Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Sarah Kennedy, and a continuation of the discussion about the Access/ibility in Digital Publishing seminar at WVU this past July. Read Melanie’s first post here.

Greetings, readers. I am acting as a guest blogger today to contribute some thoughts on the recent summer seminar on Access/ibility in Digital Publishing at WVU, which I was fortunate enough to attend along with Melanie and about 20 other scholars. By way of introduction, I am the Librarian for Agriculture, Natural Resources, Design, and Extension at West Virginia University’s Evansdale Library. I attended the seminar in part because I am co-chairing a task force that is charged with re-thinking WVU Libraries’ digital presence in the 21st century, and I would like to educate myself on how we may build in accessibility from the ground up as we design new services and re-vision old ones. I also wanted to attend because I am generally interested in the topic, and yet I feel I know very little about it. I did not study accessibility concerns in any depth when I was in graduate school (2011-2012), and since that time my self-education has consisted mostly of occasional readings and conversations.

Like Melanie, I am definitely still trying to assimilate all that I learned from the other attendees. I was very grateful that, while librarians were certainly in the minority of attendees, the library was never very far from any of our thoughts during the seminar. First of all, it was really great to have the seminar located in the library space. I think just walking through the stacks each morning on our way to our meeting room served as a reminder to all attendees that the library as an institution has a great role to play in accessibility concerns. Also, kudos to Cheryl Ball and the other librarians in the room who pointed out opportunities for partnerships between librarians, faculty, and campus technology staff and also for addressing concerns that are perhaps unique to the library context.

Having said all that, I will provide a quick summary of my major take-aways from the seminar:

Library space to support accessibilty needs

Part of the seminar consisted of short presentations by the participants. I was particularly interested in a talk by Karl Stolley, Associate Professor of Digital Writing & Rhetoric at the Illinois Institute of Technology, titled “%20 Byte-Level Accessibility.” Among his many other points, Karl emphasized the importance of returning to the roots of computer science. Rather than creating a webpage using WordPress, which presents a variety of accessibility concerns, he would advocate a return to more lo-fi production technologies. He advocates for plain text files created in plain text editors using open source, standardized, human-readable languages. These lo-fi production technologies actually support accessibility in that they never become obsolete, they have open source code, they are flexible and can be adapted to multiple devices, and, finally, they are simple, economical, and human-readable.

Although I think I followed the intellectual gist of Karl’s talk, I confess that I did find myself struggling to keep up with some of the more technical points. I have never used Git or GitHub, I do not know any C-derived programming languages, and I am certainly not in a position to learn a new programming language each year. Although I maintain my own WordPress page, I am embarrassed to say that I do not really understand how it works at a fundamental level. A WYSIWYG interface is fast and easy to use, but it introduces its own accessibility problems. So, throughout Karl’s talk, it occurred to me that it may be worthwhile to think about the library’s role in accessibility in terms of tailoring our efforts toward a few different audiences. At the end of Karl’s talk, Melanie asked a great question which was essentially this: What are the 3 things that someone needs to learn in order to build accessibility into a digital writing project from the ground up? What do we need to know from the very beginning, so that we aren’t later trying to retrofit a project to meet at least baseline accessibility guidelines?

From the conversation that ensued, I would say that “accessibility advocates” or “audiences” fall into a few highly generalized categories. We have those who may seek library assistance on accessibility because (a) they want merely to be in compliance with whatever accessibility guidelines they are required to observe; (b) they seek to move beyond compliance into innovative and sustainable ways of implementing accessibility best practices, but at a cost that is low to them in terms of time, attention, and energy; and (c) they really want to start teaching themselves some of the back-end work necessary to build sustainable projects from the ground up. Audience “A” could be characterized as, “Tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it or I will find someone else who can do it.” Audience “B” could be characterized more as, “Wow, I’m so interested in all these different ways to integrate accessibility into my projects, research, and teaching. Tell me some best practices that I can conceptualize broadly and I will look for low(er) stakes ways to implement them. I might also look for ways to partner with others to leverage their technology skills (for example, campus ITS, Library Systems, etc.).” And audience “C” could be characterized as those who think to themselves: “I need to teach myself these truly foundational skills and philosophies in order to make everything accessible from the outset.” Even though folks in camp “C” may have expertise in something as divergent from computer science as classical studies, they are motivated to go out and learn things like coding skills or the Unix philosophy or network protocols so that they can understand accessibility from every possible angle. If these generalizations are even remotely applicable, the Library could potentially be the clearinghouse for all these varying levels of knowledge. So, how do we envision a space within the Library that offers one-stop shopping for this kind of instruction and guidance? How do we create what is essentially a design lab environment to cater to all of these different needs? What kind of staff with what kind of skills do we need to hire to operate such a space? Should we envision the position of “Accessibility Librarian?” And how do we create a space in all sense of the word –in a physical, emotional, intellectual, and skill-based sense–that meets these varying needs, and who do we partner with to make that vision a reality?

