Will Universal Accessibility at Libraries Even Be Possible in 10 Years?

Libraries pride themselves on their ability to provide access for all.   We do not care how much money you have, what you look like or what you choose to have for breakfast — you can access information for free, most times.

In comes the Internet and the world of information becomes even more free.     Then all the value added provided by Web 2.0 tools.    And computers are getting cheaper as well, so we’re looking at a golden age for technology.

Then we look at what we can do for accessibility.   Ideally, we should offer accessibility software on all public access terminals.  You should be able to go to terminal, click a button and have the screen sized the way you like without difficulty.   Alternately, if you have no vision at all, you should be able to press a button and have a piece of software tell you what is on the screen.   Sounds like common sense, right?    It does to me.   Text-to-speech software has been around for quite a while actually, the production costs should be minimal.

But what does it cost really to make this happen?    Well, let’s use the industry standards — and by this I mean the products that are most supported by the agencies that provide services to people with low or no vision:  Zoomtext, Jaws and Kurzveil 1000.   Now first, I’ll admit I’m going to use retail prices — institutions can sometimes swing a deal with companies when they order in bunches.   But put it this way:  take the cost of your current PC, include a computer desk and chair, maybe an education license for a productivity package like Word, then triple it.   That money might provide a station with the minimum accessibility using the industry standard software.    Add the equivalent of that new number and you might be able to include a Braille embosser in the mix.

Clearly, assistive technologies are not gaining the same value to the consumer that the rest of the industry is enabling.    Faced with choices about hard numbers, libraries offering free public internet access try to be accommodating by having special accessible stations to provide the same access to people with visual impairments that the rest of us take for granted.  Of course, while appreciated, these stations can be less than appealing, since they single out persons with disabilities as in need of “special” stations, when in fact this does not have to be the case.

Singled-out Demand Equals Overpriced Equipment

In fact, it is this “single-out” factor that enables such exorbitant prices for these products.    If we all demanded that our operating systems had screen-sizers and readers as part of the suite and refused to buy the products without them, they would be available universally for perhaps only a little more than what we pay now for them.

But a “singled-out” software line for persons with disabilities creates a market where the price elasticity of demand is very low.   For those of you who were not tortured through microeconomics like I was, elasticity of demand refers to the impact a change in price has on the quantity of demand for a product.   A highly elastic product means that a small change in price will cause a large change in the quantity of demand for a product.   Products with elastic demand tend to have satisfactory alternatives.  Take for instance apples and pears.   If the price of apples goes up, people may just choose to buy pears instead.   That means the quantity of demand for apples goes way down with the change in price.

Not so with software to support accessibility.   Despite the price, the quantity of demand for the products is likely to remain pretty stable.   Why?   Because there are no viable alternatives.   If you want to access the internet, you have to buy the software.   That means that suppliers have no incentive to reduce their price.   If they raise the price, the quantity of demand for the product stays the same and they make more money.   If they lower the price the quantity of demand stays the same as well, and the supplier makes less money.   There’s no reason to reduce the price, so why would you bother — especially when the added money perhaps can help you build a better product and stay ahead of the competition?

Now you may say that there are government grants available for accessible stations, right?    No doubt the intention is fabulous and who could blame libraries for wanting to take advantage of these services?   But there is a bigger picture here.  Remember — we are dealing with inelastic products here.   Adding money to the accessibility software demand pile will artificially increase the overall demand for the product — which in turn will artificially increase the price of the software even more!   In the end, there’ll be more software out there, but the demand will be stratified — those who get the grants will have the software while those who do not will not.

In short, there are broad societal issues associated with the accessibility problem, and I haven’t even begun to discuss accessibility as it relates to website design.   It seems hopeless — what can libraries do?   Here are some things:

  • Look at open source — For instance Ubuntu offers a screen reader as part of the package.     If you offer an Ubuntu station, you very likely are also offering an assistive technology station — except without ever calling it that.    While there is a lot of work to be done in this realm still, I think libraries should start thinking about offering Ubuntu and then letting the linux community know about the experience.     If you are interested in Daisy readers, you may also like to hear that there is a product called AMIS that will read Daisy format on a Windows platform.
  • Partner with community groups so to insist that all OEM software includes a viable and easy-to-use accessibility system, including a one-click screen resizer and a screen reader.
  • Try your best to make existing accessibility stations seem the same as any other station.
  • Fulfill your obligations for free access, but do not forget about the big picture.   We can “should” at each other until the cows come home, but the reality is that our budgets are limited enough already.   We cannot afford to dump money into products with such high margins.   We need to start innovating our own ways to serve our visually impaired clients if we truly want to maintain our reputation of offering “Access for All.”
  • Look carefully at the development of surface technology (ironically, low accessibility warning for the link).   There is a lot of potential here for low vision clients.
  • As much as ethically and technically possible, refuse to purchase any product unless it is accessible for everyone.   The more we consider accessibility a “special” add-in, the more the costs of “specialness” get born on those with disabilities.

