The American Library Association (ALA) provides a code of ethics and guidelines for information professionals to follow. Information professionals have a duty to provide access to information to as many people as possible. In the end it does not matter how much information a library has if that information remains inaccessible to people, the library may as well be empty. The ALA code of ethics provides a framework for information professionals to reference when dealing with situations where ethics come into question. This paper will cover issues that arise for information professionals when organizing information and data for users.
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Designing an Accessible System
The best way to ensure that websites and systems are accessible by everyone is to design the system with accessibility in mind. Trying to add in accessibility options after a system is completed is costlier, time consuming, and inconvenient to users before the changes are made. Including accessibility options in the initial design plan makes the entire system run smoother than when accessibility is added in afterwards. The best way to ensure that a system is accessible to as many groups as possible is to build the design team with various types of people with different backgrounds, age groups, cultures, and knowledge of what the disabled users will need to access the system. Hilary Hutchinson wrote about designing an international children’s library, “[An] important lesson learned is that an international, intergenerational team is an absolute necessity. Simply having users and testers from other countries is not enough; their input is valuable, but it comes too late in the design process to influence major design changes. Team members from different cultural backgrounds offer perspectives that an American-only team simply would not think to consider” (11). Without a diverse group of people on the design team, some aspects of universal access may not be considered with a less diverse group. Having different perspectives on the design team introduces different perspectives that a less diverse group may not have thought of on their own without input from a different groups perspective. Hutchinson continues: “Similarly, team members who are children understand how children like to look for and read books, and what interface tools are difficult or easy, and fun or not fun. (11). When designing for a user group such as children that may think very differently than the adults designing the system the children will use, input from children is a unique perspective that cannot be found anywhere besides a child. Adults can attempt to put themselves in a child’s shoes, but the result often does not match up exactly with what an actual child would do. The best solution is to bring in a child to test out the system and give feedback. Seeking advice from the groups that will be using the system early on will help the designers to make the system be as useful as possible. Hutchinson concludes, “The final recommendation is to actively seek feedback from team members, volunteers, and users from different backgrounds about the cultural appropriateness of all aspects of your software. It may not be possible to address all cultures in your audience right away, but it is important to have a framework in place so that these issues are addressed eventually” (Hutchinson, 11). The design team will have limited time and money to address every problem that arises, however if feedback from users, volunteers, and team members of different backgrounds are heard and taken into consideration, the design team will have a good idea of what needs fixing or improving after the system is launched.
Most tools used by the disabled involve technology, so having a large digital collection is the first step in helping with accessibility. For example, the visually impaired use a screen reader to have the text on screen read aloud to them (Neumann, 17). Some tools to use for ensuring a system has the correct accessibility tools is to use the www.section508.gov website and the Web Accessibility Initiative website. Section 508 is a government wide accessibility program that offers guidelines, training, and testing to ensure that technology is accessible to all people including the disabled. In addition, section 508 provides technical standards for software applications and operating systems, web-based intranet and internet information and applications, telecommunications products, video and multimedia products, self-contained closed products, and desktop and portable computers (www.section508.gov).
The web accessibility initiative website provides tools to assess the accessibility of websites and ways to improve web accessibility. Some examples of web accessibility include images having alternative text for the visual impaired so that when they are using screen readers that read the information on screen aloud, descriptions of the images are included. Another example is making all functionality available from a keyboard for those that are unable to use a mouse. A third example is providing transcripts for audio files for the hearing impaired. (https://www.w3.org/WAI/). “Anyone with a pair of headphones can use voice input software such as JAWS or WYNN on any machine” (Kramer, 34).
Another option for the visually impaired is software that enlarges the screen. Howard Kramer writes about tools for low vision students employed at the University of Colorado Boulder, “Blind and low vision students use a number of strategies and tools to access print material at the library. Students can locate material using Chinook, the online library catalog in Web format. Chinook can be accessed with a screen reader or screen enlarger …. Since the system is Web based, students with their own adaptive computer systems can connect to Chinook from their dorms using high-speed network connections. They can also connect at any location on or off campus where there is an Internet connection. (Kramer, 33).
