Accessible Formats: a CLG talk by the Cambridge Libraries Accessibility Service

In November, the Cambridge Libraries Accessibility Service gave a talk for the Cambridge Library Group on the availability of accessible services in the library, in particular on the availability of accessible formats.

Man in white shirt reading braille in library
Source: Pexels

The team detailed the process which is gone through to obtain accessible copies of ebooks. Although some ebooks are fully accessible, some publishers put limits on the ereader technology that can be used with ebooks. The accessibility service, however, are legally able to obtain accessible copies of ebooks by making use of the copyright exemptions for disabled people. The student needs to first be registered with the Disability Resource Centre to make this exemption legal, and the copy will only be made available to them. 

A first port of call with often be the RNIB Bookshare service, which is partnered with publishers and often already has accessible copies of books to share with institutions. Institutions then make profiles for their students, so that a copy of a book is issued to a specific student. If not, the service can contact the publisher directly, either through the publisher’s accessibility team or (in smaller publishers) through the general contact. As a last resort a physical copy can be scanned, often through the Scan & Deliver team, and sometimes through faculty and college libraries. Further work may be done to make the file accessible (such as converting it from a PDF to Word to make it ereader accessible) and it is then transferred to the student or their support worker, usually through OneDrive. 

The team detailed a breakdown of where they received their accessible formats from: 

  • Publisher (direct) – 29% 
  • Bookshare immediate download – 20% (the ideal method) 
  • Accessible eresource available – 19% (the work of the accessibility team here being telling the student that it is there) 
  • Scans – 12% 
  • Free/Open Access – 4% 
  • HathiTrust accessible text request – 3%. 

There would sometimes be formats which required further remediation in order to make documents fully accessible for students. For example, sometimes chapters might be provided separately where it would be easier for the student to read them together, so the Accessibility Service would compile these into one document. Some of the greatest challenges are posed by scanned documents – a format which is labour intensive but might be necessary if the book is from before 2000 and no born digital file exists. (This is more prevalent in some subject areas with generally older books, such as theology). 

In order for a PDF document to be made screen-reader accessible, it has to be put through optical character recognition software. However, even after character recognition, often a lot of remediation work needs to be done to fix mistakes made by skewed or distorted text, multiple languages (or non-recognised ones, such as Inuit languages), certain non-recognised fonts (and formatting such as italics and footnotes), damaged and defaced pages, images and tables, marginalia, and so on. While some software such as AbbyyReader can help with this, much has to be done manually, and there is often more than 2 hours of remediation work per title. The Library Accessibility Service also helps with other format requests, such as compiling multiple chapter files into one document. 

There can also be some difficulties when dealing with publishers. Although publishers very rarely did not reply, they could often be slow to respond – 32% of requests took more than 10 days to fulfil, which can be an unworkable length of time in term time. Some law publishers will also not supply what they consider to be practitioner texts, although they will supply academic texts. Some publishers attempt to impose unacceptable terms and conditions (for example, some American publishers assume students will buy their own copies), while some publishers are simply hard to contact, with no accessibility information on their websites or the contact details of the accessibility department hard to find. 

Many ebook platforms themselves can also be either impossible to use or extremely difficult, as the demonstration of JAWs technology revealed. The speakers noted many students would ideally have a folder with all the PDFs rather than lots of individual clicks – part of the Accessibility Service’s job was simply finding things to pass on to the student. The university also owns 39% of requested titles already as eresources, but 49% of these weren’t compatible with the student’s assistive technology. Accessibility could be massively improved simply by publishers making their platforms more accessible and easier to navigate. 

Although alternative formats were focused upon in this talk, there are a number of other services the Libraries Accessibility Service can provide. They are first and foremost a point of contact for students for any queries about library accessibility, not requiring a referral, and can provide induction sessions and face-to-face meetings. They also work with other librarians across the Cambridge libraries’ network, providing both an accessibility service area, on the CUL intranet, and an Accessibility and Inclusivity Cambridge Libraries Toolkit, available publicly. They also embed in other groups, providing talks and training, and have a substantial LibGuide, which details Cambridge library services from the perspective of accessibility, linking to various resources across the libraries (such as individual libraries’ accessibility plans). 