A Serendipitous 12 hours.

This is kind of like the “day in the life of” except it is a “night in the life of.” I can’t remember the times, but consider that most of this stuff happened between 8pm last night (Tuesday) until I posted the final blog post today.

  1. I logged onto Meebo for fun.
  2. I chatted with Amanda Etches-Johnson. Mostly, to tell her some feedback I received from a co-worker who saw her presentation at Access.
  3. I asked her for help in speaking to Medical librarians, because I expect to be doing that when CHLA comes to Halifax.
  4. Amanda mentioned that her audience really enjoyed playing with an online screencasting software. It turns out that a co-worker of mine just started using Captivate, and I was thinking about whether or not I needed to put in a request for myself.
  5. I found the screencast-o-matic software to be pretty easy to use, so I create a test screencast to show people on the Halifax Public Libraries Learning 2.0 blog. The topic was adding an RSS feed to Google Reader.
  6. While I was doing the screencast, I saw a blog post by Helene Blowers about Michael “The Machine is Us/ing UsWesch‘s latest video about the information revolution. And then another one, which is just as interesting about what students are thinking.
  7. I posted the screencast late last night.
  8. I watched the movies.
  9. This morning, I asked a co-worker to look at the screencast. He is technically more competent than I am, but he didn’t have his Java plug-in updated, which caused some interfacing issues for him. Fortunately, he knows enough about Java to upgrade the plug-in and see the cast. Goes to show how important architecture still is, even for website administrators.
  10. The co-worker with Captivate dropped by and I showed him the screencast I made.
  11. Jeremy later came into my office and told me, “oh yeah — I forgot to mention that there’s a product out there called Wink that available for free, but creates Flash films instead of Java. You might want to check it out. It’s not Web 2.0 though.”
  12. I thought that the screencast is an interesting artifact showing serendipity happening to me via Web 2.0.
  13. Lunchtime came along and I decided to post this experience.

I can’t explain how many times that this sort of thing would have happened to me after I decided to login to a collaborative tool, whether it be Twitter, Facebook, Meebo Rooms, any number of Web 2.0 websites.

There are serious learning benefits coming from Web 2.0 — most of the time I don’t even realize it. This time I did — probably because I managed to record my information discovery in a screencast.

And when those medical librarians ask me what they can do to convince their IT departments that these tools are important, I may just tell them about this experience. I don’t know if it will work — but it might just affirm their suspicions that, yes, stringent policies blocking Internet sites for so-called “productivity benefits” is just wrong.

Not only did I learn a heckofalot in just 12 hours. I shared that information with a potential 400 staff and, hopefully, another potential 400 people who read my blog regularly. Loss of productivity my big patootey!

What Can Organizational Structure do for User-centred Change?

 

Designing an organization is not something that managers should take on without a good deal of thought. Unfortunately, the coverage of organizational design in library management courses is often simplified to a toying around with two organizational dichotomies: flat or hierarchical; centralized or decentralized. The impression you get from such a surface understanding of design is that organizations are like play-doh and can be squished and pulled at will.

Organizational Design (OD) is a strategic device. You do it to make your organization more competitive in whatever environment you face. As a strategic device, it ought to be the slave to a strategy — a full-scale plan that covers everything from the values the organization will hold dear, its mission, including the sorts of goals, objectives and actions it will undertake to accomplish it’s mission.

With Library 2.0 advocates calling for radical change in organizations, I fear that libraries could take on organizational design as a symbollic gesture toward more inclusivity, rather than as a strategic maneuver to improve service. For instance, I think frustration over the departmental silos that come with traditional matrix organization structures will cause library leaders to call for “flat” structures, without considering the devil in the details that automatically come with complex organizations.

Flatness in organizational structure is not an end-goal. It achieves certain things that may indeed be desirable. But not without rather considerable costs. There are reasons why hierarchy exists in large organizations and have existed for a long time. If hierarchy did not have its benefits, most currently thriving organizations would not have survived as long as they have.

Here are a few benefits of hierarchical structures:

  • The Division of Labor

Adam Smith and his fellow Utilitarians could be the reason why Western civilization is as rich as it is. You can harp against capitalism all you want, but clearly, the advancement of commerce helped societies uncover major secrets about fulfilling human needs with limited resources. One of the more famous secrets is the division of labor — namely, that when group specialize on particular aspects of the production process, the overall result is much more efficient.This still rings true for libraries. My library does not want me handling the finances. Nor do they want me cataloguing. We have people who know that much better than I do.

