Perspectives on the Centre for Equitable Library Access at Vancouver Public Library

The Centre for Equitable Library Access is a national, not-for-profit organization run by public libraries, for public libraries, to provide materials for people with print disabilities. People with print disabilities cannot use regular print and require alternate accessible formats, such as audio or braille, for their information needs and pleasure reading. Only about 7 percent of print books are commercially available in an accessible format, so organizations such as the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA) or the similar National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS) are essential to augment the otherwise scanty selection of reading material for people who cannot use print.

In addition to increasing the range and number of titles available in accessible formats, CELA provides support to public libraries serving patrons with print disabilities, as well as innovation and advocacy toward increasing equitable access to reading materials. More than 600 public libraries or public library systems are CELA members, including 14 in British Columbia.

When CELA first launched in spring of 2014, a priority goal assigned to the Accessible Services team at Vancouver Public Library was to “integrate CELA services.” This article describes a few key highlights and challenges of implementing CELA, from the day-to-day, hands-on perspective of Accessible Services at Vancouver Public Library (VPL). Additional comments were requested and contributed by staff members from accessible services departments at a few other public libraries near Vancouver.

CELA’s mission is:

to support public libraries in the provision of accessible collections for Canadians with print disabilities and to champion the fundamental right of Canadians with print disabilities to access media and reading materials in the format of their choice, including audio, braille, e-text and described video.[1]

For background information that further explains CELA, defines print disabilities, and describes alternate reading formats such as audio or braille, please consult CELA’s website for a thorough overview or refresher.

Note: Throughout the remainder of this article, “patrons” will mean “patrons with print disabilities.”

Increased choices

CELA delivers material directly to individual patrons, and member libraries also have the option of requesting a deposit collection of DAISY[2] CDs. VPL has done so, adding nearly 500 new-to-VPL audio titles for the exclusive use of patrons with print disabilities in December 2015. The DAISY CDs generated new logistical questions, from storage cases to statistics. The collaborative support of other departments, especially Technical Services and Systems, ensured these questions were resolved. The collection has been circulating since early 2016.

With or without a deposit collection, CELA membership vastly extends reading choices — both directly for patrons, and for Accessible Services staff, who regularly select materials on behalf of patrons. If a specific title in an accessible format is not at VPL or an InterLINK partner library, the item can be requested from CELA. These requests typically are filled within a week.

Technology required for CELA collections

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and staff members continue to explore individual patrons’ needs and preferences in order to arrive at the most suitable technology support.

DAISY discs are the most accessible and still the most strongly preferred of the physical audio format options. An MP3-compatible player is a minimum requirement. The disc will play, but some of its added DAISY features will not be available. A fully accessible DAISY compatible player is necessary for patrons who have very limited dexterity or vision. Many patrons are understandably reluctant or unable to purchase their own DAISY players, which cost approximately $450 each. Patrons may borrow one of VPL’s many DAISY players for up to six months, though sometimes there is a waitlist for the devices.

Another option is playing DAISY CDs in a DVD player. So far, feedback from patrons suggests this is not ideal. The disc plays well, but the function buttons on a DVD player (or remote control device) usually demand more dexterity and/or vision than many patrons possess. Some patrons have mentioned that their DVD player is in a fixed location, such as the den, whereas the patron wants to listen to their audiobook elsewhere, such as their bedroom. However, it is one more choice which could be suitable for some people.

Choosing digital book delivery from CELA is another option, and eliminates the need for a DAISY CD player. Digital delivery involves a different set of needs: a computer, tablet or smartphone, plus reliable Internet or wireless connections, and a measure of technological skill and comfort.

One of the technology solutions VPL has recently piloted is lending a tablet with the desired books downloaded in advance by Accessible Services staff. Once books are downloaded, the patron has no need for an Internet connection. Orientation to the tablet is necessary, but focuses only upon practicing the few steps required to power on/off and to open the book. The staff member works with the patron to set the desired font size or volume. As with all options, the individual patron’s level of vision, dexterity, personal preferences and other circumstances need to be considered.

Kelsey Jang, Community Outreach Librarian at Burnaby Public Library, shared these thoughts on the CELA collection and technology:

CELA is an essential cog in our Accessible Audiobook program machine and, as with our other service partners, we wouldn’t be able to offer the level of service that we do in Home Library & Accessible Service without it; the size, depth, and variety of their collection is invaluable. CELA’s direct-to-player and downloading services are impressive and powerful, but many of our patrons don’t have that comfort level needed to use the technology, even when we offer to help. While the online component of CELA is important, many of our patrons very much appreciate and rely on the physical copies of items CELA produces and that we order on behalf of our non-tech-savvy patrons (K. Jang, personal communication, Mar. 24, 2016).