Thank you to the Libraries Accessibility Team for such a wonderful talk and for the Cambridge Library Group for organising it! 

Links and resources: 

Racial Bias in Reader Services – Sally Hamer talk summary

This post is a summary of a conference talk by Sally Hamer which the writer viewed at the the Decolonising Implications in Reader Services workshops hosted by the Decolonising through Critical Librarianship group. Please view the talk here. For a summary of the subsequent discussions at the workshops, please view the DtCL blog post here.

The study had taken place across 24 academic libraries in different geographical parts of England. 6 fictional identities were created, each with a name representing one of the 6 largest ethnic groups from the 2011 census – Arab, Black African, white British, white other, South Asian and East Asian. All of the names were traditionally female and it was ensured that the first and family names could be differentiated by a simple Google search. 1 email was sent a week from each of these fictional identities to 24 institutions for a total of 144 queries. The questions which were asked were completely identical aside from the email signature at the end. 

The responses to the emails were analysed against a set of five criteria derived from the IFLA and RUSA guidelines for how libraries should respond to user enquiries: 

1. Service Provision

2. Clarity

3. Courtesy

4. Approachability

5. Information Literacy

It should be noted that in the subsequent DCL workshop discussions, it transpired that very few librarians had heard of these guidelines; this raises questions as to how well publicised these guidelines are, and whether further promotion in the Cambridge librarian network would be beneficial. 

Although Hamer noted that the sample size was small, there were some clear broad main trends which emerged. 

Firstly, there was generally some unequal treatment which occurred across the board. Some users experienced particularly low quality of service; the user with the Nigerian name was least likely to receive a response from the librarians, least likely to have her question answered when she did receive a response, and there was a notable difference in the level of courtesy she received. (Elements of courtesy here might involve a greeting, a thank you for enquiring, an apology, or a suggestion of where to approach next.) Conversely, the user with the Chinese name had the highest quality of response, with a response to 100% of her enquiries and sometimes several follow-up messages; there were consistently high levels of service provision and courtesy, and she didn’t get passed to other people as she was always having her enquiry answered directly. Hamer noted that the two unequal approaches to customer service provision had an impact on the user’s feeling of belonging within the library; a lower level of service contributes to the feeling of otherness and discrimination, making them less likely to interact with librarians in the future. 

However, a second trend which was observed – this of name-based microagressions – was seen to disproportionately affect the user with the Chinese name. This user was addressed incorrectly more often than correctly; 11% of responses referred to her only by her family name Zhao (which is only a family name and so should not be confused for a personal name), while no other user was referred to only by their family name. This user was also 3-10 times more likely than any other user to have her entire name used; this also happened disproportionately to the user with the Nigerian name. The user with the white British name was the only user never to be addressed by her full name; this suggests a trend in which users with non-British names were referred to more impersonally, perhaps because of unfamiliarity with the family and personal names involved. Microaggressions were more generally linked to trends of low self-esteem, internalised racism, and other mental and physical health impacts; it had also been shown in other studies that Asian students living in the UK had been shown to do noticeably better academically when they adopted a Western name, having a better relationship with their tutors and peers, demonstrating the impact a name can have on one’s sense of belonging. As such, it was shown to be incredibly important to address all users correctly and courteously – it is worth noting that in this study, all family names could be distinguished from personal names by a simple Google search. 

The third and final trend which was noted was the lack of adherence to the established guidelines for customer service across the board. Some elements of the guidelines were widely adhered to – for example, response rate (librarians responded to over 90% of queries, providing answers to around 40%), response time (70% of responses were given within three hours and over 90% in one day), and some elements of clarity and courtesy (greeting and closing phrases, thanks, and signatures all being included). However, other elements of courtesy were sometimes lacking – including apologising if a question couldn’t be answered, inviting the user to follow up, and offering concluding remarks. Hamer noted that promoting information literacy, providing contact details, and so on both help the user in their enquiry and help them feel encouraged to ask questions in the future. Elements of clarity were also lacking. 