  • Comparative Advantage

In theory, the Director/CEO is the organization’s most competent individual. (Yes, I know, in theory.) The problem is, there is only so much a single CEO can do. That’s why he/she hires others to help. Even if a co-worker only performs at 75% of the CEO, it’s still better that 175% is getting done, instead of just 100%.

But there’s more. Comparative advantage tells us that opportunity cost needs to be considered as well. If you have your highly competent CEO busy doing mundane clerical work, your organization is losing the opportunity to have him/her busy engaging city leaders, influencing officials, and making high-level decisions about the workplace. So, you assign your 75% person to the less important task, focusing your high-level employees on high-value areas. Flatter structures tend to mix this advantage up, engaging less proficient individuals in high value areas, resulting in poorer results overall.

  • Avoiding Micromanaging

By having leaders with powers to make decisions, you can avoid micromanagement in organizations. While individual leaders may choose to be micromanagers (which is not a very desirable trait anyway), a hierarchical structure will make it difficult for a director to be looking over the shoulders of his/her employees. Flat organizations can turn into “micromanaged by the CEO” organizations.

  • Fair Compensation, Merit and Rewards

There are two principles that fall here. 1) If you ask staff to be involved in high-level decision making, you ought to pay them for it. 2) Many staff want to see a natural progression to their career path. Hierarchical structures do help signal that a clear path to advancement exists with the organization, and supports a process for paying people based on the degree of risk, difficulty and intellectual gymnastics required to do the job. Flatter organizations often make the advancement path more ambiguous, perhaps encouraging employees to look elsewhere to advance their careers.

  • Reporting Structures

Once organizations reach a certain size, clear communication becomes essential. Directors do not have time to read 1000s of emails, reports, complaints, comments and memos every day. Hierarchical structures offer some reporting control in large organizations, because a director can get reports from a senior management team, instead of from everyone. Again, this keeps the director focussed on high-level thinking and away from the everyday foibles of library work. Flatter structures can lead to confusion and interruption as “little fires” make their way to the director’s desk.

  • Internal Competition

When structures are set up with departmental silos, departments will compete against each other for access to the budget. That will increase their willingness to perform, and (believe or not) encourage innovation within the departments.

The same works for individuals. When two employees want the same higher level job, they will compete against each other to show they are the best person for the job. This can be an advantage and can encourage increased productivity.

  • Accountability

Hierarchies do tend to tie responsibility to individuals, who in turn are likely to respond to reports of poor performance, embarrassing mistakes, and accusations of unethical behavior. By contrast, flat organizations tend to diffuse responsibility to the group, in extreme cases to the point that no one is responsible for any disasters that happen.

  • Diversity

Hierarchical structures promote diversity. Diversity is essential in organizations. When I put a survey out to staff asking them for their feelings on specific problems or issues, the information I receive is extremely valuable because I get responses from people coming from a wide range of perspectives. Some see customers first-hand. Others are closer to the technical side of things. Even others (such as financial and HR people) have no full understanding about the daily operations of a library and have even more interesting perspectives on what should and should not be done.

Organizational flatness can reduce diversity in organizations because culture can take over, and sound out the dissenting voices.

Is Flatness a Bad Idea?

Flat organizations have their own strengths as well. Since I intend this article as a counter-point to the idea that Organizational Flatness is an ideal structure, I will not cover it in depth. You can probably guess the benefits anyway. Staff can have more stake in the organization’s success, more equal/equitable atmosphere, reduced protectionism among departments and so on. In fact, you could probably take the advantages of the hierarchical structure, take them to extreme and show how a flat structure is more efficient.

In the end, the point of this post is not to say that flatness is bad — just that flatness affords advantages that can help achieve certain strategic goals at the cost of other advantages that may be better for other goals.

Does the Library 2.0 movement suggest a move toward flatter structures? Here are some thoughts.

I think a Library 2.0 future implies the following about organizational structures in public libraries:

  • Web and technical service teams will necessitate more communication among service and technical departments and will grow on the whole. Research and Development will probably merge into this area as well.
  • As electronic media continues to grow and resources get easier to use, circulation departments are going to continue to decrease and/or merge into information services departments, resulting in flatter structures.
  • If laptops continue to get cheaper and wireless gains ground (not guaranteed yet), centralized technical support will diffuse into a more front-lines model. This is because libraries desktop hardware will require less maintenance (just replace the old machines with new ones) and laptop service will require a higher degree of support.
  • Teen and Youth services will continue to be their own “silos” in the long run. The skill sets are too unique to lose in a more diffuse structure.
  • Readers and Reference Services will tend to merge.
  • The roving model will lead to more “team” oriented work on the floor, but specialized services for business, government access and more personalized information management services will require “junior” and “senior” information service roles, similar to those found in Policy shops and consultancies.
  • Collaborative communication models via wikis, blogs, etc. will put a more human face on directors and make it easier for them to give and receive feedback from all levels of staff.
  • The same models will facilitate more cross-departmental communication as well.
  • Human Resources will have to communicate more clearly with technical people as well, since e-Learning (via Web tools and Learning 2.0-ish programs) will be key to future professional development of staff.

