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Equality of Access

By Lorna Brown, Consultant and Sarah Ormes, UKOLN, on behalf of EARL, the Library Association and UKOLN

An issue paper from the Networked Services Policy Taskgroup
Series Editor: Sarah Ormes, UKOLN


The link between technology and equality arises from the role of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) as enablers for political, social and economic forces within our society. The advocacy and adoption of ICT as the medium through which government services, educational resources and information are directed to encourage greater social, economic and democratic participation are now well established. The challenge for libraries is to pull together the disparate strands of legislation, influential reports and initiatives that highlight issues of equality and inclusion and integrate them into their services, including ICT-based services.

The current policy framework

The current policy framework for equality of access to networked services is both complex and confusing. The following diagram shows just some of the external policy influences currently affecting public libraries.

In Our Information Age (1999) [1] the Government set out its vision for increasing skill levels and employability in the context of the emerging technologies. Its approach was that

"the many must benefit, not just the few. A society of information have-nots would not just be unfair ~ it would be inefficient."

Since then the National Grid for Learning (1998) [2] together with the University for Industry [3] and the Public Library Network (1997) have emerged as major channels through which individuals can participate and contribute to a society in which learning is increasingly accessible and adaptable to individual needs.

Barriers to full participation in the wider society by specific groups and communities have been highlighted by the McPherson Report, the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) and current debates on Clause 28. 

The divide between the rich and poor has been brought to the fore by the cost of access to the Internet. The role of public libraries in meeting the emerging needs and strategies has been highlighted in the guidelines on Social Inclusion and Annual Library Plans. Both have emphasized the importance of the library as a focus within the community for access to information (including online information) and a potential focus for community empowerment and development.

The need for libraries to respond as cultural and social institutions has laid bare underlying social and economic divisions between users and non-users and the lack of universality in public library services. In their report Public Libraries, Ethnic Diversity and Citizenship (1998) [4] Roach and Morrison question whether the simple espousal of principles of universality and equality of treatment are either sufficient or appropriate in diverse contexts. Instead they argue for a vision based on the principles of pluralism and citizen engagement; a vision which unites the twin principles of equality and diversity.

In 1993 the Commission on Social Justice [5] saw equality in terms of: 

  • the foundation of a free society is the equal worth of all its citizens
  • everyone is entitled as a right of citizenship, to be able to meet his or her basic needs.
  • the right to self respect and personal autonomy demands the widest possible spread of opportunities
  • not all inequalities are unjust, but unjust inequalities should be reduced and where possible eliminated.

How accessible are the computers in your library? [7]

The first steps towards access

  • Have the library staff examined their facility to determine if there are existing accessibility problems? 
  • Have the library staff surveyed library users to determine the range of physical and cultural access needs? 
  • Does the library have a staff member in charge of disability access? 
  • Is accessibility an integral component of the overall service development plan?
  • Does the library have a plan for disability access inside and outside the library? 

How is access is provided?

  • Is there a computer designated as accessible to persons with disabilities? 
  • If yes, does it include:
    • A table and keyboard tray that are adjustable? 
    • A colour computer monitor, 20 inch or larger? 
    • Screen reading software and either a sound card or speech synthesizer with speech output? 
    • Screen enlargement software? 
    • Signs designating the computer or computer workstation as accessible? 
    • Is there a library staff member available to help persons with disabilities use the accessible computer or computer workstation? 
  • If there is not a computer or computer workstation designed to be accessible to a broad range of users, have any computers been modified to meet the needs of specific users? 

Problems with access

  • Are you aware of anyone who has experienced problems accessing the Internet in a public library because of a disability? 
  • If yes, has the library taken steps to provide that individual access?

The People's Network and equality of access

Equality may be addressed in public libraries in the context of networked services through the key areas of access to resources, the creation of content and the role of the library in facilitating the empowerment of individuals by imparting the skills required to access and interpret information.

The declaration from the Library and Information Commission in 1998 [6] in response to consultation on the National Grid for Learning and the Peoples Network acknowledged:

"The grid should reflect all parts of the community throughout the UK. The gap between the information rich and the information poor should be narrowed and, eventually, closed. The needs of people with disabilities, the geographically isolated, and the poor must all be catered for. The grid should also embrace the nature of our multiracial society."