Another access issue is how information is classified. Five different people all looking for the same subject matter may use five different search terms and receive different results. Fisher writes on how users search for information, “When users seek information, they always do it on the basis of their subjective knowledge. They may or may not be familiar with the objective possibilities for searching for example, users may not know about citation indexes and they may thus miss an important search opportunity that exists objectively” (Fisher, 341). Not everyone has the knowledge and training an information professional has when it comes to searching for information. Most users may not know how to check citation indexes or include “and/or” statements in their search terms. Library databases are mostly organized in ways that only information professionals are trained in how to use most effectively. Designers and catalogers do not always think the way users will when users are interacting with a database. Hoffman discusses the divide between catalogers and users, “Although cataloging talks about users and the principle of user convenience is beneficial, meeting users’ needs can be difficult in practice. The principle of user convenience only directs catalogers to “think” about users while cataloging. There is little guidance on how to apply the principle in practice. The principle of user convenience assumes that catalogers can objectively determine users’ needs and will know how to customize bibliographic records to meet these needs” (Hoffman, 633). The training that information professionals receive in how to use databases and search engines already separates catalogers from users. Catalogers and users will most likely use different search terms when looking for information because catalogers know the proper terms for subject headings. However, if catalogers already think differently about searching due to their training, how can catalogers think of the methods a user would use to conduct a search if the cataloger already knows the more accurate searching methods? Hoffman continues, “In addition, the principle of user convenience assumes a single user group. Olson argues that the principle of user convenience assumes that users are a homogenized group that has similar needs. In reality, the users of a library catalog are a heterogeneous mix of different users with different needs, and they are becoming more global every day” (Hoffman, 633). Because library users are a diverse population, one cataloger cannot determine the potential search terminology for every user. Standards are meant to allow for consistent cataloging of various library materials for every library. As Hoffman states, “…however, standards remain standard. They are developed to be universal; they are not developed to meet the needs of a wide variety of different users. Yet, cataloging still claims to focus on users and it places itself within LIS’s user-centered paradigm. Standards and other cataloging initiatives claim to focus on users, but are not actually based on
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an understanding of users’ needs” (Hoffman, 634). One of the problem with standards is that different groups of people may search for the same subject with different terms or phrases depending on their geographic location, ethnic background, profession, or age. Standards do not allow for libraries to be flexible in customizing for their unique user groups. which means that libraries are not meeting the needs of their users as well as they could be. Sahadath writes, “It is a matter of respect that resources pertaining to the communities that libraries serve, represent, and describe should be classified in a way that is meaningful to the communities themselves. In Prejudices and Antipathies, Sanford Berman notes that the vocabulary used to describe people should use the terminology that those populations use to describe themselves” (Sahadath, 16). Catalogers that are not a part of the community they are creating standards for may not know the terminologies that those communities use. Libraries that do not have a constant relationship with communities may fall out of touch with what appropriate terminology is in use. Sahadath argues that, “A failure to maintain continuous consultation with these communities, and a failure to recognize their own terminologies as authoritative, is, simply put, disrespectful. Making assumptions about appropriate terminology for diverse communities is as offensive as taking no action at all” (Sahadath, 16). If customizing bibliographic records to meet the needs of a libraries unique community, why do libraries not customize? Hoffman writes about the customization issue, “… catalogers are discouraged from customizing bibliographic records by cataloging administrators who are pressured to push for more production, efficiency, and quick cataloging. Customization is expensive. It is cheaper and faster to accept bibliographic records from the bibliographic utilities “as is” without doing costly customization. It is even more cost efficient just to purchase bibliographic records from vendors, which can be automatically loaded into the library catalog without being touched by a local cataloger at all” (Hoffman, 636). Simply put, customizing each bibliographic entry to suit every group that might use it would cost too much time and money for the library. If libraries took the time to check what various types of terms users search with for every subject added to the library collection, cataloging work would pile up faster than could be catalogued. Sahadath concludes that, “While alternative classification schemes may not be the solution for all libraries that serve diverse populations, they have certainly aided some libraries in acting as a mirror of the communities that they serve” (Sahadath, 17). Hoffman reasons that because catalogers have difficulty customizing bibliographic records, standards must improve their understanding users and their needs (637). To ensure that users’ needs are met as best as possible, the standards should find ways to account for various user’s needs. “… standards must reflect the needs of various users. If it is done at the standards level, then it will likely be reflected in bibliographic records on the local level. This would help move cataloging closer to meeting its ethical responsibility to help users. (Hoffman, 637). The best way to update and improve bibliographic catalogs in all libraries is to ensure that the bibliographic standards are as up to date and accurate as possible. The results will not be perfect but any action that improves users experience with libraries is a step in the right direction.
- 2018. “Accessibility Testing for Websites and Software.” US General Services Administration. https://www.section508.gov/
- 2018. “Guidelines for ALCTS Members to Supplement the American Library Association Code of Ethics, 1994.” http://www.ala.org/alcts/resources/alaethics
- 2018. “making the web accessible.” Web Accessibility Initiative. https://www.w3.org/WAI/
- 2018. “professional ethics.” American Library Association. http://www.ala.org/tools/ethics
- Fisher, Karen; Belkin, Nicholas; et all. 2006. “Anomalous State of Knowledge” Theories of Information Behavior. 44-59
- Hoffman, Gretchen L. 2009. “Meeting Users’ Needs in Cataloging: What is the Right Thing to Do?” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 47: 7, 631- 641.
- Hutchinson, Hilary Browne, Rose, Anne, and Bederson, Benjamin B. “The International Children’s Digital Library: A Case Study in Designing for a Multilingual, Multicultural, Multigenerational Audience.” Information Technology and Libraries vol. 24, no. 1 (March 2005: 4-12).
- Kramer, Howard. “Meeting the Needs of Students at a Large University.” CoOU Libraries’ portaldo Libraries vol. 28, no. 4 (Winter 2002): 31-4.
- Neumann, Heidi. “What Teacher-Librarians Should Know About Universal Design: One Size Does Not Fit All.” Teacher Librarian vol. 31, no. 2 (December 2003): 17-20.
- Sahadath, C. 2013. “Classifying in the margins: Using alternative classification schemes to empower diverse and marginalized users.” Feliciter, 59(3), 15-17.
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