The accessible library

ICT and universal design – keys to a more open society
The Norwegian Directorate for Public Libraries has initiated a project of co-operation aimed at making public library services more accessible to all, also those people requiring special facilities.
The means to this end lie in information technology and universal design of equipment. Central to this project is the establishing of work stations combined with the recruiting of technical supervisors for the three libraries co-operating on the project.
New technology – new barriers?
“Norway is a society of possibilities”, claimed the Norwegian Minister of Trade and Industry in connection with the launching of the third version of the “eNorge” plan. The government’s overriding aims for the information society include making it available to all.
24-hour accessibility based on ele ctronic services, the further development of electronic trade and life-long learning through Internet-based teaching are all important elements in this vision o f the society of today and tomorrow. New technology can give older people and the disabled greater possibilities to participate actively in the community, but can also create new barriers. Where there is a disparity b etween the expectations of the individual and the functional demands of the environment, ICT can create new obstacles instead of improved accessibility. It is therefore vital that everybody should have access to the new technology.With this aim in mind, version 3.0 of the “eNorge” plan gives priority to meeting the requirements of the disabled.
At the same time a strategy is being drawn up in Norway to break down the barriers which face the disabled. A special report on this subject, From user to citizenwas sent out for hearing in the spring of 2002. In order to achieve the objective of full participation and equality, communities must be fashioned so as to ensure that everybody can participate to the maximum degree on their own terms and in accordance with their own wishes. Accessibility for all is a social right and should in principle be achieved in a non-discriminatory way by an expansion of present availability. Accessibility for all requires universal design.

For several years now public libraries in Norway have built up their ICT-expertise and their technological infrastructure in order to keep pace with developments in the information society. The most recent addition to this national strategy can be seen in the government subsidies towards the installation of broadband technology in public libraries. One of the aims of this initiative is to encourage libraries not only to develop new services but also to improve the existing ones. Not least is the challenge of lowering the threshold for the use of information technology by those users who require special arrangements and a tailoring of library services to meet their needs. Today’s library services are perhaps as much Internet- based as tied to a physical library environment; not simply catalogue search but on-line reference services, full text bases and portals. In the final analysis, how genuinely accessible will library services be, unless they are designed to ensure total access for everybody?

Universal design
What is that? Universal design is the shaping of products and environments in such a way that they can be used by everybody as widely as possible and without the need for further adaptation or individual design. The aim is to simplify life for everybody by making products, the means of communication and the environment more usable for a greater number of people at little or no extra cost. The target group for universal design is everybody, regardless of age, size or ability. Under the motto “Best for some, good for everybody” the threshold is lowered without creating new groups which are denied access. A simple example is the need for good general lighting in a public library. A necessity for those with impaired vision, it is also a benefit to all visitors in finding their way around.

‘The accessible library’
The Norwegian Directorate for Public Libraries considered a number of such problems with a view to finding the best solutions. Inspiration came from the Swedish project Open Media, where during the period 1993-96 the Gothenburg City Library tested out equipment, software, hardware and various working methods,first and foremost in order to make the library more accessible to the visually impaired. This project has now become part of the library’s normal activity.

Together with the Østfold County Library, the Delta Centre and the Centre for Vocational Rehabilitation, the Directorate for Public Libraries has developed the project The accessible library, which is planned to run for a period of two years. Since the start o f the project in April 2001, work has involved drawing up a progress plan, securing financial support and establishing a programme of co-operation with the following three libraries which provide the arena for the project.

  • The Deichman Library, Torshov/Sandaker branch, Oslo
  • The Sarpsborg Library in the county of Østfold
  • The Tønsberg/Nøtterøy Library in the county of Vestfold.

Contact has also been established with user organisations, both local and central, equipment manufacturers and a consultant company to assist in encouraging user participation.

What is the aim of the project?
The first step (part project A) was clearly to consider physical accessibility, both when entering a library and also once inside. How can library services be accessible, if the steps to the entrance are too steep or if the signs inside the building are so poor that visitors with impaired vision cannot find their way around? Public libraries have usually considered mainly the needs of wheelchair users during construction, but what about other kinds of functional disability? And what do we a ctually mean by accessibility? The Delta Centre possessed all the exp ertise in this area, including a general accessibility norm that provided the starting point for drafting a norm for library accessibility. In addition to incorporating existing legislation in this area,the new library norm has also been given its own second level based on the findings of the libraries participating in the project together with local user organisations and experts from the Delta Centre. Version 1 of this norm was placed on the Internet in February 2002 in the hope that it will be put into practice not only by the project libraries but also by other libraries planning new building or renovation. Fresh input will be integrated into the norm as we proceed and a printed version is planned for the next phase of the project. At the local level the project libraries have drawn up their own plans in accordance with the new norm and in the long run these measures will do much to improve accessibility, both when entering and when inside the library.

