The Library Nexus
Instructional technology. Information technology. Assistive technology. This section is about the intersection of these technologies with library resources and services to users with disabilities.
With new technologies and new resources appearing at an ever-increasing pace, it's all too easy to get caught up in keeping caught up with it all. In this department, I hope we can focus not on the technology as such, but on the effect of the technology on people with disabilities when they use library resources. In no way does this column aspire to be your resource for comparative evaluations of screen readers or Braille translation programs; EASI and AXSLIB (EASI's library access listserv) have experts with valuable experience with assistive technology to assist in these areas.
I'm a reference librarian. I've been involved in library instruction since the early seventies, and with assistive technology since the early eighties. It was a very early Kurzweil scanner that got me involved, but it's the technology of the last few years that has gotten me excited. Finally, the assistive technology is good enough to use in libraries. By "good enough" I mean that it doesn't take hours to learn the basics. Students can learn to use the technology at the same time that they are learning a library resource. It's no big deal now. Students are more comfortable with technology, too, and they are starting to come to the university with some experience of it as well.
At the same time that assistive technology is maturing, library resources are becoming available in electronic format in useful amounts. Faculty who use instructional technology are more open to the possibilities of assistive technology in an academic setting, and help to create an atmosphere in which it becomes possible to integrate the various technologies into the educative process. In the meantime, various initiatives are underway to ensure that the same technology that has empowered people with disabilities does not, during its multimedia evolution, exclude them again.
All of this is good news for libraries, because enabling access to information is our mission, and the combination of technologies is certainly enabling access for many people with disabilities. There are issues, however, that should be explored as we incorporate these technologies with our other resources and services. Consider, for example, how inaccessible to a student who is blind most library resources are, in comparison with those in electronic format. For students who have relied on Recordings for the Blind or depended on aides to do their library research, a university library can be overwhelming. It's not just the number of books listed in the online catalog, or the scores of articles on a given subject in a specialized index. Added to the sorting and evaluating and focusing that are standard library instruction issues are highly problematic issues of format. Many students avidly choose the information sources that are most readily available: the ones in print, not microform, that are here, not across campus, and on the shelf, not checked out. Students with disabilities don't go looking for the hardest path to information, either. If an electronic source or a full-text database is readily accessible, and there's a book or two available on tape, but the most relevant works on a subject are available only in print in old books, or on microfilm and indexed only in printed indexes, just how motivated does the student have to be to choose the materials that are intellectually accessible only with difficulty over those that are in electronic format immediately available to be read, copied to disk, and incorporated into a research paper? What combination of technology and instruction and services can we bring to bear to make the dichotomy less dramatic? Do you have opinions on this issue, or suggestions for issues you'd like raised here? What seem to be the most pressing library issues posed by the confluence of technology and people with disabilities? Readers are encouraged to share with us their thoughts on these and other library access issues.