The challenges 


In a networked environment access to resources may be either from the library, the home, workplace or other community access points such as an Internet cafe, school or community centre. Therefore access must be addressed in terms of the ability of the individual (irrespective of age, gender, geographic location, social or cultural background) to access resources within as well as outside the walls of the library. Factors that may inhibit access include:

  • Lack of physical access to technology
    for example the non-provision of disabled access, or geographical isolation, or the lack of personal ownership of technology.
  • Limited choice of public library users of how, where and when to access resources. 
    For the majority of users access is still largely determined by the opening hours of static service points. The current trend to reduce opening hours and the number of service points further accentuates this problem. In addition, the low level of technology applied to their services restricts the users of mobile and housebound services, for example off-line circulation and catalogue systems
  • The standard set-up of keyboard, 14 inch monitor and mouse may not address the needs of people with learning difficulties or disabilities that affect dexterity, hearing, vision, stretching and reaching. Although there are alternatives to this model, the options are costly. Systems may require customization and the supply of products is more likely to be from third-party vendors who are largely outside the regular distribution channels of the industry
  • Economic factors such as the financial cost to the end user in accessing services either in the library or from home may also deter access.
    The 1998 Household Library Use Survey [8] found that cost was a prohibitive factor in access to the Internet. The advent of free services and digital broadcasting has given rise to the suggestion that eventually there will be free universal access to the Internet. Even so, these developments by themselves will not address exclusion brought about by poverty and life choices people may need to make in order to exist. Free communication access does not in itself guarantee access to all areas of content where the cost of access to the content is an issue
  • The People's Network assumes a sharing of resources through connectivity. 
    The achievement of this objective may depend on the ability of public library service budgets to meet the challenge of updating their technology and sustain development in the face of rapid technological change. This applies also to the software and services on offer to the end user
  • Tension between local and global needs will require consideration. 
    This may be resolved in the adoption of common standards for the creation of content and in building the infrastructure. Issues around administration such as charging, copyright, patenting, security and demand may also act as barriers to access.


The growth and development of the Internet in the West and in particular the United States have ensured that the majority of its content is in the English language. In turn the development of European multilingual software is not widely promoted and much effort is required to track resources as they become available. This linguistic bias is supported by the underlying technology of systems that are based on the Latin character set. 

In a multicultural society with increasing globalization of culture consideration should be given to the provision of systems to incorporate other language character sets, to produce intelligent results in searching across different language sets, and the resources to create content in different languages. This may be either as original material or in translation. 

Access may also be influenced by the adoption of standards to describe data and for effective retrieval. The development of metadata standards to address the issue of interoperability between applications that exchange machine understandable information on the Web has gone some way to resolving some of the issues. Metadata sets can be used in resource discovery to improve the capabilities of search engines. Content rating in, for example, cases of child protection and privacy could be used to describe the intellectual property rights of Web pages, in cataloguing content and resource discovery.

The capability to replace dumb terminals with a PC or Mackintosh as On-line Public Access Terminals (OPACs) with a graphical user interface has increased the scope and richness for the display and publishing of traditional and newly created resources. It is now possible to add video, photographs and sound to standard text. Even so the quality of web page design may affect the ability of end users to access services. This may apply to users seeking to access services via text-readers, and less powerful and up-to-date hardware and software. Access may prove costly and frustrating due to the length of time taken to download large graphic files and the poor display of pages.

Quick tips for accessible web design [9]

Images & animations. Use the alt attribute to describe the function of each visual.

Image maps. Use client-side MAP and text for hotspots.

Multimedia. Provide captioning and transcripts of audio, and descriptions of video.

Hypertext links. Use text that makes sense when read out of context. For example, avoid "click here."

Page organization. Use headings, lists, and consistent structure. Use CSS for layout and style where possible.

Graphs & charts. Summarize or use the longdesc attribute.

Frames. Use NOFRAMES and meaningful titles.

Tables. Make line by line reading sensible. Summarize.

