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Library Accessibility After the COVID-19 Pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, we cheer ourselves by thinking of future socializing in-person. We also think about returning to work or activities we love. These hopes help us through the challenges of physical distancing. Moreover, these challenges show us that we can be more flexible or more creative than we thought we could. For instance, organizations, from media outlets to stores, have adapted to new ways of providing information during the pandemic. Many of these adaptations are also practices that make information more accessible for viewers with disabilities. More information is being offered online, in accessible formats, or with communication supports. In the post-COVID-19 future, more people may recognize the value of adapting information to meet citizens’ diverse needs. Consequently, cities and towns may want to improve their library accessibility after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Library Accessibility After the COVID-19 Pandemic

When libraries re-open, workers will need to adjust to new protocols ensuring public safety. For example, when people return books, staff will not reshelve them right away. Instead, staff may need to wait several days before touching the books. Alternatively, libraries may work with publishers to offer more copies of digital media, such as ebooks or digital audio. Similarly, rules for library programming may also change. For instance, programming may be:

  • In-person, but open to fewer people because of physical distancing requirements
  • Online, through video-conferencing

In short, libraries will need to adapt in order to continue serving the public during the later stages of the pandemic. In the same way, libraries can adapt just as proactively to make their programs and services more accessible to patrons who have disabilities.

Materials and Resources

Under the Information and Communications Standards of the AODA, public libraries must offer accessible-format versions of resources, such as:

  • Literature
  • Music
  • Reference works
  • Dramatic or artistic works
  • Archival materials
  • Special collections
  • Rare books
  • Donated materials

When possible, libraries should have their own copies of resources in accessible formats, such as:

  • Braille
  • Large print
  • Audio
  • Accessible digital files, such as ebooks or digital audio
  • Described video

Alternatively, libraries can partner with the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA) or the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS), organizations that make works available in these formats for patrons with print disabilities.

When librarians plan to buy new books or subscribe to new publications, they should try to find copies in accessible formats. Moreover, when librarians are choosing online resources to subscribe to or partner with, they should create partnerships with websites that comply with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.

Training Staff

Libraries must ensure that their staff are trained to interact with patrons who have disabilities. Staff should understand how to communicate with patrons, both in person and remotely. In addition, staff should know where accessible content is shelved as well as how patrons can access library materials in alternative ways, such as:

  • through the library website
  • from other branches
  • from CELA or NNELS

In addition, staff should know how to provide a welcoming experience for patrons if their branches are lacking certain structural features. For instance, staff should:

  • Retrieve resources from inaccessible sections or floors upon request
  • Know where the nearest accessible washrooms are
  • Offer remote service for patrons who cannot enter the space

Accessible Equipment and Services

In addition, libraries can offer a variety of equipment that will allow all patrons to use computers on-site. Staff should also know how their libraries’ accessible computer equipment works. This knowledge allows them to help first-time patrons learn the basics or troubleshoot if computers malfunction, the same way they help non-disabled patrons using their computers.

Similarly, libraries can offer communication devices for patrons to use on-site, such as assistive listening devices or communication boards.

Accessible Programs

Moreover, libraries can make their premises and programs accessible to patrons of all abilities. Some accessible set-ups and services libraries could implement include:

  • Wide aisles between shelves and tables
  • Programs that include communication supports like Sign language interpretation or captioning
  • Quiet study or work spaces

Contact Information

Finally, libraries should provide multiple contact methods for patrons to get in touch with them, including:

  • Phone and teletypewriter (TTY) numbers
  • email addresses
  • Accessible online catalogues for ordering resources, and contact forms on websites

In the coming weeks, library staff will likely develop new ways to serve the public in response to COVID-19. They will be using new rules and procedures to solve the problems the pandemic has posed for their staff and patrons. Therefore, library boards and staff can use the same strategies in the future to offer more library accessibility after the COVID-19 pandemic.