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.

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.

SurfaRSS? What is web design in a Surface-based Computer World?

Now that Microsoft has released a Surface based computer, I thought it was time that I thought about how people would actually use the thing. Sure the examples of moving pictures around and finger painting are kind of neat, but how does it get people to information?

Some of the things that immediately came to my mind have included:

  • AJAX or some derivative will rule because people will want to be able to move things around.
  • One improvement will have to be the ability to [easily] rotate & resize objects & pan around a page.
  • Thoughts about multiple-user access — how do you create web/internet spaces that multiple people will use?

The actual implications of a surface-based design are interesting, but here is my addition to the conversation. What about a kind of RSS-feed “lazy susan”? Here is a quick draft of a possible design.

So, you have that coffee table going on and you are reading the news with your friends. You all want to share the same news. So, here is a way to do it with the new interface. Maybe you would want to combine this with my Ajax-based federated search tool. So you search on one topic and it covers a whole lot of news that a bunch folks can go through and search, discover or whatever with your friends on the topic!

This sounds like a great opportunity for libraries if there ever was one. John Blyberg seems to agree. I think libraries should start imagining right now what the future of public internet access will look like in the next 5 years.

Getting to know you, getting to know all about you. . .


Thanks to all of you who tried the survey, so far.    I realized that I forgot “students” in the demographic information — apologies for that!    If you want to take the survey later, I will have a link to the survey on the right-hand column of the blog, in relative perpetuity (under contact the Other Librarian).


Since I’m going through a bit of writers block on this blog, I thought I’d just ask you what you think I should cover on _The Other Librarian_.

You can always comment here on the blog, but I thought a little 5 question survey should do the trick.

It’s anonymous (unless you decide to put your name in a comment section) and it’s fast. Go ahead and let me know what’s what!

The Crux of the Biscuit: Do I Believe in Libraries?

Probably three nights ago, I was reading to my three-year-old son like I always do before he goes to bed. This time, I read a non-fiction book called Amazing Creations . Basically, this is a primer that writes descriptions of some famous world landmarks like the Pyramids and Sphinx in Egypt and the Eiffel Tower.

I noted at least one factual error in the book — it includes the myth that the Great Wall of China can be seen from Outer Space.

It is fairly US-centric, including more than average US landmarks (Mt. Rushmore, the Golden Gate Bridge, Empire State Building etc.) and one of them caught my son’s eye: The Hoover Dam.

“Tell me more, about it Dad.” says he.

This is a hard thing. I know nothing about the Hoover Dam. That’s a US thing, that I might see if I’m in the vicinity and learn more about as a tourist. But I can’t say anything interesting about the dang thing. So my reply is:

“I think you will have to go to the library to learn more.”

And that decision right there has me thinking about the degree to which libraries are relevant in the Web 2.0 technology world. The Crux of the Biscuit here is this: Will telling my son to go to the library be more effective for his life-long-learning than telling him to look it up on the net. In a very superficial way, the answer is “no.” The Internet would be a much, much more efficient way to get the answer to his question. And indeed, if I didn’t already know that the library was part of his weekly routine, I probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelash at the Internet.

But in a more “thinking big picture way” I am emphatic that my son will have an advantage over other kids because I choose to say “go to the library.” I admit a bias here, but I have an experience that supports this theory. Here are six reasons I think sending a kid to the library to find out about stuff is better than telling him/her to look it up on the net.

  1. The Learning Environment
  2. An Other Mind
  3. Serendipity
  4. The Digi-Print Combo
  5. Creating a Learning Routine
  6. The Motivational Factor

The Learning Environment

If they are designed well, libraries will encourage learning. Everything from where the chairs are set to the kinds of symbols and toys placed around the building should foster a love of learning in a child. Compare this to the average bedroom, office or kitchen table. The home or office is a place to be productive.   That too, is the symbolism of the computer.  On a computer either you are playing games or doing work or that’s the attitude anyway.

Learning is neither playing or work. It should not be seen as frivolous nor should it be something that should be rushed.  Learning is a serious yet fun activity that helps a human being develop.  A library is designed to emphasize the fun-yet- serious aspect of learning.

When my son walked into the library, he paid homage to all his favorite things — the penguins who were dressed up for the cold now it was Winter and especially all the other kids in the place who were reading, learning and having fun too.   There was nothing productive nor wasteful about the experience.   It was a library visit — transcending a crass cost-benefit analysis.

An Other Mind

When I called this blog “The Other Librarian” I partly meant that the way to access true librarianship was to imagine an “Other” that could challenge opinions, destroy assumptions and keep a person second guessing about what it means to be “library”.

Diversity is an essential part of learning in my view and a Google search doesn’t cut it, or at least not on its own. In my view, there is an intrinsic value to asking someone else to help you with a search. If nothing else, the other person could end up using different search terms than those you might try yourself.

I am an auditory learner. This means I learn better when I can express my thoughts to someone else, even if they are only a “sounding board” for my ideas. That Other person is a godsend for this kind of learning style.

My son loved sharing that he wanted to know more about the Hoover Dam with library staff. Even more he enjoyed that they asked him questions to pin-point what he really wanted. The “other minds” there helped him get at his own desire for knowledge and that is something that Google could not do.


Actually, before my little guy asked for the information on the Hoover Dam, he first asked for a puzzle. Then he asked for a game so he could flick a spinner and count the squares to put him where he belonged on the board. Then he saw a book on Motor Graders and grabbed that for a while.  At this library visit, his learning was not restricted to a specific “information need” but developed into an information haven, where all the neurons in his head would snap, crackle and pop as he went from resource to resource.

