Equity and access to information: Libraries have a role to play


Libraries are for everyone.

Because it's all too easy to take that notion for granted, let's take this opportunity to recognize the important role public libraries play in ensuring universal access to library resources and information.

Equitable information access is such a key component of library services that the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) made it a major focus of the Public Library Manifesto it issued in partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2022.

Here's just part of what that document says:

The services of the public library are provided on the basis of equality of access for all, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, religion, nationality, language, social status, and any other characteristic. Specific services and materials must be provided for those users who cannot, for whatever reason, use the regular services and materials, for example linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, poor digital or computer skills, poor literacy abilities or people in hospital or prison.

All age groups must find material relevant to their needs. Collections and services have to include all types of appropriate media and modern technologies as well as traditional materials. High quality, relevance to local needs and conditions, and reflective of the language and cultural diversity of the community are fundamental. Material must reflect current trends and the evolution of society, as well as the memory of human endeavour and imagination.

Collections and services should not be subject to any form of ideological, political or religious censorship, nor commercial pressures.

See also:

Reliable information bolsters intellectual freedom


Why is information access so important for library users? The IFLA-UNESCO Public Library Manifesto 2022 makes the case that freedom and prosperity are fundamental human values that can only be attained when well-informed citizens are able to exercise their democratic rights and to play an active role in society.

"Constructive participation and the development of democracy depend on satisfactory education as well as on free and unlimited access to knowledge, thought, culture and information," the publication states.

As "the local gateway to knowledge", public libraries provide community members with opportunities for lifelong learning and independent decision-making.

The library plays a role in sustaining democracy

Barack Obama echoed this sentiment last July when he wrote an open letter to the librarians of America to thank them for their dedication to defending intellectual freedom.

In that letter, the former American president argued that, "In any democracy, the free exchange of ideas is an important part of making sure that citizens are informed, engaged and feel like their perspectives matter."

Obama wrote that librarians are "on the front lines — fighting every day to make the widest possible range of viewpoints, opinions, and ideas available to everyone. Your dedication and professional expertise allow us to freely read and consider information and ideas, and decide for ourselves which ones we agree with."

In a time when some policy-makers are seeking to limit access to certain books and other resources that might challenge the status quo, librarians are doing their part to sustain democracy and support education.

As Obama wrote:

You also provide spaces where people can come together, share ideas, participate in community programs, and access essential civic and educational resources. Together, you help people become informed and active citizens, capable of making this country what they want it to be.

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Inclusive libraries offer access to all users

Of course, a truly inclusive library space must be welcoming to all readers, providing access and support to users regardless of any physical challenges or learning disabilities.

This begins with the design of library buildings themselves and extends to the resources and technologies available within them.

In a previous blog post about the ways libraries foster diversity by creating inclusive spaces, we told you about a position paper titled "Guidelines on Library and Information Services for People with Disabilities", in which the Canadian Federation of Library Associations offers recommendations relating to accessibility, including the following:

  • Library by-laws or internal governing regulations should include a provision stating that access for people with disabilities is part of its institutional mandate.

  • The library’s service standards should affirm that staff treat people with disabilities with the consideration, dignity and respect to which all patrons are entitled.

  • Library staff should be familiar with the Principles of Universal Design published by the Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University which will serve to make libraries more inclusive and accessible for all users. Libraries should have a staff member or a resource person in the community that has expertise on universal design.

  • Library staff should refer to documents published by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) relating to accessibility. Examples of IFLA sections to be familiar with: Libraries Serving Persons with Print Disabilities Section; Library Services to People with Special Needs Section.

  • The library should have an emergency and evacuation plan that takes into account the safe evacuation of people with disabilities.

  • The library should conduct evaluations of its services to ensure that they are equitable and inclusive to all members of the community. Evaluation methods could include: user and circulation figures and other statistics, focus groups with diverse representatives, interviews, surveys, program evaluations, user suggestions, complaints, and other forms of feedback.

Service that respects individual needs


The CFLA paper also notes that in order to successfully serve members with disabilities, librarians must understand the needs of their communities and be able to provide options.

Empowering patrons to connect with library services, the CFLA maintains, should be rooted in principles of inclusion and respect for the needs of the individual.

With those principles in mind, public libraries should prioritize providing the following types of service, among others: 

  • alternative format collections

  • accessible websites, online catalogue, and electronic resources

  • accessible computing devices, assistive devices and software (e.g. screen readers and magnifiers)

  • loaning of equipment to access materials in alternative formats (e.g. DAISY players)

  • high speed wireless networks for downloading / streaming online media

  • remote library card registration

  • technology assistance through resources such as library staff, partner organizations, volunteers and peer-to-peer groups

  • staff assistance through such things as e-mail, chat, texting, telephone, fax, relay services, webinars, video tutorials

  • extension services for those unable to visit a library. Examples can include collection deposit services, mobile library services, and books-by-mail services

  • options for extended loan periods and no fines

A more inclusive reading experience

PressReader's Accessibility Mode is an example of a resource rooted in the notion that reading should be inclusive, and that anyone with a library card should be able to enjoy articles from a vast selection of international newspapers and magazines from all over the world.

It was created to meet the needs of readers who rely on tools like assistive technology to explore content at public libraries.

With keyboard navigation, compatibility with screen readers, color contrast, large named buttons, and user font-size control, PressReader Accessibility Mode is fully compliant to meet Level AA of the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

Technologies enhance the patron experience


Many libraries have begun to implement other technologies to meet the needs of members with accessibility challenges.

According to the latest State of America's Libraries Report from American Library Association, for example, the Medina County District Library in Ohio used a US$20,000 Libraries Transforming Communities: Accessible Small and Rural Communities grant to install hearing loop technology.

As the report explains, hearing loops are essentially wireless loudspeakers for people who use hearing aids:

An induction loop system delivers clear, customized sound by transmitting magnetic energy through
a wire that surrounds an area. The system can link to most hearing assistive devices via Bluetooth, allowing individuals with hearing devices connected to the loop to hear the transmitted sound while within the area.

Serving neurodiverse individuals

Elsewhere in the United States, the Williamsburg Regional Library (WRL) in Williamsburg, Virginia, recently received two awards from the Virginia Public Library Director’s Association: the Outstanding Service Innovation award and the Gold Standard of Excellence award.

As reported by the Virginia Gazette, the Outstanding Service Innovation award recognizes the library’s programs, services and accessibility features for neurodiverse individuals. In addition to providing special needs communication guides at all public service desks, the WRL's initiatives to expand accessibility include the installation of a custom-built sensory corner and the introduction of a monthly program that allows users with autism and sensory issues to enjoy a calmer environment.

Fostering empowered communities

Libraries play a pivotal role in fostering informed and empowered communities by offering their members equitable access to reliable information regardless of their socioeconomic status, geographic location or other barriers. Ensuring such access not only upholds principles of fairness and inclusivity but also helps support social justice and democracy.

In an era in which information is increasingly found online and disparities in technology and resources persist, the local public library serves as a crucial equalizer, bridging gaps by providing free and open access to a wealth of knowledge, educational resources and cultural enrichment.

By offering a diverse collection and programming tailored to the needs of their communities, librarians empower individuals to pursue lifelong learning, make informed decisions and participate fully in civic and cultural life, which ultimately enriches society as a whole.

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