Accessibility and Universal Design: A report on the BTAA Library Conference

This month, along with several others from my library, I was able to attend the Big Ten Academic Alliance Library Conference. Every year, the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA) chooses a topic of interest to libraries, finds experts and organizes speakers, and holds a conference on that topic. This year, the conference was about accessibility, and since one of my secondary job responsibilities is accessibility, I had the opportunity to attend. This was my first BTAA conference and my first conference that didn’t offer breakout sessions, so I was excited to see how it would play out.

There was a keynote each day, from Jay Dolmage and Amelia Gibson. Both were fantastic. Dolmage began by discussing the design of buildings, including libraries, with several examples of buildings designed around stairs. Though there may be a ramp or elevator available, it is not the focal point of the building. Of course, then, we must ask, “Why?” Why is universal design not prioritized? Why is universal design not the norm? Taking the buildings as an example, Dolmage then moved on to discussing universal design in other contexts, especially with regard to teaching and learning. Dolmage stressed the importance of “positive redundancy,” ensuring that there are multiple modes of engagement, such as having information for a lecture in slides, in a handout, and in an electronic form.

Amelia Gibson touched on similar themes as Dolmage, such as the existence of internalized ableism that must be identified and worked against. Gibson advocated for moving beyond ADA requirements and instead focusing on meeting individual needs, beginning with the premise that anyone who is at a school is there because they can succeed and that it is our job to help them succeed. Gibson also discussed the fact that identities, including disability identities, are intersectional. This means that challenges can be even greater for people of color who also have disabilities. Gibson asked us to consider the various reasons that people might not seek information or help from a library, citing cases where potential library patrons have faced ridicule for their child’s behavior because their child was on the autism spectrum, or cases where black patrons have been thrown out of libraries. For some people, concern about being in library spaces is real and justified.

Finally, a point brought up by both Gibson and Dolmage and throughout the conference was how often people with disabilities are asked to disclose their disabilities and how detrimental this is. People with disabilities should not be asked to disclose their status; instead, we should be creating inclusive spaces that do not retroactively try to account for disabilities but instead are designed to accommodate various needs right from the beginning. For example, there is no need for publishers to require an individual student disclose their disability before an accessible version of a document is supplied. Electronic publications could be accessible from the start or, if remediation is necessary, the extra step of disclosing a disability does not need to be mandated. There are also numerous reasons that people might not disclose their disabilities, be they financial (getting diagnosed is expensive) or out of fear of repercussions. Again, designing with accessibility in mind is key.

This brings us back to the idea of universal design. These principles can be applied in any library space, from making library instruction more welcoming to people with a variety of learning styles to working with vendors and publishers to ensure that content is readable not only for screen readers but for users who want to change the font size or color to suit their own needs. We cannot make everything completely accessible immediately; in many cases, accessibility will be an iterative process, with changes made over time. However, we can strive to bring principles of accessibility and universal design into our own individual practices as librarians to begin making changes today.

Overall, I found this conference extremely worthwhile. I often find myself a bit untethered at conferences, unsure how to choose which sessions to attend from a long list and drawn in several different directions because of all my different interests. This conference provided a more concentrated experience and, because of the more focused theme, there was enough time and space to delve into library accessibility in more detail than I’ve experienced in other conferences. Now it’s time to refocus, take what I’ve learned, and find more ways to incorporate accessibility into my work on a daily basis.


For more on universal design, get started by looking at the UDL guidelines website.

Read more about the BTAA’s e-resource testing initiative.

And check out the conference hashtag, #BTAALib19, for more on the conference.

What Student Employees Have Taught Me

As a new librarian, and as someone who is new to working at a university, there’s a lot to learn. I’ve learned about some of the university’s history and how it affects day-to-day operations, the degree programs and course offerings, different colleges on campus, how each college has their own rules regarding faculty promotion and tenure, and the ebb and flow of different semester schedules. Then, there’s the current environment and culture of the campus. Much of what I’ve learned comes from faculty and staff who have been on campus for decades, and for that I’m grateful. They have the best insight into the political and structural nature of campus and faculty life; however, it’s the students and more specifically, student employees, in the library that provide the most holistic view of campus life and culture.

Before January, I worked 9-hour shifts on Saturdays with the same staff. It was always me, a supervisor at circulation, and a mix of student employees. Saturdays, especially over the summer, were slow. My main duty on Saturdays was to staff the research help desk in case we had any drop-in questions. There would sometimes be long stretches where no one would come by with a question, and if I had nothing else going on, I frequently found myself chatting with the student employees.

