a menu. The problem is that unless that item has had alt text set in the HTML, a user with a screen reader is not going to be able to process that icon. Two screen readers, JAWS and ZoomText, do not understand the vertical three-dot icon. A user with adequate eyesight may seek to use a video tutorial. If that user is hard of hearing or deaf and the video doesn’t have a transcript or captioning, the video might not help them much.
Librarians care very much about serving all patrons. Member institutions in Atla represent many religious traditions. Many of those traditions would urge adherents to “do no harm.”
These and other issues may make the library website not inclusive or equitable. The library website’s design may make it hard or impossible for some to use resources and menus on the website. Also, the website design may make the library exclusive and inequitable because only someone who is physically “normal” can access the library website and all the library’s resources. There is no suggestion here that these website issues were done deliberately. Librarians care very much about serving all patrons. Member institutions in Atla represent many religious traditions. Many of those traditions would urge adherents to “do no harm.” Some explicitly seek to help the neighbor. Beyond legal requirements like Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, these perspectives should influence how a library website is designed to work well for those with disabilities.
Listed below are several practical steps to make library websites more inclusive and equitable.
While librarians know what things like ILL, Boolean operators, and databases are, many patrons, especially those new to academic or theological libraries, do not. Employing universal design would be very helpful for them. While universal design is often thought of in terms of disabilities, patrons who are physically “normal” may also lack the needed vocabulary. Employing UD would involve organizing displays of data with clear sections and vocabulary that everyone is expected to know.
Fonts should be chosen carefully. While Times New Roman is used in print materials regularly, the serifs often make the text hard to read. Using sans serif fonts will make the text on a website more readable for some patrons. Arial, Helvetica, and Calibri are better choices. Since the size of its characters is larger than most fonts, Verdana is also a good choice. Font size is also important. Some users cannot readily read 10pt type. Fonts need to be at least 12pts in height. I have made Verdana 14pt my standard choice for creating captions and LibGuides in order to help those with visual impairments. An additional tool that can help in Microsoft Windows is the Magnifier tool. It performs the same task as a typical screen magnifier like ZoomText (costs money) and NVDA (free). Also, browsers provide mechanisms to increase text size. It is also helpful if the screen has icons, such as small and large capital ‘A’s, to enable a patron the ability to change text size easily.
Screen Resolution, Fonts, and Input Fields
It is possible to increase text size in a browser. This can be helpful, but it can also make a web page difficult to read. Sometimes, increasing text size this way causes text to crowd together to the point that it is unreadable. Some sites have no problem with increasing the text size, but others get very messed up. Also, increasing the text size often moves input fields around. Sometimes, such boxes are hard to determine when nothing is done to the page. It would aid those who are visually impaired to modify the HTML so input fields have a clearly visible border, preferably black.
As computers and monitors have advanced, it is now possible to present a large amount of information, such as a width of 1920 pixels. However, the higher the resolution, the smaller the text, menus, and other elements. It can make it more difficult to read and more difficult to navigate. Also, a “busy” screen is a suboptimal design choice for everyone. It should be obvious to a library website visitor what there is to do without lots of decoration.
If a site uses colors, the choices are important. Use significant contrast. Combinations like light yellow on medium brown can be very hard to read.
Make it possible to navigate the library website without a mouse. That will take work, but it will help those who cannot use a mouse. This can include those with specific disabilities as well as elderly users.
Audio content needs to have accompanying captions. This can be useful not only for those with auditory problems but often for anyone trying to understand all the words. Also, transcripts of audio are very important. This way, the patron can read the entire content at once, rather than having to read captioning. Both captions and transcripts can be helpful to various audiences. If you have used Camtasia or a similar tool that is supposed to be able to translate the audio into captions, captions range from unintentionally humorous to bizarre to gobbledygook. A human needs to write captions, and if what is being spoken is in a script, that script could be easily turned into a transcript. Some users need written instructions because it’s not always easy to see what someone clicked precisely in a video.
There are websites and tools for testing accessibility and writing accessible code, such as Deque and WebAIM. Libraries can use these tools to test how accessible their website is before and after changes.
- “Best Fonts to Use for Accessibility.” Bureau for Internet Accessibility. Accessed February 10th, 2021. https://www.boia.org/blog/best-fonts-to-use-for-website-accessibility.
- Dowden, Martine, and Michael Dowden. Approachable Accessibility: Planning for Success. New York, NY: Apress, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4842-4881-2.
- Nielsen, Jakob, and Hoa Loranger. Web Usability. München: Addison-Wesley, 2006.
- Uniaccess – ACRL Universal Accessibility Interest Group.” Active listserv. https://lists.ala.org/sympa/info/uniaccess.
- W3c. “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.” Last updated 2018. https://www.w3.org/standards/webdesign/accessibility.
This article is part of the Atla Committee for Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion’s semi-regular articles designed to provide theological and religious studies librarians with resources and advice for providing equitable access and research to the full spectrum of human diversity.
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