Print disability? Library has the key

Campus students with print disabilities now hold keys to the campus’s vast library collections, under a landmark agreement finalized last month. The negotiated agreement between UC Berkeley and Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit legal group, establishes a system for providing more timely access to print materials converted to alternative-media formats.

book being scanned

Student employee Alex Lim scans a book requested by a young scholar with a print disability, using a digitization system developed by the library. (Cathy Cockrell/NewsCenter photo)

The new system, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, allows students with print disabilities — conditions such as blindness, dyslexia, even paralysis that prevents them from turning the pages of a book — to request free conversion of a specific library book or journal. The library has agreed to convert the text to alternative-media format within an average of five business days.

The settlement arose from a complaint by three Berkeley students who said they were stymied academically by their limited access to library materials.

“Getting accessible course materials … is essential to have an equal chance at academic success,” said David Jaulus, one of the students involved, of the May 7 settlement. Another, Brandon King, said that “having access to library materials for the first time, in a format where I can enjoy the reading at a decent pace, is priceless.”

The NewsCenter spoke recently with Beth Dupuis, associate university librarian, about the new print-conversion service and other digital-age challenges facing the University Library, which has some 11 million volumes in its collections.

Q.  When students approached the library about making its print materials accessible, what was the library’s reaction?

A.  We saw a really interesting and significant need that was critical for us to address to give all Berkeley students the opportunity for research that we say is so important here. Graduate education requires this. And, regardless of major, undergraduate students are likely to get at least one assignment that encourages them to choose their own research topic, explore new ideas that are interesting to them personally. The students were saying, “I want to use library collections to do research, but you need to find a way to unlock them for me.”

But we wondered — how do we support this? We didn’t even have the kind of scanners required to scan whole books, page by page, with the kind of care that’s needed not to ruin the binding. And then you need to do an optical character recognition (OCR) cleanup, going through the electronic file to make sure that the computer — in translating from the printed page — has gotten the words and letters correct.

Beth Dupuis

Beth Dupuis, associate university librarian (Cathy Cockrell/NewsCenter photo)

Q.  And if the book is in Hindi, say, how do you assure that it’s been rendered accurately?

A.  That’s an issue. The Library has books in hundreds of languages in our collection. If it’s in a foreign language, we have to find someone who knows the language to help with the OCR. Some library staff are fluent in multiple languages, as are students, student employees and faculty. So far, we haven’t had to go beyond the Berkeley community to ask for assistance. But I’m sure someday we will, depending on what people ask us to scan.

Q.  What other issues did you encounter in trying to come up with a system to serve students with print disabilities?

A.  During the pilot period, working with a small group of three or four students, we scanned about eight books. From that experience we started to get a sense of special issues about alternative formats. Currently about 60 percent of the materials the library buys are in electronic format. But not all of those items come in an electronic format that has OCR under it, ready to be read by a screen reader, for people with print disabilities.

There were many hurdles, especially the logistics. What’s going to be our process for getting the right books to the scanning site in Moffitt? How do we scan them in a timely way, and in the format that particular students need for the software tools they use for their disability? Because it’s not just one size fits all. Meeting this need might not seem like it should be very complicated, but it is when you consider the size of our collection, the variety of formats, and trying to design an optimal system for handling both the physical item and its alt-media version.

Q.  What about training library staff on the new system?

A.  Training is definitely an important part of the equation. The University Library, which signed on to this agreement for scanning services, has more than two dozen locations – Doe and Moffitt, but also most of the campus’s subject-specialty libraries, such as bioscience, engineering, business, music. So we need to make sure that all staff in all our library locations understand this special service for students who are certified by the Disabled Students Program. And not just career staff; we hire a lot of student employees.They all need to understand what this service is about, and that timeliness is really important.

Q.  How do you coordinate with the Disabled Students Program?

A.  DSP handles all the authorizations, as to who is eligible for this service. We worked out a way to have those authorizations noted in a student’s campus record, flagging that they’re eligible for this scanning service.

