Academic Libraries Leading the Way in Accessibility

The LEAD Award

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As higher education institutions provide more than just legally required accessibility and disability services, they could find guidance from their own academic libraries, who are often at the forefront of this field. From digital resources and sensory spaces to personalized assistance, many academic libraries prioritize creating an environment where all members of the academic community can thrive, ensuring equal access to information. 

The inaugural Insight Into Diversity Library Excellence in Access and Diversity (LEAD) Award recognizes academic libraries who are advancing programs and initiatives that support DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) in areas such as research, accessibility, community outreach, technology, exhibitions, and collections.

Binghamton University, New York

The Glenn G. Bartle Library Tower at Binghamton University. (Photo courtesy of Binghamton University, State University of New York)

By providing inclusive access to resources that champion diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as building collections reflective of a wide range of viewpoints and perspectives, the Binghamton University Library Office of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility (IDEA) ensures their employees and patrons are able to, as their mission states, “safely present their authentic selves.” What began in 2020 as a coalition of library professionals who came together in response to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and others, with the goal of dismantling oppression within the institution, has been channeled into the Office of IDEA’s passionate pursuit of accountability, collaboration, and transparency.

American University, Washington D.C. 

American University Library (AUL) is a founding member of the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) Diversity Alliance, a program built on the commitment of participating libraries whose focus is strengthening the hiring and retention practices of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in academic and research library positions. AUL seeks out diverse applicants for their open positions through strategic networking and posting on job boards that have a proven mission to amplify diversity, equity, and inclusion. Serving as an advising resource to other institutions who join the Diversity Alliance program, AUL maintains their unwavering commitment to, as their Diversity Statement says, “an ongoing process and aim to engage in diversity and inclusion as more than just numeric representation.”

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

A statewide panel discusses strategies for promoting family literacy in Indiana at the
2023 inaugural Libraries & Literacy Symposium, hosted by IUPUI University Library.

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) is home to the Purdue University Library Center for Digital Scholarship, whose mission is to “remove barriers to global participation in a knowledge commons and build a more diverse, equitable, and sustainable system of scholarly communication.” Their initiatives are rooted in the University Library Open Values Statement, which emphasizes a commitment to open knowledge and the belief that access to and creation of resources should be available to people of every educational level, geographical location, organizational affiliation, socioeconomic status, and racial or ethnic identity. Accordingly, the IUPUI community is supported in generating open resources, and efforts are made to ensure equitable access to these resources, not only for Indiana residents but for the world.

Purdue University, Indiana 

When Mark Puente was appointed as the inaugural dean for organizational development, inclusion and diversity for the Purdue Libraries and School of Information Studies in 2020, his newly created position was a first among Big Ten university libraries. An innovative and exemplary step toward advancing the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion, Purdue remains one of only three Big Ten universities currently elevating a similar position. In the years since Puente took on the role, Purdue says, “our emphasis on DEI-related recruitment, hiring, retention, professional development and training, campus and community partnerships, and collections-building have expanded, and will continue to do so.”

San Diego Mesa College, California

San Diego Mesa College embedded equity and engagement librarian, Edeama Onwuchekwa.

When students in Black Studies began requesting class visits and research partnerships, San Diego Mesa College Library responded by developing an embedded equity and engagement librarian, an initiative designed to support underserved and disproportionately impacted student groups. The embedded equity and engagement librarian introduces students to library resources and develops their information literacy skills early in their academic careers, and is currently serving over 350 Black Studies students through research sessions and class visits. Additionally, the initiative led to the creation of a Black Studies Guide that has been accessed more than 2,550 times in the last year alone, more than any other library guide.

Simmons University, Boston

Students work in the reference library at Simmons University.

In recognition of the challenges facing students from underrepresented groups who seek an advanced degree in library science, Simmons University Library Fellowship Program was developed. This program offers a fellowship in library science, which includes tuition coverage and a full-time library staff position with salary and benefits, to qualified, newly enrolled graduate students pursuing a master of science in library information services at simmons. Designed to be an immersive academic and professional experience that “emphasizes learning through doing,” eligible candidates include those who are first-generation students, come from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, or have attended a Minority-Serving Institution.

