This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Grant to fund training to make library Web sites accessible to users with disabilities

Published: August 26, 2004

Contributing Editor

While the power of the World Wide Web lies in its universality, the Web sites of most libraries are not fully accessible to those with disabilities and few librarians currently have the skills necessary to make them so.

The Department of Library and Information Studies in the School of Informatics expects to change that by training a cohort of students in its Master of Library Science (MLS) program to help overcome the online barriers faced by people with disabilities who use library Web pages to access information and library services.

The program will be funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the federal agency that supports the nation's museums and libraries as part of a program titled "Recruiting and Educating Librarians for the 21st Century."

The $995,960 grant will fund a collaborative effort of the New York State Library, 13 library systems and programs in library and information science at six colleges in the state—including UB—to create "teaching libraries" across the state that will provide practical, hands-on experience for librarian recruits from the system's member libraries.

It will provide financial support to 48 master's-level students representing diverse groups who will acquire competencies for serving diverse populations. UB is the only grant recipient whose efforts will focus on the special needs of library users with disabilities.

"We will use our portion of the grant to recruit and train a special cohort of students—minority students and those with disabilities, in particular—from remote areas of the state, for our Master of Library Science program," says Judith Robinson, professor and chair of the UB department and principal investigator on the UB portion of the grant.

Those students will receive special training in how to make library Web sites in remote communities accessible to users with disabilities. The tools and methodologies involved include knowledge about how to select, structure and present content online to serve this group.

Students also will come to understand computer systems with screen readers or magnification devices, become familiar with special software that displays text on the monitor through the use of extra large fonts, personal digital assistants and other assistive technologies, and the use of non-text equivalents, such as voice recognition or Braille software, to describe content.

As interns the students will apply those skills in libraries, Robinson says. To this end, UB will enter internship agreements with libraries in the Finger Lakes, Southern Tier and Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties.

"After graduation, our MLS graduates will continue to promote accessibility through their influence in local, regional and state library associations," Robinson says. To insure that the Web sites remain accessible to persons with disabilities after the interns leave, the sites will be "captured" annually for five years and reviewed for accessibility by qualified outside reviewers.

"There is a great need for the kind of training these students will receive," Robinson says, "because while virtually every academic and public library hosts a Web site, few have MLS professionals designated to insure that the site is accessible to patrons with a range of disabilities."

One outcome of this program, she says, will be that the Web pages of the libraries that sponsor internships will be much more accessible. At the same time, the graduates will be equipped to shepherd their own institutions in meeting federally mandated accessibility requirements. They also will assist other libraries in accomplishing that task through their influence in local, regional and state library associations.

UB seeks to enroll students from rural areas in this program, particularly those who are members of minority groups or who themselves have disabilities. UB's MLS students outside the immediate Buffalo area frequently take many courses via simultaneous video and Internet delivery. The IMLS grant will make up to four $10,000 scholarships plus administrative money available to come to UB to complete the one or two semesters of course work not offered via distance learning programs.

Although scholarship recipients will focus on Web site accessibility, Robinson says their pursuit of other academic specialty areas will not be restricted.

"The library clientele these students serve after graduation will be the same clientele served by other MLS graduates," she says, "and may include patrons of public, school or of academic, museum, business or law libraries. While at UB, they can focus on any MLS tract they choose—youth services, reference work, library computer applications, media librarianship, reference, classification or cataloging, for instance."

Robinson calls the program a boon to the students, to participating libraries, to the libraries that ultimately hire the graduates and to the New York State Regents' expressed intentions to make library Web services accessible to everyone in the state.