Faceted searching aside, Dewey still does a great job of sexing up a search. Even though Amazon and Library Thing has book covers to attract people’s attention online, they do not have the diversity of shapes, colors, sizes and contasts that the physical library has. And there is a “slow” serendipity about the physical library too. After your average Library Thing session, I usually feel like I have a lot of catching up to do. After a library visit, I feel more satisfied and relaxed.

The Digi-Print Combo

There is nothing like using a computer with a good print resource on your lap. The library encourages this sort of multitasking better than the average home office.

After Mr. Hoover Dam got his book, he wanted to use a family computer. I didn’t have my card at the time, but I can just imagine sitting with him and comparing the book information to the Internet information. This is true triangulation of sources — a high-level research skill that he’s learning at three-years-old. Library-ho!

Creating a Learning Routine

It’s fairly simple. Get hooked on the three-week circulation cycle, and you have a darn good habit for yourself and all your family. This means that you can re-think what sources you will check every-so-often and, well, just remember to add some learning to all the other routines in your life.

We never get stuck in a rut of “favorite books” at any one time. Sure my guy has his favorite books and such, but we always have a helping of something different to try out. He’s always interested at story time.   I have the library to thank for that.

The Motivational Factor

Alot has been written about motivation in learning, especially in the e-learning environment. Keeping interested in learning is something that cannot really be forced. There has to be some kind of factor that keeps people chugging along with the life-long learning train. For some, this is the fear of bad marks or other sorts of failure. For my son, the motivation is seeing the big Arthur doll at the information desk, or having a bunch of staff dote over him.

For other people, the library can have a lot of motivational benefits. Love can be one. Coffee is another. A productive day on the laptop might be yet another. If the library is doing what it is supposed to be doing, you ought to want to come back time and time again. This means you are learning and liking it. Learning and liking it will make great things happen to you — you will be healthier, smarter, and a sucker less often.

So, do I believe in libraries, even in an age where the Internet is faster and references questions are becoming scarce? You betcha big time. As a citizen, I would fight to the death before letting a flippant “it’s all on the Internet” editorial destroy the reputation of the public library. It’s not all on the Internet. Anyone who says it is needs to get out [to the library] more.

What Sold Me? Shinerama and Public Library 2.0

A story:

I walked down Coburg Rd, which turns into Spring Garden Rd in Halifax NS. If you have lived in this town for any amount of time, you know that walking down Coburg Rd on the day after Labour Day means you are going to meet Shinerama folks — new college kids on every corner asking you for a donation to the Cystic Fybrosis Foundation.

I always give to Shinerama — usually a loonie or a toonie or so. But this day was different. I had two 10s in my pocket. 10 bucks was too much to give, so I intended to visit the local coffee shop to buy a coffee and make change. As I walked past, a young woman looked at me.

“Look guys,” she said to the group of volunteers. “We’re missing all these people.”

I spoke up and pointed to the coffee shop nearby. “I’m going there and then I’m coming right back here.”

“I’m staying here until you get back!” A young man interjected.

“It’s a deal!” I said. I came back with a $5 bill and a half-dozen cookies for the volunteers.

The volunteers were really surprised and thankful. I didn’t think it was that big a deal. It’s a little shameful when charity volunteers are surprised by such a small donation. But something they did “upped” me to double-plus the donation I usually give. I’m not completely sure, but I thought some reflection could be relevant to leadership in libraries.

What sold me on this transaction?

  • The Cause? Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I don’t think CF was important in my decision. I think the cause would have mattered for a larger donation, but in this “sell” situation, the cause could have been anything.
  • “Because They Were There?” Time and Place are definitely a factor. As my wife always says, “80 per cent of success is just showing up.” But “showing up” normally gets people a twoonie (a 2-dollar coin), not a fiver and cookies.
  • Marketing? I think this played a big factor as well. Not only did I know that Shinerama happens after labour day, but I passed by a couple of Shineramers before I met these guys. Being aware of who they are and how they operate was a definite plus to the decision.
  • Enthusiasm and Dedication? Also a factor, but again just worth a twoonie. Shineramers are always enthusiastic and fun — they have their faces painted, funny costumes and the like and they really get into the project. I think the enthusiasm is targetted at getting attention from friends, but it’s going to be win-win if it gets them donations.
  • The Guy who Said “I’m staying here. . .?” This one was the clincher, but the real question is “why?” Upon reflection, I think this is the answer: his reply said two important things essential to good leadership. 1) I hold you accountable for your promise and 2) I’m going to put my neck out for it. In a short phrase he turned a giver-receiver relationship into a team relationship. We were now partners in the Cystic Fybrosis cause, and I brought cookies to show that I cared for the team members. My responsibility for the rest of the day was to show my donor sticker proudly and cheer on the rest of the volunteers.

Why should this matter to libraries? Well, while working in a library, you get the feeling that you are providing service for customers. They pay the taxes, you provide the goods and the deal is done and finished.

I wonder if there are little phrases that we can put into our customers heads that say “no no, wait, we are a team for the life-learning cause.” I think this is a big deal. Reading , learning, using a computer or doing research does more than bring numbers to the library.

Using a library for whatever reason makes a person happier, healthier, and more knowledgable. It sets a model for others to follow. This has a positive benefit on society, not just on the individual. It is one enjoyable thing in the world that does not have to be work.
Sometimes I think we are stuck in a dichotomy between “are we an obligation (like a public service) or a transaction (like a business)”? The truth is that public libraries may be neither. Maybe Library 2.0 says “libraries are not a benefit to society — library users [in all their many manifestations] are.”

The Library 2.0 funding strategy: We don’t need more funding for libraries — we need more funding for library users!