Volume II Number 4, December 1995

Information Technology And Access To Libraries: A Special Issue

Tom McNulty

A few years ago, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was new and causing much concern among librarians and library administrators, it was difficult to find an issue of any major library science journal that did not address the legal issues surrounding access to library facilities and services. Librarians' interest in providing access to their services and collections is not new, but attention in the 90s seems to have shifted away from what we can do toward what we must do for our user-population with special needs.

The rapid refinement of adaptive technology over the last decade or so has probably generated more questions than it has provided answers vis a vis access to libraries and their collections and services. With this in mind, earlier in the year the editorial board of the quarterly electronic journal _Information Technology and Disabilities_ decided to devote an entire issue to library access; we're pleased to announce that this issue will also appear in print in the near future as a special issue of _Library Hi Tech_.

Our initial call for articles, sent out electronically to most of the major discussion groups in the areas of education and rehabilitation as well as librarianship, generated a great deal of interest, and the articles which follow represent the best of those submitted. Not surprisingly, many of the articles submitted for inclusion in this special issue focus on information technology in general, and access to Internet-based resources in particular, and the arrangement of articles reflects this trend.

Our first article, a case study by Marilyn Graubart of the University of Missouri in Kansas City, details a staff sensitivity program for front-line professional and support staff; in this model, the user population with disabilities is included among other diverse populations, including international and racial/ethnic minority students.

Both _Information Technology and Disabilities_ and _Library Hi Tech_ are concerned with the integration of technology in the library, and the remaining articles of this special issue illustrate this fact. Alan Cantor, an Ontario-based adaptive technology consultant, shares his blueprint for access with his article "The AD-A-P-T-A-B-L-E Approach: Planning Accessible Libraries;" The article's acronym refers to Assistive Devices, Alternative formats, Personal support, Transportation services, Adapted furniture, Building modifications, Low-tech devices and, finally, Environmental adaptations. Cantor advises librarians not to be seduced by the myriad high tech devices available on the market today, but rather to incorporate both high and low tech solutions into the overall plan for access.

Since the advent of the microcomputer era, individuals with disabilities have become accustomed to an unprecedented level of information access. The character-based IBM-compatible family of computers engendered a number of hardware and software access products, ranging from Braille to synthetic speech and/or large print output. The proliferation of graphical user interfaces, or GUIs, poses an obvious threat to continued independence to networked and other computer-based information resources. While seemingly formidable, the access problems posed by GUI-based systems are not as insurmountable as was once feared.

Before going into the several articles which deal with graphical information, our next article, by Alistair D.N. Edwards of the University of York, describes the early history of the graphical user interface and identifies reasons for its appeal to a wide range of users. It is interesting to note that several researchers, including Dr. Edwards, saw the rise of the GUI as inevitable, and embarked upon the ground-breaking research which has led to the access solutions "in the works" for perhaps the most ubiquitous of GUIs, Microsoft Windows.

Many libraries have, or are planning to implement, GUI-based OPACs and multimedia workstations which will have the ability to present video and sound as well as images and text from a wide range of sources. Planning for the conversion from text- to graphics-based systems must not exclude the needs of individuals with disabilities. In our next article, "Universal Access and the ADA: A Disability Access Design Specification for the New UCLA Library Online Information System," authors Daniel Hilton Chalfen and Sharon E. Farb describe the "disability-sensitive" specification adopted by UCLA in planning its ORION2 system. By addressing the needs of disabled users from the start, this forward-thinking specification will surely make the transition from the character-based (ORION) to graphics-based (ORION2) system easier for users with disabilities and will most likely serve UCLA well in the long run by avoiding the often expensive process of "retrofitting" an inaccessible system.

Increasingly, libraries are offering remote access to resources, such as online catalogues, as well as bringing other such resources into their own libraries. In her article "Access to Library Internet Services for Patrons with Disabilities: Pragmatic Considerations for Developers," author Courtney Deines-Jones identifies pitfalls and offers sensible solutions to potential barriers to full Internet access. Like the other articles in this issue, Deines-Jones highlights the potential of technology but cautions service providers not to overlook the sometimes obvious and inexpensive modifications which can make a world of difference to the patron with special needs. Deines- Jones' article provides a most comprehensive checklist of barriers and available solutions to the issue of full integration into the library -- as well as via remote dial-up access -- by libraries offering Internet resources.

Our final article on access to the Internet addresses accessibility of World Wide Web (WWW) documents. The big challenge vis a vis WWW documents is their multi-sensory nature. In "Levelling the Road Ahead," author Judith Dixon, Consumer Relations Officer for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, describes a number of solutions to the creation of WWW pages which provide maximum access to the textual portion of documents for blind and visually impaired users who rely upon text-based Web browsers like LYNX. The screen design principles outlined here offer a simple solution which is transparent to non-disabled users; that is, the aesthetic component of the pages is not compromised in the name of simplified design and access for individuals with special needs.

Most of the resources discussed in the bulk of this issue are relatively new. The Internet has only been around for a few decades, and widespread access is an even more recent phenomenon. Before there were computer-based resources, people with print impairments relied upon human readers and special format texts, notably Braille and later audio and large print. In the last article, author Steve Noble of Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic discusses that agency's new online catalogue, which uses the Internet to make its holdings available to subscribers. RFB&D is the world's largest producer of educational materials in recorded format, and has more recently introduced electronic (diskette-based) resources among its offerings. Beginning with a candid discussion of RFB&D's online catalogue and ordering system, Noble discusses the importance of independent access to the agency's holdings and describes improvements to the system which are in-the-works.

As editor-in-chief of Information Technology and Disabilities, I would like to thank Ed Wall, publisher of Library Hi Tech (Pierian Press), for agreeing so eagerly to co-publish this issue; Ken Wachsberger, journals editor at Pierian Press, who put so much time and effort into it as well; and to the editorial staffs of both journals. Finally, we were fortunate to attract top-notch authors and our thanks go to them, as well as to the many reviewers whose constructive criticism was appreciated by the authors as well.

McNulty, T. (1995). Information technology and access to libraries: A special issue. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 2(4).