Read more about landmark pact on print disabilities and the library

Library Journal article
L.A. Times article

Q.  It sounds as if you approached this request with interest, despite the challenges.

A.  Well, you hear reports of a growing number of people with documented print disabilities. If that’s the case, it’s not really an exception. It’s just a new user population; it’s a need we haven’t really addressed before.The solution we’ve come up with is a testament to the commitment of our staff. This was a great opportunity for us – to see how we could stitch together a new service with expertise from various parts of the Library, to create something that a lot of us are really proud of, and at a time when the library was going through significant budget reductions.

A.  And I believe you’re also sharing these files with HathiTrust, a collection of millions of titles digitized from libraries worldwide.

Q.  Yes. HathiTrust is built from the contributions of many research libraries, who partnered in the Google book scan — the UC campuses and U Michigan and other universities. The UCs work through the California Digital Library to share materials with the HathiTrust. Over time we’ll be able to build this repository. But with limitations due to file formats and copyright, it’s not like magically, right now, there are millions of items available.

Q.  Libraries must grapple all the time with a demand for digitized materials. How, for instance, do you navigate the growth of online-education — especially massive open online courses, or MOOCs?

A.  The UC Berkeley Library has been involved in instruction, and in supporting campus courses, for decades. Traditional college courses have an instructor, a specified schedule, tests and a list of enrolled students; that’s true, too, of our online-degree programs, such as the one offered by the School of Public Health. Libraries are used to providing access to collections for course reserves and research projects, and librarians work with instructors and students directly.

North Reading Room

North Reading Room, Doe Library (Steve McConnell/NewsCenter photo)

When Berkeley signed on with the edX consortium, we asked ourselves “How should the Library support MOOCs?” A MOOC is a more amorphous online-learning experience. There may be tens of thousands of people taking a MOOC at one time. Unlike students taking a course for credit, people who sign up for MOOCs say they do so for many reasons — exploring a new area, learning something with a friend, testing their skills, and so on. It is reported that only a small percentage of people generally finish a course and all related coursework, though the opportunity for inexpensive, informal learning is a benefit itself.

This is a dynamic new world. As librarians we’re cognizant of copyright laws and interpretations of fair use with regard to course readings. The MOOC model really pushes the boundary; current courses may seem more like a get-together or a conference, as opposed to a traditional college course. But MOOCs are not all alike and the model is evolving.

So currently we are exploring how to help MOOC instructors think about the content they need for their courses to be effective. Like other research libraries, we encourage faculty to use open educational resources when possible. What’s freely out there that meets their learning goals? Often the person who teaches a MOOC is an expert in their field, and may have published an important book in their discipline. Looking ahead, there are fresh ways to think about the works they have created and how to make them available to students.

I do think it’s important for the library to be engaged with MOOCs as they develop. For example, how could libraries leverage the MOOC environment to develop a global citizenry with improved critical thinking, information literacy, and research skills? We’d like people to become more sophisticated information users, better at judging what kind of content they’re looking at, having a sense of what’s shaping the information they’re able – and unable – to access.

Q.  As so much is going digital and online, what are young students’ expectations of you today? What is their approach to books and reading?

Every generation of new students brings in a fresh perspective about what they think should be standard, on campus, in the library, as part of their academic world. At Berkeley a surprising number of students still do read. Nationally you hear a lot of reports about the decline of reading. But here it seems like reading is a shared interest, whether it’s a printed book or online.

That speaks to me, that we are part of a very engaged, inquisitive community and that whatever format we choose to deliver to people — whether it’s fiction or nonfiction or documentary or primary-source material — there’s a thirst for what we’re providing. What’s most important to us in the library is to keep a diversity of perspectives and viewpoints and languages and histories within our collection, and that they remain accessible to people as they do research projects now and in the future.