I do not supervise any students, so I don’t have any insights about what that’s like (others have though, and talk about supervising and mentorship). I do, however, think that our student employees are great, which is why below, in no particular order, I’m listing out what I’ve learned from student employees along the way.

Campus life and history

Did you know that Main Hall is haunted by past Jesuits? And that, if you ask very nicely, campus safety will take you on a tour of the building’s basement on Halloween so that you can experience the ghosts firsthand? This tidbit came up in a larger conversation about ghosts, and suddenly, I knew about every haunted building on campus. This is the interesting type of myth that students know. Campus history is passed down from one class of students to another, and I’m not privy to it unless a student is willing to share. Any fun fact I know about the university most likely came from a student employee.

Beyond myths and campus lore, students have very strong opinions about their classes, professors, and perceptions of leadership. I’ve learned about what classes were difficult and why in different departments. One student ranted very openly and honestly about being treated as a dollar sign by campus administration instead of as a student who was learning and making mistakes in classes. Student employees will give you an idea of the general mood and morale on campus, especially during exams.

Basically, if I want to know how students feel about new construction plans, the history of a particular spot on campus, or the perception of an assignment, I just have to ask.

Reminder of what being in college is like

An employee had recently moved to off-campus apartments and was talking about how difficult grocery shopping was. They had never gone grocery shopping on their own before, and talked about trying to get the right amount of food on a college budget. They had to start from scratch with spices and staples, and it felt overwhelming. Conversations about life and firsts are a good reminder that, yes, college students are adults, but many that we label as traditional, undergraduate students are learning how to be independent for the first time. Students are taking classes, but also figuring out how to manage their bills, divide their time and energy, and take care of their health. Many of our student workers are undergrads, so I get the new college student perspective most often; however, I’m often reminded that graduate students or undergraduates that do not fit under the traditional student mold face a set of challenges all their own. It can be easy to fall into a trap of getting frustrated with the student in the back of the class that isn’t paying attention to my well thought-out and incredibly important assignment, but conversations about daily life and struggles remind me that student lives and experiences are rich, complex, and diverse. I’m grateful any time a student employee is willing to share their experience with me.

Great sounding board for ideas

I sometimes have what I think is a great idea for library instruction, or I want to try something new for outreach. I’ve taken these ideas to student employees who have been generous with their time to provide feedback. Now that they know me better, student employees are very honest about their opinions and provide some of their own ideas that have been helpful. I appreciate student input in things I’m designing for students. We’ve also had student employees play test the escape rooms we’ve created for finals week, give feedback about our surveys, and in general, be the student voice in the activities and materials we create for the library. Of course, student employees aren’t necessarily representative of the entire student population, so we don’t rely on them for everything; however, employees are a great start for engaging with students in general.

Assistance with our projects

Most of our student employees have defined job roles, but they are sometimes excited to try new projects or learn about different aspects of the library. For instance, I was working with our digital content librarian to weed DVDs in my subject area. A student employee I know very well was in the area, and I knew that she was heavily involved with the literature and poetry community. She ended up looking through content relevant to her major so that we could seek her input into the collection as well. Another student employee recommended popular biology titles that we didn’t have for our collection that she thought other students would be interested in checking out. If I haven’t made this point clear yet, then I’d like to emphasize that student voices are valuable to library operations. We can guess what materials are most relevant to students, or we can ask for their input. Student employee involvement in collection development has taught me more about what’s popular in certain subject areas or what students might be interested to see in a collection. Having student employees involved in library projects brings me to my final point.

Potential future librarians

If you ask your colleagues about their first library job, many of them will talk about being employed in the library as a student. I’m not sure what percentage of librarians started as student workers, but I think it’s significant. Some of our student employees today might be librarians in the future. The way that we engage with student employees, the projects that we give them, and the perception that we share of the library may shape future librarians.

Student employees are valuable to libraries. They provide honest feedback, give insight to campus life and culture, and have interesting perspectives. Getting to know the student employees has been one of my favorite parts of being a new librarian. If you haven’t already, take the time to find out more about the student employees in your library. I think we all have something we can learn from them.

Library Open Mic

I work in a large library, and even after eight months, there are still people I barely know and certainly people whose work remains nebulous to me. And I continue to come up with new questions about one thing or another without any idea of who to ask. Which then means I have to direct my questions to someone at random and hope they can at least point me in the right direction.

