Accessibility Librarian Competencies

In the last few months, a number of accessibility specialist job postings have been forwarded my way by colleagues. Reviewing these postings was quite interesting as they highlighted a number of important competencies which were repeated from one job advertisement to another. Reflecting on my own experience as someone who has worked in this field at Scholars Portal, Ontario Council of University Libraries, I thought that a blog post dedicated to the topic of what it takes to be an “Accessibility Librarian” would help research librarians develop a better sense of where libraries are headed in the establishment of accessibility librarian positions.

Accessibility, much like copyright and assessment, is an area of tremendous growth and high specialization which takes time and education to develop. This expertise can be acquired through professional development opportunities such as workshops, conferences, and continued education or through active engagement with accessibility experts across the community. The latter provides accessibility librarians with more practical knowledge and allows them to tap into an active dialogue about best practices and emerging trends, as well as establish valuable community connections with experts close at hand.

Having a dedicated point of contact at your library who is tasked with developing this specialization has multiple benefits for your institution, such as:

  1. Demonstrating accountability with regard to your library’s commitment to supporting inclusive learning
  2. Furthering staff competencies by having a specialized coordinator who trains colleagues and helps to disseminate new information about tools and resources
  3. Assigning dedicated staff who are responsible for working with multiple departments and stakeholders to ensure that new resources and services are fully accessible
  4. Appointing dedicated staff to oversee accessibility documentation and liaise with stakeholders in the development of accessibility policies and documentation in cases of audits

While the accessibility librarian might be the expert in the field of specialization, it is critical that they are able to train and educate other library staff in this area in order to ensure that all library staff have basic competencies to handle entry-level queries from patrons or provide basic tech support to assistive technology users.

It is within the interest of your organization to ensure that all library staff are versed in basic accessibility principles, but accessibility experts are asked to develop a deeper understanding of accessibility standards, policies, regulatory requirements, industry best practices, and guidelines. Working knowledge of contemporary technologies and user testing are critical in order to inform and support the work of IT staff within the library when updating the library website or assessing the usability of your e-resources. Working knowledge of contemporary assistive technologies helps to contextualize or ground higher-level policy work, enabling the specialist to understand the library’s users and the types of experience they might encounter navigating through the world of digital resources. In this case the accessibility librarian is the invaluable link between the diverse user base and the library staff, being able to relate user experience to the library staff and explain how services and websites can be improved to serve all users better.

Inclusive design truly benefits everyone as its core principle of responsiveness means that all users are able to have some control over how content is presented. In the virtual world, this means users can control things like font size, page contrast, responsiveness to different formats of technology, et cetera. Knowledge of what digital accessibility entails should also create opportunities for the specialist librarian to take a more active part in the discourse on inclusive publishing practices with academic and commercial publishers, helping to define the evolution of digital resources and to further the role of libraries as content producers. In this role the librarian might be asked to forge working relationships with in-house publishers to discuss platform and content accessibility guidelines your library would like to adhere to.

Advocacy is a huge component of what an accessibility expert does, as their role is inextricably linked to outreach, building trust and reliable working relationships with stakeholders, building bridges across community members with similar expertise to establish a community of practice, and fostering a dynamic information-exchange practice.

Reference departments are now starting to track copyright- and accessibility-related queries in order to assess the effectiveness of institutional outreach in these areas. Accessibility and copyright are indeed tied closely together, however, the level of specialization demanded by each field necessitates them to exist separately but in close counsel with one another. The interaction between the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)/Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) and the Copyright Act is complicated, raising issues pertaining to breaking digital locks, questions of ownership when reproducing materials in other formats and general limitations with regard to what one legislation might imply you should do and another seems to prohibit you from doing. Getting a strong grip on some of these issues can be complicated as clear answers don’t always exist and each institution might chose a more or less conservative position with regard to their interpretation of the legislative requirements. The accessibility librarian will track and document these decisions to support your institution in cases of lawsuits or user complaints.

Historically, accessibility fell outside of the purview of libraries so it’s not surprising to see that not every research library in North America has had the capacity to fund and maintain the development of these departments. However, legislative requirements are explicit with regard to library services and materials which have to be made accessible on demand, prompting many institutions to start reviewing their organizational priorities. In cases where libraries (often smaller organizations) have not historically offered accessibility services, they may assign accessibility liaison responsibilities to library staff while they determine how to move forward with developing specialization in this area. As a result, some libraries produce accessible texts or provide other technical support in this area and some don’t and never have. The role of the accessibility specialist will vary depending on the unique infrastructure and services your institution is mandated to offer.

For further information with regard to how your library can work to create an accessibility librarian position, please feel free to contact me directly at katya@scholarsportal.info or poke me on Twitter @Socialbrarian.

Katya Pereyaslavska is the Scholars Portal accessibility librarian at the Ontario Council of University Libraries (OCUL) and the University of Toronto Libraries (UTL), a position she has held for almost three years. She currently serves as an ARL visiting program officer (VPO), working with the  Accessibility and Universal Design Working Group.