Archivists on the Issues: Digital Accessibility in the Archives

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from a new regular writer for I&A’s blog, Lindy Smith, Reference Archivist at Bowling Green State University’s Music Library and Bill Schurk Sound Archives.

Archivists spend a lot of time discussing, working on, and agonizing over outreach. We want people to know we exist and are doing the important work of providing access to documents, objects, and files that tell the stories of history. But once we meet that elusive goal of getting people to interact with us, what are we doing to make sure that experience is open to all potential users equally? By focusing on getting people in the door or clicking like, we may overlook the different abilities, experiences, and expectations our patrons bring to these interactions.

In this first of three posts, I will discuss improving digital access. I’m not an expert in this area, but I take accessibility very seriously and am working to educate myself and improve. My library has recently formed a task force to examine all our digital properties; being involved in that work has been a great learning experience. I’ve only scratched the surface in the great literature out there. I encourage you to do your own research and start making small changes locally. They can make a huge difference for users as well as increase potential audiences. We may have a tendency to think primarily of issues facing computer users with visual impairments, but the A11y Project reminds us that there are four categories to consider in making content accessible: visual, auditory, motor, and cognitive.

Existing standards can help prioritize changes. First is Section 508, a 1998 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. If you work for the federal government, you’re probably familiar with this as it’s required for all federal agencies to meet these requirements. Some state and government institutions also require that employees meet these standards when creating web content. The other major standard is Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a body that sets global standards for web content. Section 508 was updated earlier this year to better address new technology, WCAG 2.0, and other global standards.


Your collection’s website can be a great place to start since websites are a relatively finite and static collection of pages. Many of the principles applied to your website can be carried over into other digital content.

If your archives is part of a larger institution, your local IT and accessibility services departments can be great allies in making these improvements and they may be able to provide additional information and training based on local infrastructure. Chances are they’ll be delighted to help you be proactive in setting up good, accessible websites rather than reactively making changes when someone makes a complaint.  If you’re a lone arranger or working in a small archives, you can find lots of helpful information online and there may also be local resources in your community that you can take advantage of.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there are tools like Siteimprove or WebAIM’s WAVE that can help you identify potential accessibility issues on web pages. They scan pages for situations that look like they might cause problems for your users so you can review them and make fixes as necessary.

Additional Resources

Social Media

Most of us use social media accounts for outreach and it is often the first point of contact, so content should be available to anyone who is interested. Social media also is often very current, so you can add in accessible options going forward without having to go back and fix past posts.

Each platform approaches accessibility differently and offers different tools. Take time to explore the options available and decide what makes sense for your content. If you never post videos, for example, you don’t need to worry about captions. If you post photos of documents, find out how to add alt text. Make sure your blog posts conform to best practices for general web content.

The following are links to accessibility information for some popular platforms:

You’ll notice some glaring omissions in the list above. Not all platforms offer good accessibility options or documentation, which is important to keep in mind when deciding which services to use for your archives. Broader guidelines and tips are in the additional resources directly below.

Additional Resources

Finding Aids

Many archives have collection descriptions online. This makes collections much more easily findable online and is a laudable goal, but the description also should be accessible to researchers who rely on assistive technologies like screen readers to navigate the virtual world. Finding aids can be tricky because they use a variety of formats and platforms: simple PDFs embedded in websites, HTML or EAD documents posted with style sheets, open source or proprietary software templates. Each presents opportunities and challenges.

In a 2013 study, Kristina L. Southwell and Jacquelyn Slater tested the accessibility of randomly selected online finding aids from ARL member libraries. The formats varied, but overall almost every finding aid had at least a few accessibility errors. Southwell and Slater’s article is highly recommended reading, as it offers specific examples of issues and the problems they cause for users. Perhaps things have improved in the five years since this study was published, but likely there are still many finding aids that inaccessible out there.

If you’re curious, do some research on the platform that your archives is using and look for documentation on their accessibility efforts or test your finding aids the way you would other web pages. You can search for a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT), which resources marketed to libraries and archives may provide, to help you make your assessment.

Additional Resources
  • Southwell, Kristina L. & Slater, Jacquelyn (2013). An Evaluation of Finding Aid Accessibility for Screen Readers. Information Technology and Libraries, 32(3), 34-46.

Digital Collections and Exhibits

Digital collections and online exhibits have a lot in common with other websites, but they also have unique issues. They have a higher concentration of images, digitized documents, and A/V files, which can require more mediation to be fully accessible. These items should have, respectively, detailed descriptions, searchable transcripts or OCR-created text, and captions or transcripts. In addition to digital objects, also consider the accessibility of the metadata that describes the objects and the platform that pulls it all together. As with social media platforms and collection management tools, take the time to research the accessibility documentation available from the platform you use for sharing your digital collections.

Tammy Stitz and Shelly Blundell developed a helpful rubric to help assess the accessibility of your digital collections. They draw on various standards, including Section 508 and WCAG 2.0, to help you make high impact changes. For example, audio content would ideally have sign language interpretation and synchronized captions, but if you’re only able to manage a transcript, that’s acceptable.

Additional Resources

Email Reference

Writing this post, I started with a list of all the ways that we digitally interact with our users; email correspondence was the only option that I had not previously considered accessibility. And why not? It’s the most personal, and accessibility should be just as much of a concern there as anywhere. Basic email text can be approached largely like any web content. I recommend knowing enough about your email client and its necessary features. Both Outlook and Gmail, two major email providers, have websites that offer assistance to make email accessible.

In addition to email’s text, think about what your links and attachments to those emails. When you share digitized content with your patrons via email, is it accessible? I have to confess, this isn’t something I had previously taken into consideration, but it’s worth a few small steps to try to increase accessibility. Even running quick OCR on PDFs or including brief descriptions of requested images is helpful.

If you have a good solution for this or are taking similar measures in your own work, I’d be interested to hear about it.

Additional Resources

Challenge: Make One Change

Many commonly discussed accessibility issues are focused on improving user experience using assistive technologies. This can seem abstract, so I encourage you to try it out. One commonly used assistive technology is a screen reader; your computer likely has one pre-installed (VoiceOver for Mac, Narrator for PC). If not, a variety of free programs and YouTube videos demonstrate how to use a screen reader. Turn it on and try it on some of your web content. You’ll soon understand why meeting accessibility criteria is so important. As an added bonus, many changes that improve accessibility also improve all users’ experience and can improve sites’ search engine optimization (SEO) as well. Everyone benefits from accessible websites!

Some problems may be difficult to fix or completely out of your control, but if you start by making a few simple but high impact changes, you can make a big difference for users. Create new workflows with accessibility in mind so it becomes an integral part of what you’re doing, instead of an afterthought. Develop good habits going forward and clean up previous work as you go. Be proactive in policies, instead of reactive. Add accessibility features to your list of criteria for new tools.

My challenge to all of you is to choose one thing, large or small, that will improve user accessibility this week. Maybe you sign up for web accessibility training locally, or start adding alt text to new blog images, or set up a department meeting to brainstorm a plan to improve your finding aids’ accessibility. Every little bit helps and makes it easier for larger audiences to access your content.


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