Thursday, 6 March 2008

Assistive Technology for Libraries

Affinity Supreme electronic magnifier
This week SINTO ran a half-day seminar on Assistive Technology for libraries. In this event we looked at technical fixes - hardware and software - that could be used in libraries to help deaf people and people with visual impairments to access library materials.

Emma Arnold from JISC TechDis gave a presentation on the TechDis Accessibility Essentials series of publications. The first of these - making Electronic Documents More Readable - gives practical information about how the appearance of a document on the screen can be changed to suit the needs of the person reading it. It covered Microsoft Word documents, PDF documents in Adobe Acrobat Reader and webpages in Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox. We picked up many useful hints - for example I did not realise that the Adobe Acrobat Reader can convert text into spoken words.

Next Tony Shrubb of Force Ten Co demonstrated software that can be installed on PCs to improve accessibility and displayed the latest in text magnifiers and text readers.

During the seminar there was a discussion about how well libraries are meeting the needs of people who have problems in accessing standard text. Most libraries do make provision e.g. providing large text and audiobooks and in providing specialist equipment. However it was conceded that awareness and training of front line staff could be a problem and that a user with special needs might not always get access to the services that would help them. Examples were given of library staff who were not aware of what assistive technology was available or how to make best use of it. It was pointed out that training of all staff was expensive in money and time and, as use of these services was often low, it was difficult to maintain staff skills at a high level. On the other hand, the low level of use might be a result of the poor service offered.

I drew attention to a survey of the experiences of blind and visually impaired people using electronic information services in public libraries which supports this view; saying that these access technologies may attract very little use in libraries without significant investment in staff training.

The trouble is that this is only one of many areas where more investment is needed in equipment and staff training. Training events like this one organised by SINTO help to improve the skills and understanding of library staff at the operational level. They also raise awareness of the demand for these services and the technologies that are available to meet this demand. This awareness needs to be disseminated to the users of our services on one side and the decision makers and funders of our services on the other. The expectations of users should be increased and the funders should be challenged to provide for this need.

SINTO is very happy to provide training for library staff but I often wish that SINTO member organisations would work with SINTO to promote this awareness to those people who can make a difference.
More information about access can be found on the SINTO wiki.

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