This is probably the way of things in all large libraries and I know I’ll learn more with time. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. Instead, I want to talk about one thing that has helped me see more of the library and more of what others are doing. One of my first days on the job, there was what seemed to me a rather confusing event occurring, in which people were going to give lighting talks about…something. Since I was new, looking to fill my day, and looking to meet people, I went. And I’m so glad I did.

As it turns out, the event was slowly morphing into what is currently known here as “open mic,” in which people closely associated with the library (but not necessarily librarians!) give five-minute talks on topics that interest them: something they’re working on, a thought they had that they’re still exploring, an interesting new tool they just discovered. Each of the sessions generally has a theme, but the themes are broad, and you don’t have to stick to them if you don’t want to. I’ve found that the themes are helpful to get my brain started thinking about different topic ideas, even if I veer away from the theme in the end.

As a new librarian, this event has been extremely helpful for me. Not only have I heard more about what people are working on (a fascinating reading of letters to the editor on women’s place in golf, for example, taught me about our Turfgrass Information Center), I’ve also learned a lot more about my particular library’s culture. Presentations often lead to larger group discussions about broader trends in the library or projects that need more people to work on them.

Organizing these sessions was not my idea—well-deserved credit for that belongs elsewhere—but they have become something I look forward to every month. Since starting my job here, I’ve heard about text mining projects, Library of Congress crowdsourcing efforts, the Christmas tree economy in Michigan, and enjoyed a MARC-inspired sonnet. I’ve also heard from people all across the library, outside of my unit and outside of the area where my desk is, making me feel more engaged and more connected. I do feel like I’m still settling in, but these open mic sessions have certainly helped that process along. One day soon I’ll feel inspired enough to give my own little lightning talk!


How do you communicate across departments in your library? What opportunities do you have for more informal interactions concerning your current projects or interests?

#ACRL2019 reflection: My first, large conference

Last week, I attended ACRL 2019, which was my first, major conference. I prepared for the conference by selecting anything that looked interesting on the app (everything looked interesting. Woops), reading through posts like Hailley’s, and talking to my my ACRL buddy that I was paired with. I’m still thinking through the panels and sessions I attended, and I’m using this post as an opportunity to reflect on my experience and prepare for my next conference.

Meeting new people

For me, the highlight of ACRL was meeting so many cool people. I’ve admired people from afar on Twitter, and this was the first opportunity I’ve had to meet them in person or attend their talks. I was able to have lunch with many of the people who write for this blog (thanks for putting that together, Maura!), and it was nice to put names and faces together. There was a #libparlor meetup one night, the reception at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, vendor parties, and informal opportunities to meet and talk with people after the conference was done for the day. Socializing during and after the conference was as valuable as attending the conference itself.

I also mentioned above that I was partnered with a librarian, Emilie, who answered my questions before the conference and then met up with me during the actual conference to check in and chat. For anyone who is attending their first, large conference, I highly recommend taking advantage of buddy programs because you’ll be paired with someone who has experience attending that conference. Emilie had great advice about choosing sessions, using the app, and finding special events at the conference. It was also an easy way to meet someone new who had similar job duties and interests as myself, and I hope we stay in touch.

In addition to meeting new people, I was able to catch up with old friends. With everyone spread out around the country, this was one of the few opportunities I had to see everyone.

Attending conference sessions

The main, and most obvious, reason that I attended ACRL was to hear from colleagues. I’m anxiously waiting for the panels and sessions I missed to be uploaded because it was impossible to attend everything. I also plan to read through some of the papers and view the posters that I missed at the conference. I chose my sessions based on topics, but also based on the people I wanted to hear from. some of the time slots were a bit weird, so I had to be careful about choosing sessions that didn’t overlap. I realized later in the conference that some people attend multiple sessions in the same time slot. I won’t go into detail about every panel or session that I attended, but there was something to take away from every conversation that I was a part of. I’ve started creating a list of action items I want to tackle over summer (and in the future) based on the panels and talks I attended. Attending sessions also allowed me to reconnect with people I’ve met in the past, sparked new ideas for research, and helped me identify gaps in my thinking or understanding. I’m sharing out what I’ve learned with my workplace as well.

