Appreciating the Challenges of the Accessible Remote ‘Locked Down’ Library Service

Gaz Johnson's picture
By: 
Gareth J Johnson

The new year’s first virtual networking session tackled questions of accessibility, and the questions library services need to be asking of themselves concerning it.

The first of the second season of virtual networking sessions took place in mid-January, facilitated by Mercian Disability Forum (MDF) Chair Laura Waller and the highly-respected Collaboration Officer, Gareth J Johnson. This networking session was informally sponsored by the MDF and took as its central theme accessibility in an age of change. As with previous sessions the facilitators posed a series of questions and allowed the discussions to develop organically through the experiences and interests of the participants. Thanks to Laura’s expert guidance the conversation flowed throughout the full 90 minute event.

From the participants’ comments, it was clear the shift to entirely online support and information provision has seen some services shifted up to become more important than before: scanning, postal loans, video captioning for example. It has also seen the emergence of a group of users who were loosely described as the ‘newly digitally disabled’, that is to say, people who had not recognised they had underlying problems until faced by an online only environment. Helping support these people, alongside those with previously recognised disabilities, had resulted in increased demands on staff specialising in accessible learning and support. Moreover, as one delegate sagely commented ‘access is a topic far wider than disability’. Neurodiversity matters, along with appreciating dealing with mental and physical exhaustion, were among the aspects of library work becoming more common place considerations for all staff.

The online environment had also thrown up some new and in some cases not unexpected challenges from supplies. For example, here participants noted the sudden unavailability of previously available eTexts, reduction in accessibility for multiple eCopies beyond the primary or changes to license terms which imposed additional access barriers. It was recognised too how some external platforms simply were not providing adequate for the demands now being placed on them, with some popularly frequented national resources coming in for criticism. Conversely though, shifting to a greater reliance on eMaterials had in some cases simplified procurement arrangements for library staff, bringing a clarity and focus to their efforts. Nevertheless, not all subjects could be supported in this way, as some materials steadfastly were only available or suitable in a physical format.

Delegates identified many challenges, faced as much by themselves and their colleagues as by their user communities. One key example, as heralded in many media articles about home study schoolchildren, centred on access to sufficient and reliable bandwidth or devices. While many workarounds and adaptations had been possible, there remained issues, especially where multiple users in a household were accessing the same limited supply of bandwidth during ‘crucial’ video calls. Not to mention, some staff remained less technically literate than others, increasing the difficulty of delivering on their own work.

Additionally, despite being almost a year into lockdown and remote working/learning arrangements, while some library staff were thriving working at a distance there remained a skills gap for many others. Many questions were reported including ‘Are we doing this, the most effective or the easiest way possible?’ around various service delivery options. Experience clearly was growing, but confidence in understanding what represented the best, most effective and desirable routes to offering support and services still had a long way to grow.

As library staff struggled, so too did many of their users. In their efforts to help, delegates identified issues with the often blanket reliance of information being accessed ‘on the website’. Sites had rich with much new, and often contrasting, sources of information without appreciating how users ‘personal bandwidth’ and ‘attention’ could be overwhelmed. Learning how to chunk, represent or clarify core and important messages, against a background ‘static’ in an ‘information jungle’ was proposed as an area in need of careful and considered thought when considering effective user support. Once again the comment ‘access is a wider topic than disability’ remained a reliable mantra to embrace in all support considerations.

Nevertheless, there had been many successes to report, not least of which being the simple triumphs of staff keeping a reliable and effective library service running under unprecedented circumstances. For example, attendance at virtual library teaching far continued to be reported to outstrip levels typically expected for physical sessions. As a result, engagement with some members of the student community had risen considerably, although identifying, reaching and engaging the potentially concealed and less visible users remained a concern. Another win though, was the growing revelatory realisation among the student body of the wealth of material their library and institution made available to them in support of their studies. Perceptions of libraries as locales of reliable help and support had similarly received acknowledgement and recognition as a result. The collegiality and community at the heart of the university experience too had been successfully engendered for some libraries, through library ‘chat’ session content becoming more ‘liberalised’ with emotional as well as informational content proving popular with users.

Turning to the brief, and perhaps halcyon, late summer period of reopening ahead of the autumn and winter lockdowns had brought with it a rash [1] of new services and experiences for staff. Many libraries remained, even in lockdown #3, open or partially open to their user base, although a need to adapt to changing circumstances and government advice remained a paramount consideration. Issues around masks, exemptions and eating, had thrown up new concerns for more clinically vulnerable library users, with some perceiving any lack of masks representing an unacceptable challenge to their personal well-being. Balancing the needs of these, and other, vulnerable groups against those of other users, was reported as an area fraught with complexities. There remained to date for many library staffers, insufficient prior experience or exemplars to draw upon in resolving these issues. Nevertheless, library staff were clearly dedicated to continuing to seek and offer the best possible options for all their user comm unity when addressing issues such as these.

It was suggested from the discussions how libraries increasingly need to shift from a reactive, firefighting approach, moving from simply seeking to keep afloat with all services shipshape [2]; to a more proactive and considered approach. Appreciating the challenges faces by users, disabled, digitally disabled, bandwidth challenged or operating in difficult circumstances, it was argued, needs to reside at the heart of service design and support considerations. With the pandemic period set to continue, but with staff increasingly familiar with the more ‘mundane’ aspects of remote working and support, delegates represented how now was the right time to be moving to reprioritise, refocus and restructure how services were delivered. Because one thing was abundantly clear to all: student service expectations are increasing, and ‘good enough’ accessibility and support may no longer be sufficient to satisfy their needs.

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Our thanks to all who attended and participated in the discussions, and we look forward to welcoming them, and others, back to our next virtual networking event: themes and date to be confirmed in early February. If you have any thoughts on themes for future virtual networking sessions, please get in touch via email mercianlibrariescollaboration@gmail.com.

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[1] No pun intended.

[2] Mixing my fire and water metaphors, apologies.