Championing Accessibility and Innovation in Scholarly Publishing

The most recent Ithaka S+R U.S. Library Survey shows that 67 percent of academic library directors indicate strategies that specifically address ensuring the accessibility of the library’s physical and digital collections are a high priority in their DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility) efforts. How can we continue to foster support for—and innovation in—equitable access to library services and resources?

Gwen Evans head shotAs all industries grow more dependent on digital tools and technology, it is increasingly important that library leaders continue to pave the way in fostering more accessible learning.

The most recent Ithaka S+R U.S. Library Survey shows that 67 percent of directors indicate strategies that specifically address ensuring the accessibility of the library’s physical and digital collections are a high priority in their DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility) efforts. In addition, most directors identify supporting student success as a priority for both them and their senior administrative leadership—and, of course, ensuring content, platforms, and services accommodate a wide variety of disabilities is a critical part of such efforts.

So how can we continue to foster support for—and innovation in—equitable access to library services and resources?

As a librarian with more than 20 years of experience in academic libraries, I’m familiar with assisting end users to access materials they need in the way they need them, as well as looking at library resources from a collection development and content provision perspective to make sure progress is being made in delivering content and enabling platform enhancements. By understanding the needs of patrons with disabilities in the widest sense and implementing accessibility strategies, we all can champion accessibility and facilitate equitable access to library resources. By working with content producers, publishers, librarians, and end users we all can ensure that the “A” for accessibility is part of every library's DEIA mix.



During a recent Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Choice webinar I helped pull together with librarians, researchers, and publishing accessibility managers, the complexity of delivering accessible content, platforms, and services really came to the forefront. We’ve come a long way over the past 15 years, but there is still work to be done. Disabilities can take many forms, and each presents unique opportunities when it comes to providing accessible library materials and services. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 61 million Americans have a disability. That number is likely to increase, given the ever-rising rates of disability resulting from the ongoing pandemic. According to the Center for American Progress, the United States is not accurately tracking the duration of COVID-19 symptoms, and for many, even access to accurate testing is still limited.

Disability covers physical, sensory, and mental health conditions and neurodiversities. Blind persons or those with visual impairments may have difficulty reading printed materials or navigating library spaces. Persons with hearing loss may have difficulty accessing audio materials or participating in group discussions. Persons with mobility impairments may have difficulty navigating stairs, using compact shelving, and accessing materials on high shelves. Persons with learning disabilities may have difficulty processing written information or following complex instructions. Disabilities also exist on a spectrum, and it is important to be attentive to the entire range of needs instead of treating specific disabilities in an “all or nothing” manner.

To provide accessibility for end users, larger institutions usually have offices of disability services to assist with meeting patron needs, but sometimes librarians in less well-resourced institutions must be aware of the individual needs of patrons with disabilities and be prepared to provide accommodations as needed. Ideally, library infrastructure should enable an audit of library materials to enable teams or creators to ensure accessibility, but sometimes that’s not always feasible.



There are well-established strategies libraries have implemented or should implement, such as designing library websites with accessibility in mind. You can use guidelines available like Elsevier’s User Centered Design (UCD) group and Accessibility Working Group checklist, which is specifically focused on research and instructional content, or guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice on how to design accessible websites aligned with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Other methods for making progress toward more accessible offerings include:

  • Staff training in disability awareness as an integral part of DEIA training. Read this Scholarly Kitchen three-part post for insights and advice on empathy, intersectionality, and disability, and building support from stakeholders. If the library has an internship program, recruit with that in mind. One of Elsevier’s interns, Iman Wright, was also an intern at the Simmons University Library. She reflects on her internship experiences as someone who is legally blind and a Black woman in this Library Connect article.
  • Include people from the disability community in planning and implementing accessibility improvements. For example, North Carolina State University (NC State) Libraries, Raleigh, staff from a range of functional areas formed an Accessibility Committee to coordinate and implement practices and changes throughout the system.
  • Library staff should make sure that their own instructional materials and services are accessible. PowerPoints, recorded tutorials, or webinars should include as many accessibility features as possible: captioning, audio voiceover, alt text for images and graphs, and interpretation services where appropriate. Meeting the needs of users with disabilities related to neurodiversity involves delivering a consistent, predictable experience including terminology, navigation, and positioning. A good rule of thumb is to build accessibility features into content as it is produced by the library to make it “born accessible.”
  • Take a walk in a publisher’s or vendor’s shoes. For example, go through the process of filling out a VPAT (Voluntary Accessibility Product Template) for the library’s own offerings. Libraries and institutions are familiar with requesting VPATs from vendors, but it can be eye-opening to walk through the process for a library’s institutional repository or other platforms and services that may be custom-built or rely on user-generated content including presentations, webinars, etc.
  • Consider content versus platform, especially for new forms of dissemination. For example, Professor Lisa Hinchliffe has evaluated the accessibility of preprint servers as part of a larger research project. While the general platform may be accessible, the researcher-uploaded PDFs are not; the library may be able to teach workshops for faculty on contributing content to preprint servers or similar so that “open access” is open to everyone.



Not all materials and workflows are optimized for accessibility in the broadest sense. The accessibility needs of all participants in the scholarly communication workflow should be considered. When I joined Elsevier and met our accessibility team, I realized just how much work is needed on the publishing side to make not just materials accessible, but also workflows and platforms accessible to authors, peer reviewers, editors, and employees. This is a hidden aspect of ensuring that the scholarly communication system is truly inclusive throughout the entire creation and consumption chain. Addressing all types of disabilities requires constant effort and investment on the part of platform and content providers no matter what kind of entity supplies them—publisher, vendor, or library. More effort by all parties could be expended on optimizing educational and research materials―particularly in science, technology, engineering, and math―for everyone involved.

Alongside Elsevier’s efforts in gender equity, support for communities of color, explicit focus and training on inclusive research, and our support for global Pride initiatives both externally and internally, I look forward to collaborating with librarians and other key players in the research ecosystem to address accessibility for persons with disabilities.

Gwen Evans is Vice President of Global Library Relations at Elsevier. Her recent publications include an Ithaka S+R issue brief coauthored with Roger Schonfeld titled “It’s Not What Libraries Hold; It’s Who Libraries Serve. Seeking a User-Centered Future for Academic Libraries” and “Creating Diversity in Libraries: Management Perspectives” in Library Leadership & Management with coauthors Mihoko Hosoi and Nancy S. Kirkpatrick.

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