Patrons’ preference will undoubtedly shift away from CDs in favour of digital service delivery, just as patrons once shifted away from cassettes in favour of discs. At present, DAISY CDs remain an important accessible format. From January through October 2015, 12.5 per cent of VPL’s CELA circulation was delivered to patrons electronically. By contrast, 84 per cent of VPL’s CELA circulation was delivered to patrons on physical DAISY CDs during the same period. It will be interesting to observe how these numbers may shift year by year.

Listening to and working with each patron helps staff to arrive at an appropriate technology solution.

Some patrons not covered by CELA

Heather Goodwin, Home Library Service and Talking Books Librarian of North Vancouver District Public Library (NVDPL), highlights the following concern:

NVDPL is not a part of CELA, so it is frustrating for us when we get new clients referred. We have to tell them we cannot give them access to all the library services that used to be available through Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), plus the new offerings.

For example, we had an unfortunate case of a new referral who wanted braille books from CELA. She couldn’t understand why she wasn’t eligible to access the braille materials, just because she lived in the District of North Vancouver, not the City of North Vancouver, or Vancouver itself where she had lived before. Fortunately, she was a student and was able to get some support from her university, but that is not always possible. From the patron’s point of view, it is as though they are experiencing discrimination simply because of where they live. (H. Goodwin, personal communication, Mar. 17, 2016).

There are two requirements for CELA services: the patron is eligible due to having a print disability and the library where the patron lives is a CELA member. Becoming a CELA member library is optional; if a given library has not joined, then this service is not available to patrons who live in that area. This makes complete sense from an administrative perspective, but may not make sense to the otherwise eligible patron who does not have access to the service.

Several library systems are members of National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS), either in addition to or instead of CELA. NNELS also vastly increases options for patrons with print disabilities. In the example mentioned above, however, NNELS would not have been a useful solution. NNELS can supply a limited amount of files for electronic braille users, but has no physical braille.[3]

Inclusive book clubs

Book club sets at VPL have traditionally been compiled in regular print only. Over the years, VPL’s Accessible Services (and many other public libraries) have offered audio book clubs in order to provide an alternative, accessible experience. Both types of book clubs offer a format-specific approach. CELA membership has now made it possible to offer an inclusive, all-format book club. Some participants may read regular print or large print books, which can be supplied from VPL’s main collection. CELA is essential for braille and DAISY CD copies, especially when multiple copies of an audio book are needed.

Morgan Pollock from VPL’s Accessible Services piloted such an all-format book club beginning in 2015 at Haro Park Centre, a senior’s care home in Vancouver. Hanna Verhagen, Recreation Coordinator and Art Therapist at Haro Park Centre, works closely with Morgan and with the residents:

We are so pleased to have partnered with VPL to bring this book club to Haro Park Centre. The audio and braille options have been invaluable to a number of our dedicated book club members who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate (H. Verhagen, personal communication, March 31, 2016).

Two of these book club participants were interested in sharing their thoughts; they wished to keep their names anonymous:

I’ve always been a good reader. In the book club I don’t feel excluded. I’m on the same level as everyone else. [With the braille option] there is no such thing as ‘It’s too bad I can’t do this.’ I love to read and I’m not stopping! (Unnamed participant, as reported by H. Verhagen, personal communication, Mar. 31, 2016).

I used to be a member of a book club before moving to Haro Park Centre and I missed it. It’s nice to have the opportunity to discuss book titles with other members of the book club. The audio option is essential to me now, and I couldn’t participate otherwise (Unnamed participant, as reported by H. Verhagen, personal communication, Mar. 31, 2016).

Having seen this program evolve and flourish, Accessible Services plans this year to offer an inclusive all-format book club at an additional seniors care home, and can support staff in other VPL branches who might wish to experiment with this program at care homes in their neighbourhood.

CELA’s responsiveness

Staff of VPL’s Accessible Services appreciate CELA’s quick replies to our many questions, and the service improvements CELA has implemented based on feedback from member libraries. Just a few of the practical changes since CELA’s launch two years ago include a simplified registration process, printable registration forms for use off-site, and an array of training videos and webinar transcripts available anytime. These have all supported day-to-day operations so that CELA has now become integrated as a “normal” part of VPL’s Accessible Services.

Outside of the Accessible Services department, most VPL public service staff are aware of CELA; many are not yet fully confident discussing and promoting the service. An ongoing goal of the Accessible Services team is continuing to work with colleagues system-wide in order to increase understanding of the service and to see CELA services evolve into a more fully integrated option at Vancouver Public Library.

Stephanie Kripps is a librarian at Vancouver Public Library. From May 2014 until April 2016 she held the position of Coordinator, Accessible Services.  

[1] Centre for Equitable Library Access. Retreived from https://registration.celalibrary.ca/about-us.

[2] DAISY stands for Digital Accessible Information System, an international standard for digital audiobooks and other digital material designed for use by people with print disabilities.

[3] National Network for Equitable Library Service. Retrieved from https://nnels.ca/help/formats.