Presenting work

I had a lightning talk accepted, so on Friday during the conference, I had five minutes to talk about my topic. Five minutes, it turns out, is not a lot of minutes. I’d given two lightning talks before, but was given more time. I’m a fast talker as it is, so I had to be very cognizant not to jam too much stuff into five minutes. I discussed connecting athletics and libraries (and if you’re interested in working with student-athletes too, I’d love to chat with you about it!), and my first challenge was to decide the points that I wanted to make. We were then supposed to make 20 slides, with each slide transitioning every 15 seconds. I spent a few hours practicing the talk, switching slides around, and making sure that there wasn’t too much content on each slide. The day of the talk, I was very nervous and had consumed too much coffee; however, I am told that the talk went well. As I mentioned, five minutes goes by fast, and I definitely zoned out and don’t remember what happened. I am thankful for friends and colleagues who showed up to the talk because it was easy to focus on them and their encouragement. I’d love to expand this topic out for a longer panel or session in future conferences.

Next steps

ACRL 2021 is going to come around faster than I think. In preparation, I’d like to get some of my own research together so that I can submit proposals for panels or papers. To do this, I plan to connect with people who can help me make that happen. There are some projects that I can do on my own, but some things are easier and more complete with collaboration.

I’m considering what I’ve learned from this conference and how I can apply it to my own work and workplace. I think that there’s a lot of projects that I can start over summer that are inspired by what I heard from others at the conference. I’m also talking to others about what I attended, thinking about what can apply to my own teaching, and finding more to read so that I can keep on learning. The #acrl2019 hashtag is still live on Twitter, so I’ll continue going through that and finding recommendations and resources from others.

Overall, this conference was a positive, though overwhelming, experience. I think I greatly benefited by attending, and I can’t wait to attend more conferences in the future.

Reflections after the Association for Asian Studies Conference

A few weeks ago, I attended the Association for Asian Studies annual conference. This conference has been a staple of my repertoire since I started library school, because along with all the usual scholarly panels, there are also several meetings of librarians. With two years under my belt, I was excited to approach this conference as a professional, voting on CRL global resources projects for the first time, and actually representing an institution instead of just coming along for the ride to observe discussions.

I also wanted to approach this conference thinking about librarianship more broadly and how subject librarians interact both with the world of their subject and the world of librarianship. At least in my areas, I sometimes feel like I’m splintered off from the rest of the library world, focusing on regions outside of the United States and languages other than English, which sometimes bring with them different challenges than what the rest of the profession in the United States might be facing. I wanted to make sure I paid attention to all facets of my librarian identity during this conference.

This year also happened to be the fiftieth anniversary of the Committee on Research Materials on Southeast Asia, which meant an extra celebration and a lot of reflection. Many librarians, including me, presented on some aspect of their work, either highlighting unique collections or discussing collaborative relationships between institutions both in the United States and abroad. We also honored retiring and past members, which was a good history lesson for me: there’s a lot of work that’s been done already for me to build upon. I appreciated this introspective and retrospective time, as it showed me all the things that have been done and helped to inspire me to do things like work harder on building my own library’s collection. I’m now thinking about might make the collection here unique and how I can help in that process.

A good portion of all my meetings also focused on looking outward. Even if we’re dealing with materials from our subject areas, we still encounter the trends seen throughout librarianship. For example, an increasing demand for electronic materials means that we had discussions about everything from digitization initiatives to projects collecting electronic journals from South and Southeast Asia. It was exciting to hear about everything that was going on, and a little intimidating as well. A big lesson from my year so far has been that I need to be involved but that I also need to be selective about my involvement. When I hear about all these initiatives, I want to participate in all of them, if only to learn more about them. There were definitely times during the conference when I had to sit back and remind myself that I can learn from the sidelines, at least for now.

Finally, there were also discussions about more unique concerns for area studies librarians, such as support for cataloging in languages other than English. With problems like this one, which seem so specific to a certain subset of librarians, it might be useful to take a step back and look at librarianship more broadly to see what solutions there might be. One thought that particularly interested me was to work on training librarians within the countries of origin. While we did not follow through on this discussion, it does take me back to broader questions I’ve had recently about collaboration and how collaboration that crosses geographic lines can be accomplished. We’ve managed it in other projects, can we manage it in realms such as cataloging as well? What considerations—such as indigenous systems of organizing information—do we need to take into account? I don’t have the answers yet, but I’m trying my best to crosspollinate what I learn in subject-specific conferences with what I learn in library-specific conferences: I’m very excited to see what new ideas and potential solutions ACRL’s conference will bring.


What sorts of conferences do you regularly attend? How do you leverage information from conferences that aren’t focused on librarianship?