“Perseverant Design” and the power of story

Another big takeaway for me from this seminar is the power of the story. For me as an individual who struggles less with physical accessibility concerns and more with cognitive accessibility concerns, how do I better understand the lived experiences of all of our users? Since there are certain accessibility concerns that I have never experienced, how do I change my ways of thinking and doing in order to be a better service provider and educator? I think my potential role would become more evident to me if I could hear concrete examples of case studies of accessibility issues from someone who has experienced them or from someone who has learned innovative solutions. For me, the conversations that resonated the most at this seminar were not the ones that drilled down to a very fine rhetorical point but those which spoke in very real-world, practical ways about how to think creatively to develop individualized accessibility measures. I was very moved and fascinated by a talk by Melanie Yergeau, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Michigan. In her talk, titled “What we talk about when we talk about […],” Melanie discussed specific accessibility needs, as she had studied and/or experienced them, and she proposed a hybrid way of envisioning design: perseverant design.

In a clinical sense, perseverant behaviors are those which are restrictive and repetitive and which do not necessarily follow appropriately with the social context. All too often, these behaviors are viewed as deficient and are pathologized. Melanie observes that society seeks to extinguish perseveration, especially in people with disabilities, who are often assigned to work with therapists to learn how to suppress their perseverant behaviors because they bother other people. In Melanie’s proposal, perseverant design would reappropriate characteristics which the rest of society tends to view as deficient. Perseverant design would leverage such characteristics as iterative looping and repetition, layering, (self) stimulation (also referred to as stimming), and orientation toward the non-human (object orientation). I am fascinated by the idea and the possibilities of perseverant design; however, in order for me to make full sense of this design philosophy, I would have to see it in practice. I think it would be absolutely fascinating to read a case study of perseverant design in practice in the library space. This would be a blissful merging of some of the more abstract, rhetorical topics we discussed in the seminar and some of the more pragmatic, logistical concerns that we, as librarians, are challenged to consider.

As a librarian, I need to engage a different facet of the conversation around accessibility by virtue of the fact that this is not what I spend all my time researching. I have many other hats to wear, some of which are research based but many of which are service- and instruction-based, so for me it is very useful to study real world examples. I think that right now there is a gap in the library literature around accessibility and accessible design, so I look forward to a time when the literature specifically addresses these concerns in the library context.

Librarians as advocates for accessibility

The other major takeaway is the role of librarians as advocates for accessibility, generally speaking. I realized in this seminar (as I frequently do) that the library is sort of ground zero for many of these concerns, and we are in an excellent position to keep them front-and-center in the minds of students, faculty, public users, and, perhaps, even administrators. We can do this in multiple ways:

  • We must first ensure that our own services are fully accessible.
  • We should also focus on building a collection that supports accessibility and disability studies;
  • offering professional development opportunities to our own staff and library faculty so that they may learn about accessibility concerns as they relate to their day-to-day activities;
  • and we should also design library spaces, such as the future Digital Publishing Institute at WVU, where students and researchers can come and learn how to create fully accessible scholarly outputs.

Some efforts will gain more notoriety than others. I think, for example, if we were to say that we are absolutely not going to subscribe to a certain resource because it is not fully accessible, that sends a huge message to our constituents. Purely for the sake of example, let’s say that we were not going to subscribe to a particular database because it didn’t meet a certain baseline expectations for accessibility. If we were an institution with enough buying power and leverage, this might send a message to multiple audiences including faculty, university administrators, AND the creators of the product. It might sound extreme and even painful, but at a certain point we have to put our money where our mouth is: We collectively will not purchase your product until you achieve a baseline level of acceptable accessibility. I also think that the library has a very general role to play in cultivating mindfulness toward these issues through our programming and instruction. Furthermore, as is almost always the case in academic libraries, we find ourselves in the position of being de facto translators, taking the knowledge and theory developed by researchers and then making it available to other audiences who may take that knowledge and go out in the world to create their own fully accessible services and research artifacts.

– Sarah Kennedy