Hamer concluded that, since so much of this behaviour is necessarily unconscious (few of us would consciously consider ourselves to be making racist judgements!) it can be difficult for service providers to recognise elements of bias in their interactions and adapt their own behaviour consistently. As such, a good solution would be to adhere to best practice guidelines, such as those proposed by IFLA and RUSA, which propose a checklist of elements for every interaction (such as addressing someone by name, and service provision, increasing awareness of other follow-up options, and so on). However, this comes with the very large caveat that best practice guidelines themselves don’t always refer to ethnic and racial bias explicitly – including those proposed by IFLA and RUSA. Racial bias should be explicitly mentioned for guidelines to be truly anti-racist.

– Katherine Knight

Cataloguing training – the basics

During the first few weeks of our traineeships, the Cambridge graduate trainees received some initial cataloguing training. The sessions were delivered by the Head of English Cataloguing at the University Library, and provided a preliminary grounding for the cataloguing work which the trainees undertake throughout the year.

In our first session, it was explained that cataloguing is the process by which the bibliographic data of a library’s collection is recorded. MARC, or ‘Machine Readable Cataloguing’, allows bibliographic data to be stored using codes and numbers, so that it can be retrieved by a library management system. Essentially, MARC is the ‘language’ that a computer uses to understand and process the bibliographic information about library material. We were signposted to the MARC standards webpage, and were told that we would be consulting it frequently as our cataloguing careers progressed!

The Head of Cataloguing also explained that we would follow the RDA (Resource Description and Access) cataloguing standard – guidelines and rules which stipulate what bibliographic information you need to provide within a cataloguing record.

Our session coordinator had put together some activity sheets which we were able to work through in break out rooms on Microsoft Teams. For those of us without cataloguing experience, seeing the MARC coding and numbers for the first time (with its various fields, subfield tags, indicators, and punctuation) felt pretty complicated! Luckily, the Head of Cataloguing reassured us that we would become increasingly familiar with the terminology and rules over time.

During the practical parts of the sessions, we began learning how to transcribe information on authors, titles, and publication, as well as how to record pagination and descriptive details. The Head of Cataloguing also spoke about the importance of authority control, which ensures consistency across records and makes library catalogues more user-friendly for researchers.

It was great to have these cataloguing training sessions scheduled so early on in our traineeships. Over the coming months, all of the trainees will work to get to grips with the ins and outs of cataloguing, and are looking forward to helping add more resources to our libraries’ collections in the process. What became clear during the sessions was that proficient cataloguing is key to guaranteeing accessibility of collections, which is one of the most important goals of any library. It makes the prospect of undertaking cataloguing work particularly exciting to all of the trainees!

Law Librarianship Talk

One of the best things about our Cambridge traineeships is that we’re given the opportunity to explore several different areas of librarianship. This is great for career development and knowledge of the field.

Cambridge University libraries and librarians communicate and collaborate with one another to comprise a network that goes beyond individual institutions, and trainees are encouraged to join multiple action groups to stay aware of issues that libraries can face and developments that they can undertake in response. This means that, as trainees, we have access to many different types of academic library, such as individual college libraries, main university libraries, faculty libraries, specialist research libraries and special collections libraries. However, the traineeship scheme also encourages us to be aware of other kinds of libraries, such as public libraries, and, in this case, law libraries.

Cambridge is rich in talented and dedicated librarians and on this occasion, we met the Assistant Librarian from Pembroke College. She now works in academic librarianship, but begun her career at Lincoln’s Inn library and went on to work for the Inner Temple library, and she was kind enough to spend her time sharing a presentation with us about her experiences and the field in general. She started by describing what law librarianship was like on a day-to-day basis, highlighting the difference in pace between a law library and some other kinds of library. She also mentioned the different kinds of law libraries that exist, such as the libraries for Inns of Court and libraries for law firms. She briefly sketched out the shape and order of the legal profession before going into more detail on the importance of information and knowledge services within law, and the immediate impact that a law librarian can have on people’s lives. We looked at some different examples of law library buildings and finished with a Q and A.

The session as a whole was really informative and well-put together and I’m sure encouraged lots of us to think in more depth about the possibility of a career in legal librarianship.