Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Justin M. White.
A post by the net librarian was making the rounds on Tumblr a while back and caught my eye. It was short, so I’ll quote most of it here:
As a public librarian, a lot of my job is writing. Copy for websites, computer class handouts, signage, etc. It’s critical that librarians know what language patrons understand. Unfortunately a lot of tech stuff doesn’t use accessible language.
There’s a copier in one of the libraries I work at which has an error message that pops up often which says “insert key counter”. I’m sure this is precise and accurate language to the programmer who wrote the error message, but it really doesn’t mean anything. After trial and error it means you forgot to put money in, so the copier won’t work. But how is the average patron supposed to figure that out?
I subsequently discovered that there’s a surprising lack of discussion about this in the library literature, but what does exist is very promising. Adriene Lim wrote “The Readability of Information Literacy Content on Academic Library Web Sites” back in 2010, which analyzed the readability of library website content that was designed to provide basic research instruction. While most of the libraries surveyed scored well in accessibility of language, some were far more complicated. This is of particular concern for librarians like myself who are working with large populations of ESL and first-generation students.
Here is an actual example of an error message an ESL student in my library had trouble with:
Note that there isn’t a field called “Help Explanation”, but rather a “Describe the kind of help” section. The error message was generated, in this instance, by a space being the first character in the field. As far as the student knew, there was some other field called Help Explanation that wasn’t being filled out, leading them to frantically search the page in vain.
The LibPunk podcast addressed the issues of communication between librarians and IT staff in its final episode. One important point brought up was the difference in focus: a fix from IT might be well done, but does it have the user in mind? Librarians can have the same blindsides: the example brought up was catalogers who make records without the user in mind.
Another article, “ESL Library Skills: An Information Literacy Program for Adults with Low Levels of English Literacy”, focused on the range of information literacy programs for ESL populations. Libraries are overwhelmingly in the ESL education business, and those users are going to require dependable and accessible technology as their English language skills grow.
Take note of the messages your library technology gives you. Are they indecipherable? Would they be accessible to an ESL student, or a student with below-average reading levels? Take a look at the messages you create for your library: the sticky note on the copier that explains some workaround. Is your note actually making things worse by putting a wall of text in front of the interface? Do you utilize non-text instructional materials in your LibGuides, or do the words tower over anxious ESL readers? Is your website content intuitive and clearly written out?
As librarians we push access as part of our professional goals. No librarian should be making their content and technology less accessible on purpose, but keeping the effect of the language we use in our minds as we go throughout our careers can lead to some very simple yet effective solutions.
Justin is an accidental technical services librarian at Hodges University in Florida. His interests usually revolve around library/archival technology, history, and information literacy, and reblogging photos of bunnies on all known social media outlets.