Blind academic library users’ experiences with obtaining full text and accessible full text of books and articles in the USA. A qualitative study

Date16 September 2019
Published date16 September 2019
AuthorAdina Mulliken,Kerry Falloon
Subject MatterLibrary & information science,Librarianship/library management,Library technology,Information behaviour & retrieval,Information user studies,Metadata,Information & knowledge management,Information & communications technology,Internet
Blind academic library users
experiences with obtaining full
text and accessible full text of
books and articles in the USA
A qualitative study
Adina Mulliken
Hunter College, New York City, New York, USA, and
Kerry Falloon
College of Staten Island, New York City, New York, USA
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to explore a topic where blind participants expressed significant
concern: obtaining full text and accessible full text.
Design/methodology/approach This qualitative study includes 18 open-ended telephone interviews
with blind academic library users in the USA. The study uses the viewpoint that understanding blind peoples
perspectives is essential for equal accessibility.
Findings Locating full text via link resolvers seemed problematic. Inaccessible articles and complications
and delays creating accessible versions of print books limited participantsuse of materials. Enabling
technologies and services were highlighted.
Research limitations/implications Caution should be used when generalizing from this study due to its
sample size and methodology. The study is not a web accessibility test, which would analyze coding, nor a
usability test, which would observe users. Additional research would be ideal; however, libraries should not
wait to attend to accessibility.
Practical implications In addition to improving digital accessibility, to address difficulty obtaining full
text, libraries could offer to locate full text for blind users and implement SmartLinking and single sign on
authentication. To deal with inaccessible full text, libraries could work with disability offices to obtain
accessible materials and to convert materials to accessible format. DRM free HTML or EPUB e-books can
have accessibility advantages. Outsourcing conversion to accessible format can also help. Libraries could
offer reader service to assist blind users locating relevant sections of books to convert.
Originality/value Compared to previous studies, this study includes a larger number of blind screen
reader users; describes some unique issues; and includes blind usersown interpretations.
Keywords Print disabilities, Alternate format conversion, Blindness, Digital accessibility, Full text,
Link resolvers
Paper type Research paper
Simi Linton (1998), who is often credited as a founder of the field of disability studies, suggests
that qualitative research is particularly necessary to explicate the social construction of
disability(p. 6). As Linton mentions, qualitative methods work well because understanding the
authentic experience of people with disabilities is inherent to understanding what is equally
effective for them. In other words, qualitative methods allow the focus to be on understanding
usersexperiences, and on what is genuinely accessible. This methodology can assist librarians,
library administrators and library IT staff to have a more holistic view of the disability
experience, as opposed to learning technical accessibility standards without understanding the
impact on users with disabilities. If services and technologies were equally usable by everyone,
in effect, no one would have a disability. When services and technologies are not
created to be equally usable by everyone, this is what Linton refers to as social construction
of disability.
Library Hi Tech
Vol. 37 No. 3, 2019
pp. 456-479
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/LHT-08-2017-0177
Received 18 August 2017
Revised 22 February 2018
20 July 2018
2 October 2018
Accepted 6 October 2018
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
To understand how blind people interact with services and technologies within
libraries, it is important to know that individuals who are blind use software called a
screen reader to read computer and mobile device screens aloud. Webpages and digital
content need to comply with accessibility standards for screen readers to function
effectively for their users. For example, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0)
includes standards to assure that a document is accurately readable by screen readers.
Some examples of criteria required by WCAG 2.0 include textual descriptions (which may
be visually hidden) of any non-text content like images, graphs and diagrams; and
assuring the document can be read by screen readers in a logical reading and navigational
order. Webpages and documents need to identify elements, such as chapter headings and
sections of an HTML or PDF article in the documents markup, so that screen reader users
can identify and move to these elements using keystrokes or screen taps built into screen
reader functionality. Otherwise, locating the chapters and sections can be unreasonably
difficult. In essence, a lack of equal access to full text can be understood as an example of
the social construction of a disability.
The emphasis on the perspective of blind users in this study is not intended to ignore the
important role of standards for accessible content, such WCAG 2.0, as well as PDF/
Universal Accessibility (UA) and EPUB 3, nor to expect library users to provide
explanations of such standards. WCAG 2.0 includes Success Criteria that apply to web
documents such as PDFs and e-books, as well as HTML websites. PDF/UA applies to PDFs
and EPUB 3 applies to e-books in that format. While most blind users should not be
expected to have expertise in these, understanding the experiences that blind users recall
they had using academic libraries can help librarians, library administrators and web
developers attend to particular issues, as a compliment to the professionalsknowing the
technical standards for accessibility as relevant to their jobs.
As Harpur and Suzor (2014) contend, technology exists to provide equal access to the full
text of electronic books. Technology and standards certainly exist to create equally
accessible full text journal articles and other formats of information as well. However, equal
access to technology is still often approached as an afterthought. Although online content
within school websites, including vendor provided documents, are required to be accessible
to all in an equally effectiveand timelyway (The United States Department of Education
Office for Civil Rights, 2011), it often is not (e.g. Blechner, 2015; Byerley et al., 2007; Comeaux
and Schmetzke, 2007, 2013; Delancey, 2015; Haanperä and Nieminen, 2013; Oswal, 2014;
Riley-Huff, 2015; Tatomir and Durrance, 2010), so higher education schools continue to rely
on disability offices to convert inaccessible materials. This lack of native digital accessibility
and delays involving waiting for disability offices created barriers and impacted the use of
materials by participants in this study.
Open-ended interviews were conducted with 18 academic library users who are blind
about their experiences using libraries and library websites in the USA. The type of
qualitative methodology used in this study emphasizes the importance of keeping
preliminary ideas for a study fairly open ended, so that the interviewers early ideas of a
research question or problem do not artificially bias conversations with participants. Many
of the participants brought up the issue that became the focus of this paper: that locating full
text and obtaining full text that was at least minimally accessible to screen readers was
perhaps their biggest concern with using the library. In this paper, the phrase full text,is
used to mean full text in hard copy sources as well as electronic sources. While users may be
able to find human assistance to work around accessibility problems with library search
tools, if the final full text is not accessible or cannot be made accessible with a practical
amount of effort from the blind person, then the source cannot be used. Therefore,
it is understandable that obtaining accessible full text was so important to participants in
the study.
Obtaining full
text and
full text

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