Check your work. Validate. Use tools, checklist, and guidelines at


The reinvention of the role of the library worker in the information society is partially dependent on the acquisition of new skills and competencies in the use of information technology. The anticipated outcome is that these skills will enable library staff to facilitate access to others. The standard of training and requirements to develop technical skills will largely be determined by the criteria laid down by the New Opportunities Fund [10] as well as changes in technology. 

For training to be inclusive it must be delivered through a variety of methods to accommodate different learning styles that may arise out of cultural, linguistic or individual differences. How will libraries create the learning environment necessary to the individual requirements either of its employees or customers? Will there be opportunities for co-operative learning? Will training include a mix of high-level thinking and problem solving in addition to repetitive low-level instructions? Will existing organizational structures and management skills be sufficient to bring about the environmental transformation required for inclusive learning?

Success may depend not only on an increase in technical competencies but on the ability to:

  • manage change
  • integrate and implement quality assurance mechanisms for services and content provided
  • demonstrate in practical terms an understanding of equality issues and an awareness of the issues around human computer interaction
  • develop and sustain local partnerships and dialogues with communities in order to deliver the strategy.

Library staff will need to work hard at attracting and retaining new customers in a highly competitive environment. Learners may no longer be confined to one institution or method of learning and will be able to choose and identify which of the available outlets best fit their individual learning needs. Institutions may fail to attract an inclusive and loyal user base if services are delivered without an understanding of and openness to the very groups they wish to include. Library services may therefore need to become more trusting and attuned to the needs and aspirations of groups and individuals they serve.


The principle of design for all is crucial to the concept of inclusion. For example, the provision of screen-readers and improvements to physical access, although directed at meeting the needs of client groups with visual impairment or lower-limb disabilities, may also appeal to others who may want to rest their eyes and parents with young children. Services that may be essential for one set of users may be seen as adding value to others who benefit indirectly. Planned improvements should be comprehensive and reflect a co-ordinated approach to the issue of social inclusion. Initiatives should ideally be integral to overall service plans and linked to the service mission and objectives. In this way the public library can establish itself as a central place within the community where access to IT resources may be seen to add value enriching the environment and widening participation.

Further information 

Inclusive Technology contains articles, information about products, and services for people with special needs

Microsoft site dedicated to all aspects of accessibility.

SEMERC/Granada Learning site contains a section 
on special needs

AbilityNet ~ Computability Centre and Foundation for Communication for the Disabled

Pia Print, Braille and software publishing solutions

Royal National Institute for the Blind with useful links to other sites

Checklist for accessible software

Sun Microsystems Enabling Technologies Program

Current World Wide Web Consortium recommendations for disabled user accessibility can be found at

The accessibility of Web pages (your own and others) may be tested by using the Centre for Applied Technology (CAST) Web site. The site will provide a report and test for conformity to the Web Content Accessibility guidelines

Metadata standards adopted for a description of the machine understandable schema

Metadata standards for the Dublin Core elements which provide an economic alternative to the use of full MARC description for Web content. 


[1] Our Information Age

[2] National Grid for Learning

[3] University of Industry

[4] Roach, P. and Morrison, M. Public Libraries, Ethnic Diversity and Citizenship. British Library 1998

[5] Commission on Social Justice. The Justice Gap. Institute for Public Policy Research: London 1993

[6] Declaration from the Library and Information Community. Library Association 1998

[7] Texas Assistive Technology Partnership ~ Library Internet Access for Persons with Disabilities

[8] Household Library Use Survey. Book Marketing Research 
Publications 1998

[9] Quick Tips on Web Page Accessibility from W3C

[10] New Opportunities Fund

[11] Disabilities Discrimination Act 1995


This is one of a series of issue papers which will be produced by the EARL Networked Services Policy Taskgroup. UKOLN, the Library Association and EARL member libraries participate in the taskgroup. Queries about the issue papers series should be addressed to Penny Garrod, the project manager for the initiative:

Penny Garrod
The University of Bath
Bath BA1 7AY

Telephone: 01225 826711

UKOLN is funded by the Resource, the Joint Information Systems Committee of the Higher and Further Education Funding Councils, as well as by project funding from the JISC's Electronic Libraries Programme and the European Union. UKOLN also receives support from the University of Bath where it is based.

EARL: The Consortium for Public Library Networking The Library Association UKOLN