In sum, yes I do think the future will find libraries getting flatter as a whole. I say that these changes will probably “tip” somewhere between 2015 & 2020. This will not always be a very friendly process though, since it will involve changes in people’s job descriptions, pay-scale, reporting structures, and perhaps even employment. It is important to remember that change in the workplace is not all good. Many times change in the workplace also means change in home-life as people end up moving, re-skilling, and perhaps even making decisions about their future with the organization. We should be sensitive always to the consequences of change, even if the change is both necessary and inevitable.

Most importantly, we should ensure that due process is paid prior to decision making. Studies have clearly shown that people are more willing to accept, even an unfair distribution of work and pay if there was a fair process behind the decision making process.

Hi, I’m Canada?

I’m sorry if this is a change of pace from all my professional writing, but it has to be said in public.   Maybe there are more CBC-watching parents out there as well.

I love the CBC.   So does my son.   My son grew up on CBC Kids and has been enjoying for four years.   He still enjoys it. The only difference between now and about 2 months ago though, is that my son watches the CBC more for the line-up of shows than he does for the personalities that introduce them.

Patty Stewart, the lovely “Princess Patty” and “P.I. Patty” and a whole slew of other great characters beloved by both myself and my son is now reduced to a “straight” for a bunch of stupid puppets.   These puppets represent just about every stereotype you can find in Canada.   There is “Captain Claw” — a lobster with what appears to be a Cape Breton accent.    There’s a painter-puppet with a ridiculously fake French accent, who is the brunt of stupid French jokes (ie. he asks for “une pomme” and Sid (the other character — more about him later) brings him a “palm” tree.   Get it?  “Pomme?”  “Palm?” — a plum pun groaner if there ever was one!)    And then there’s this insane cooking lady puppet.

Gone are the tall geeky Mark, the lanky Kush, the lovely Holly and the jumpy Joyce.    Sure, there were some acting deficiencies among this group (especially compared to Patty), but there was enthusiasm, personality and maybe a little love for the education of pre-school children involved.

The new kid on the block, replacing the lot of these folks is Sid.   It’s hard to give Sid a fair shake.   He’s stuck in a show with horrid writing, bad set design and zero energy.   The most he or Patty can do is stand there with a stupid look on their faces while some lame puppet cracks some stupid joke.   It’s embarrassing.   Honestly.   Take a look for yourself.

Hi, I’m Canada?But if all this really sounds bad to you, it gets worse.   They have a pile of green puke to represent Canada.   Just look at her.   If you don’t believe that this is for real, just click on her.  For added reference I have added a *real* Canada so you can compare the two.

Maybe some of my United States readers can advise me on how easily a state-sponsored television program could get away with using green puke to represent your country?   Truly, this is an embarrassing outrage.

Hello, I’m Canada! I just don’t know how anyone could have approved this character for release, honestly.

The problem is, CBC Kids still hosts some great shows, including my favs Pinky Dinky Doo and Poko (the latter  is produced by Bowling for Columbine producer, Michael Donovan by the way).    Thank god for the private sector film industry — the CBC may survive this year yet.   But I’ll have to keep from throwing up in front of my son while this tripe of a bland — much like Treehouse bland — format for my kids daily cartoon insults the intelligence of our four-year-old kids.

Maybe people want bland and the CBC is tired of differentiating itself from other kids formats.   I guess that sucks for me.   Looks like I’ll be moving my kid to the internet for his learning sooner than I thought.

Learning 2.0 and away we go!

I’m happy to say that the Halifax Public Libraries have launched their Learning 2.0 program with quite a bit of fanfare, I am happy to say.   Jessamyn West, the ever-so-wonderful Librarian.net blogger helped us launch and she basically knocked everybody’s socks off.

After Jessamyn’s talk, we explained the program and then got people on laptops to play a little with some of the technology.   A few people got finished early, so I gave them some play-doh — which went with the theme of “play” that David Lee King  and Helene Blowers always talks about.

People are pretty enthusiastic about the project.   Even though the first two “things” are just about familiarizing yourself about Library 2.0 & the program, people are already starting their own blogs.

The other embarrassing thing was that people are using the search terms library 2.0 public libraries and getting my “top ten no-brainers” post, which wasn’t my intention at all.     In fact, I hope people look for other things to read and that’s why I provide Jennifer Macaulay’s small little library 2.0 bibliography chock full of excellent posts about making libraries a little more user-centered.