University of North Carolina at Charlotte 

One of the many ways the University of North Carolina at Charlotte J. Murrey Atkins Library exemplifies a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is through the use of their Atkins Library Diversity Fund. Earmarked to support not only the exhibit costs and speaker fees associated with providing diverse programming, the fund also ensures access to training programs and enhancing collections, initiatives that are strategically “aimed at advancing awareness and positive action on DEIA [diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility] topics for the library, campus, and local communities.”

University of Colorado Colorado Springs

Storytelling Professor ‘Ilaheva Tua’one, PhD reading at the PURR Storytelling Hour.

To advance their ongoing mission to provide resources and “an environment that encourages scholarship, creativity and intellectual freedom, while supporting the diverse needs of all users,” the University of Colorado Colorado Springs Kraemer Family Library created an endowed Storytelling Professor position, currently held by assistant professor of Native American and Indigenous studies, ‘Ilaheva Tua’one, PhD. The position, which rotates every three years, provides an interdisciplinary opportunity for community engagement and celebration of a diverse range of storytelling histories and experiences.

New York University (NYU) Libraries, a recipient of the LEAD Award, has a wide range of programs and resources available to campus community members with disabilities. This includes a variety of digital accessibility services, which allow those with visual, hearing, or other sensory impairments to gain access to alternative forms of textbooks and other reading materials that meet the needs of that individual. As a member of the HathiTrust Digital Library, a wide-scale repository of digital books and research that includes more than 200 research and academic libraries, NYU Libraries provides access to digital versions of copyrighted materials to students with visual or physical disabilities that inhibit print reading, such as blindness, dyslexia, arthritis, or Parkinson’s disease. 

NYU Libraries is also home to three adaptive computing labs equipped with specialized hardware and software to serve the needs of individuals with various sensory disabilities. The labs include tools like Kurzweil 1000, which reads printed materials aloud; a closed-circuit television feed that enlarges printed text; JAWS ( Job Access with Speech), a screen-reading software; ZoomText for screen magnification; and Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a speech-to-text tool. 

Sensory Spaces at NYU’s Bobst Library feature adjustable lighting, sound-dampening tiles, and privacy panels, among other resources, to accommodate students with a range of sensory sensitivities. The university also facilitates the retrieval of books and materials through locker delivery services, providing accessibility for users with mobility impairments.

Similar to NYU Libraries, the Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) University Libraries — also a member of the HathiTrust Digital Library — recently launched three sensory rooms at its Berks, Brandywine, and University Park campuses as part of its goal of supporting student wellness and belonging through the LibWell initiative. 

The sensory rooms are designed, primarily, to provide a safe, inviting space for neurodivergent students who may struggle in traditional study spaces. The rooms are equipped with features such as noise-reducing chairs, specialized lighting, yoga mats, and weighted lap blankets to help reduce stress and anxiety. These sensory-sensitive elements are particularly helpful for students with autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

“There is a strong need for therapeutic spaces at colleges that can help students block out harmful sensory distractions and relieve the huge burden of anxiety many students bear,” says Brett Spencer, reference and instruction librarian for Penn State Berks’ Thun Library. “We want to make sensory-safe places that can help students maximize their wellness and learning.” 

Additionally, the LibWell group is piloting sensory kits.— backpacks containing therapeutic supplies similar to those in-room — that are available for checkout. This initiative enables students to experience the advantages of sensory rooms at home. Future goals include developing additional sensory spaces and kits, collaboration on food resources for students facing food insecurity, coordinated programming emphasizing mental and physical health, and expanding accessibility initiatives to more campuses. 

Another 2024 LEAD Award winner, California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) University Library, is dedicated to fostering an inclusive learning environment by providing robust services for users with disabilities, such as adaptive equipment and labs. 

In addition to implementing adaptive technology, the CSUSM University Library further personalizes accessibility by providing a library liaison specifically for people with disabilities. Serving as a contact person through in-person appointments, online chat, email, or telephone, liaisons encourage students with disabilities to utilize the library, help them develop information literacy skills, and offer research assistance. 

“We collaborate with our diverse campus community to ensure user-centered learning experiences, welcoming environments, and accessible information resources in order to facilitate scholarly inquiry and prepare students to be critical thinkers who are engaged members of their local, regional, and global communities,” the University Library mission states. 

The liaisons also work with library staff to prioritize awareness about individuals with disabilities, provide feedback on disability-related services and policies, and establish cross-departmental relationships and collaboration between the University Library and Disability Support Services.●