by Laurie Slattengren
I attended the Minnesota Library Association conference in St. Cloud, MN on October 10 and 11. One session I found particularly interesting and applicable to my position at the Duluth Public Library was called “Lost in Translation: Identifying Barriers to Information Access for Diverse Web Users.” This session focused on a study done by students from the MLIS program at St. Catherine University on the level of accessibility of library websites for low vision or blind users. Testing was performed by having several blind and low vision computer users try navigating various library websites using screen reading software. In this study, the students had five participants use two different kinds of screen reading software, JAWS for Windows and Voice Over for Mac, and measured accessibility by observing participant’s train of thought with “think-aloud protocol.” I was interested in this session because we have screen reading software JAWS available in our computer lab and I don’t often have the opportunity to learn more about the use of this program.
From this session I learned about online accessibility checkers, such as AChecker (achecker.ca), where any website can be tested for its accessibility barriers. While this is an easy tool for anyone to use to see what aspects of a website might be lacking in accessibility, it was interesting to see that this checker did not pick out the barriers that the human participants in this study found to be the most frequently encounters. Some of the major findings of the study included that users had a lot of difficulty finding and using the library catalog when using a screen reader. Often other pages, such as “Books” page were mistaken for the catalog or users would do a Ctrl+F search for the term “catalog” on the website and find references to it instead of the actual catalog. Additionally it was difficult to evaluate search results as the screen readers read every word of a catalog entry. Participants also lost a lot information on image heavy pages, such as those with many book covers, where the information on the page relies on images the screen reader is unable to describe.
The most useful part of this session was when the presenters offered tips for creating websites with greater accessibility for low vision and blind users. One of the tips they offered was to use headings in the HTML code of websites to make search results easier to understand, as a lack of hierarchical heading structure is a barrier for the blind. For example, when titles in a catalog search results list are formatted as headings, it is easy for the user to tab from item to item to skim the results. Another tip the presenters mentioned was to use a minimalist design and content approach on the library home page as excessive links clutter the page and make it difficult for a screen reader to navigate. Several of the library websites tested in this study had over a hundred links on their homepage, and one even had 185. The presenters suggested cutting many links and instead having content divided into several broad categories that are logical and easier to navigate.
At the Duluth Public Library, we recently had a complete overhaul done to our website. I am interested in looking at the level of accessibility of this new website and seeing if there are improvements that can be made, taking into consideration the suggestions give in the MLA presentation. At the end of the session, an attendee asked if the presenters had looked at the accessibility of mobile library websites in their study. They said they are currently working on a separate study of this particular topic and I will be interested to see what the findings are on this topic as mobile website use is becoming ubiquitous. If you are interested in seeing the presentation slides from this session, they are available at: