By Susan Corl, Head of Reference and Collection Services
Access is the foundation of everything we do in libraries. Just think about the reason we perform most library tasks, and I’ll bet access comes to mind for almost all of those duties. Access is why we exist, why we do what we do each day. However, when we think about providing access to patrons, we often just think about physical access and ADA requirements. If access is truly an underlying theme, we must broaden our understanding of it. To make this concept more manageable, it is helpful to think of it as serving the whole patron: cultural, intellectual, economical, as well as physical.
Meeting cultural needs involves going out into the community to determine the particular needs of the different groups residing in that community. This can be a daunting task, but paper and online surveys can assist with faster data collection. Partnering with the Chamber of Commerce or other local organizations can help with forming focus groups in order to collect more in-depth information. This process can also be coupled with strategic planning to guide the focus of your library.
Intellectual access involves the types of materials purchased for the library and how they are processed as well as the types of technological access available to patrons. Materials should be purchased and made available to patrons without bias. Self censorship, not purchasing or hindering access to library materials, is as much of a violation to ALA policy as censorship initiated from the community. Library staff must be sensitive to the intellectual needs and desires of patrons and work to provide quality materials for the library.
Access to technology and the Internet is necessary for many of our patrons; however, we often take this access for granted and do not assess the ease of which the technology is available. Think about how many barriers you have at your library before a patron is able to use a computer. Do patrons have to ask a librarian to use a computer, or can they merely sit down and begin using it? How many steps do they have to take at the computer in order to get to a browser or window? Are the computers private, or can everyone see what the patron has on the screen?
Economic barriers are always an access issue, but no more so than when there is a budget crunch. That’s when libraries consider charging for all types of services in order to make up for the lack of funding they are getting from the state or the county. The ALA does not support this practice for any libraries receiving public funding. Whenever possible, resources at the library should remain free. Charging fees often excludes the community members who need the library the most. If you ever consider charging a fee at your library, first think about why you are doing it and if you are excluding members of the community. Then, determine the amount of support these funds are giving to the library. Are they really making a difference in the big picture at the expense of access to your patrons?
Finally, physical access must always be considered. The library becomes irrelevant if patrons are unable to physically access the resources. Paying attention to ADA requirements is important, but you should also consider the comfort of patrons who visit your library. Are there plenty of places for people to sit and read, work or visit? Is the staff identified in some way and available to assist with patron questions or to direct patrons to their destinations? Are the meeting room and display policies inclusive and visible? The website should be considered a branch of the physical library and also measured for accessibility. Make sure the site is easily navigated and research resources such as the databases are readily available. This can be done through a detailed usability study or a simple, informal library questionnaire to give to patrons and staff.
Take a few minutes to think about the access needs of the “whole” patron at your library. Are you providing easy access so that your patrons feel comfortable culturally, intellectually, economically and physically? To check the Accessibility Temperature of your library, the Intellectual Freedom Committee at OLC has created an easy checklist. View it at http://olc.org/pdf/IFAccessibilityTemperatureTool.pdf and start making the library more accessible to your patrons today.
Susan Corl serves on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Ohio Library Council. You may view the slideshow from her presentation, “The Accessibility Temperature of Your Library”: http://www.slideshare.net/scorl/accesspres. This presentation was also recently offered as an OLC webinar. Access to the archived webinar is available for a modest fee at http://www.olc.org/WebinarArchive.asp. Follow the Intellectual Freedom Committee on Twitter: http://twitter.com/olcif for intellectual freedom news and committee resources, including upcoming enhancements to the Accessibility Temperature tool.