The Norwegian Directorate for Public Libraries comes under the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and has its basis in the Library Act. In addition to administrative duties and the application of library legislation,the Directorate helps to ensure that all groups of society have adequate access to library services, regardless of language, cultural differences or physical disabilities. As of 1. January 2003 the Directorate will become part of the new ABM initiative, a national strategic development body for the archive, library and museum sectors. Responsible for part project A (physical accessibility / creation of an accessibility norm): Tone Eli Moseid, head of department.

The next stage (part project B) must be to review the accessibility of library services. This applies both to the traditional services, connected to the library’s stock of media, the actual premises, registration desks, etc.and also to the virtual services, such as networkbased catalogues and Internet home pages. Equally important will be to consider the supply and presentation of these services.What expertise do library personnel possess concerning the special needs of various user groups? How good is the information and marketing directed at these user g roups? Central among the tasks of the project is the compilation of a questionnaire to assist in making a sur vey of user requirements.

Each of the project libraries will estab – lish its own focus group consisting of 5-6 members representing various types of disabled users. In co-operation with the project libraries and with the consultant research company, Østfoldforskning, these focus groups will aim to provide greater information and knowledge as to how accessibility for all can be made a reality.

One of the central measures of this project will be the establishing of public work stations answering to the needs of users with special requirements and based on the concept of universal design. These work stations will consist of Internet computers combined with special equipment and software to facilitate the conversion of text to speech and printed text to Braille. It will be possible to process the graphic Internet user interface to make it more accessible and additional equipment will make it easier to use the work station, regardless of the type of disability. Such equipment is costly and it has only b een possible to commence this vital part of the project with the kind assistance of one of the central product manufacturers.

The Østfold County Library represents the regional library level within the county of Østfold. The county library is a centre of competence for the county’s municipal libraries and has given priority to information technology with – as the lib rary itself explains – “greater emphasis on information than on technology”. Østfold county library has also been active in tailoring its services to the requirements of users with special needs. Responsible for part project B (accessibility of services,establishment of work stations): Anne Berit Brandvold, library consultant.

The third stage (part p roject C) will naturally be to place technical supervisors in the project libraries; people with experience in assisting the disabled in the use of this special equipment and who can make these services known to user organisations, decisionmakers and the local community in general. These technical supervisors will be recruited from the Centre for Vocational Rehabilitation which, as part of its normal activity, will attempt primarily to fill these positions with blind or visually-impaired job seekers. Arrangements will be made for a close followup of the supervisors themselves, with a long-term view of securing them permanent employment, and also of their working environment, in order to achieve the best possible integration. Supervisors will be given their own working area in the library with clearly- defined responsibilities. Co-operation between the technical supervisors and the library staff will also demand a mutual awareness of each other’s particular area of expertise in order to ensure the best possible service to library users. It is anticipated that this initiative will provide an extra dimension to the project as a whole. The three part projects are all integral to the main project, mutually supporting each other and contributing towards a satisfactory outcome.

The Directorate of Labour (Aetat) / Centre for Vocational Rehabilitation
The Directorate of Labour represents the country’s largest base of knowledge in the field of employment. The Centre for Vocational Rehabilitation offers a service to job seekers with brain damage, visual impairment or hearing disabilities with a view to improving their chances of employment. The Centre provides service and support, research and development, making its expertise available to other bodies actively engaged in the same area. Responsible for part project C (recruiting and integrating technical supervisors): Arnar Bakken.

Central to the whole project is the question of user participation and, equally important, the need to document the process of recruitment and the placing of technical supervisors. This task will be dealt with separately (part project D), the main aim being to ensure that the experience gained is recorded for the benefit of others engaged in similar types of activity. Emphasis will be placed on the methods employed and close co-operation is anticipated between all those involved in the project.

The DELTA Centre is the national centre of competence for participation and accessibility for disabled people. As of 1. January 2002 the D elta Centre has become part of the new Directorate for Health and Social Affairs. The Centre has been responsible for drawing up accessibility norms for both schools and museums and also supplies information on making the Internet available to the disabled. Responsible for part project D (documentation of the adaptation process): Kristin Bille, consultant.

By the end of the project in October 2003 we expect to have acquired valuable knowledge which can be o f benefit to the whole library sector, also beyond the borders of Norway. Information on progress will be continuously posted on the project’s Internet home page with links from the Delta Centre and the Directorate for Public Libraries.

When the project is completed a final report will be prepared and there are also plans to hold seminars and similar activities in order to spread information about the experience gained. Those who already at this stage wish to know more about the project are invited to contact either the leader of the project, Aina Olsen,at the Delta Centre or the head of the steering committee, Tone Eli Moseid, at the Norwegian Directorate for Public Libraries.

Translated by Eric Deverill

head of department, Norwegian Directorate for Public Libraries