Digital Collections and Accessibility

Written by: Ranti Junus

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[This is a crosspost from the Digital Scholarship Collaborative Sandbox blog from the MSU Libraries.  The original blog post can be read there.  Do visit the blog and read the other posts written by my colleagues as well.]

Like many other academic libraries, our collection consists of not only print materials, but also electronic collections. Typical electronic resources can be those we subscribe to through a vendor (ProQuest, JSTOR, Elsevier, etc.), or ones that we produce in-house such as

We digitize a lot of stuff. The Library was busy working on digitization projects even before I joined in 2001, from the Making of the Modern Michigan, the Cookbooks project and Sliker Collection, Sunday School Books, nd more recently, historic images from Chicago Tribunes. Or consider other digital collections from other institutions such as the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress,Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the World Digital Library, or the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). There are a lot of digital collections produced by various libraries, archives, museums, and other institutions.

The typical outcome from these digitization projects are images, metadata, and text, represented either as an image of printed or handwritten material or as a transcript. We then create a Web presence for these outcomes, including features like search, browse, and perhaps some additional application to display and interact with the images. User interaction with these digital collections should be straightforward: users should be able to visit the site, search or browse, and read the information presented on the page with ease. We also want to make the presentation of these collections pleasing to the eye, with background color or images, font type and color, and consistent placement of the images with the associated metadata (image on the top with metadata on the bottom, or image on the left with metadata on the right, or the whatever design decision we make to present the collection.) We also want to make sure that our institution’s branding is visible. So we add the banner, image or logo of our institution, some navigation so visitors can also go to our main website, and footers to provide visitors with contact information, acknowledgement of the funder, link to the privacy statement, etc.

Eventually, we produce a set of rich interfaces, chock full of images, text, and links. And probably some audio, too, for a sound project.

Given the ubiquitous nature of digital collections, the goal that these collections would be used as part of scholarly activities, and the library’s mission to disseminate the information as widely as possible, there is one aspect that many of us need to address when we plan for a digitization project: how do people with disabilities access these collections without getting lost? Can they also get the same access and benefit of our collections if they only rely on their screen readers (or refreshable Braille, or any other assistive technology)? Can people move around our website easily using just a keyboard (for those with hand-coordination difficulty who cannot use a mouse)?

Consider these questions when you begin working on any digital humanities project. Data visualization is now being used a lot. Sighted users can review the image representations easily; we can distinguish the information by shape and colors. Mundane data that used to be presented as text can now have pretty face. Information can be conveyed faster because we can see the charts and colors right away without having to go through lengthy text. But how can those who rely on sound be able to infer the information from those charts? Can color-blind people distinguish the color palette that you use? How are you going to explain the conclusion of your charts “verbally”? These are areas that have yet be addressed fully. We still have a lot of work to do.

Some resources:

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Ranti Junus
Ranti Junus is Systems Librarian for Electronic Resources, supporting the design and access organization of library materials as well as support in technical and access issues related to electronic services and resources including purchased databases, the online catalog, and other digital resources. She is also responsible for assessing the library web presence and electronic resources for accessibility issues, serves as library liaison for MSU Museum Studies program, and a subject librarian for the Library & Information Science collections. She is interested in usability & accessibility (especially for persons with disabilities), issues in technology & society, open source system, digital assets management, linked data & semantic web, and digital humanities. In her spare time, she listens to prog-rock, blues, jazz, and classic.