Access to digital libraries for disadvantaged users.

Author:Higgins, Silke


For the purposes of this paper, the term "disadvantaged" encompasses traditional minorities (African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans), persons with lower levels of income and education, those living in rural areas, the physically disabled, as well as developing countries as a whole. Definitions of the term vary; in the socio-cultural context, to be "disadvantaged" is to be "deprived of some of the basic necessities or advantages of life, such as adequate housing, medical care, or educational facilities" (, 2010). When one is counted among the disadvantaged, one is a member of "deprived people considered as a group" (, 2010). It is encouraging to see the inclusion of "educational facilities" among the basic necessities needed to provide improved quality of life. Nonetheless, ongoing issues such as inequality and lack of efficiency result, according to statistics presented during the Model United Nations Far West's 47th agenda, in approximately one billion people worldwide going through life without access to education, including 300 million children (MUNFW, 1997).

When considering how the library and information science profession might help change these discouraging figures, it is logical to conclude that digital libraries, as the "digital face of traditional libraries" with an ability to serve "particular communities or constituencies" even when those are "widely dispersed throughout the network" (IFLA, 1998), should make for a good choice. Indeed, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web, new avenues for the dissemination of information rapidly emerged (Wikipedia, 2010). When computers became increasingly commonplace, access to information evolved from being restricted to physical space to being made available via remote access (ibid). In the late 1990s, aided by the fast growth of "computing networks, databases, and public awareness" (Borgman, 1990, 229), "scholarly and professional interest in digital libraries" grew rapidly, and large amounts of research funding were made available, quickly resulting in "research and practice in digital libraries exploding worldwide" (Borgman, 1990, 227). However, digital libraries did not become the instantaneous success many imagined them to be despite their ability to provide users with significant advantages such as the elimination of physical boundaries, round-the-clock access to information, multiple access points, networking abilities, and extended search functions (LisWiki, 2010). Subsequent research revealed that user acceptance of digital libraries primarily revolves around user-friendliness, ease of use, usefulness, and various other factors falling into categories such as interface characteristics, organizational context, and individual differences (Thong, et al., 2004). These expectations are largely the same for all users, regardless of the individuals' information technology background (Zabihi, et al., 2006). Where usability is concerned, it was found that "there exists an interlocking relationship among effectiveness, efficiency, satisfaction, and learnability [sic]" (Jeng, 2005, 47). While undeniably valuable, many of these research efforts centered on the academic community and involved users equipped with ready access to electronic information technologies, leaving out special needs considerations and raising the question as to whether the above-described user expectations apply equally well to different groups of the disadvantaged.

It is the purpose of this paper to examine the state of accessibility to digital libraries for traditional minorities, persons of lower income and education status, and those living in rural areas, for the physically disabled, and for developing countries as a whole. Analysis includes description of tools currently in place, discussion of their effectiveness and relevance, and what might be done to further improve accessibility to digital libraries for the disadvantaged.

Literature Review

Much of the literature discussing issues of accessibility to electronic information and communication systems for minorities, those affected by lower income and education status, and persons living in rural settings, addresses one or more aspects of the digital divide, but rarely includes the role of digital libraries and the relevance of their content for these disadvantaged. Common in the articles and books reviewed is the discussion of the causes of the digital divide, as well as the effort to find solutions for bridging the widening and deepening gap between those who have access to electronic information technologies and those who do not (Chowdhury, 2002; Dijk, 2005; Gates Foundation, 2004; Tedd and Large, 2005). In the United States, primary reasons preventing user access to electronic information systems have been identified as lack of appropriate technologies, information technology illiteracy, and language barriers (Tedd and Large, 2005), as well as fear of steep learning curves, and reluctance to ask for assistance (Gates Foundation, 2004). Solutions include the increase of accessibility to public computer stations and the provision of free-of-charge workshops on how to efficiently use computers and the Internet (Chowdhury, 2002; Dijk, 2005; Gates Foundation, 2004; United States Senate Hearing 107-1097, 2002). These services are often the only means for minorities, the poor, the uneducated, and those living in rural settings, to gain access to electronic information and communication technologies, and are currently offered almost exclusively by public libraries, placing a heavy burden on these institutions (Gates Foundation, 2004).

Literature describing issues of accessibility to electronic information and communication systems for the physically handicapped centers on physical access in much the same fashion as do the writings on the disadvantaged groups addressed in the previous paragraph. Digital libraries and their relevance are often mentioned only in passing, if at all. Disabled persons in many countries, by means of legislation, are now provided with the same rights to access to electronic information and communication systems as those who are without disabilities (Mates, 2010; Tedd and Large, 2005). As a result, libraries offering access to computers and the Internet for their patrons have been equipped with screen readers and reading software for persons with visual and cognitive impairments, as well as with specialized workstations for those with other physical handicaps (Mates, 2010; Tedd and Large, 2005). Where remote access to library content is concerned, for the blind several programs are in place that provide free of charge access to current literature and materials in the public domain. However, not all databases are encoded in a manner that is suitable for the blind and visually impaired (Mates, 2010; Tedd and Large, 2005; SLA Info News, 2010). Currently, half of all persons with disabilities - who taken together constitute the largest and most diverse minority in the United States - are unemployed and/or unable to fulfill their goals of higher education (Mates, 2010). To increase the likelihood for the blind and visually impaired to find employment or succeed in obtaining degrees of higher education, libraries must include a wider selection of non-fiction and reference books (Craven, 2001). To ensure truly equal access to electronic information and communication systems for this group of the disadvantaged, relevant materials must also be made available in a larger variety of electronic formats (ibid).

Literature addressing issues of accessibility to digital libraries for persons living in developing countries is manifold and provides in-depth discussion of the topic. For developing nations, the greatest barrier to both the establishment and provision of continuous access to digital libraries is the ongoing struggle to meet, on a daily basis, the basic human needs for entire populations, an effort so pervasive as to leave no resources to cover the high cost involved in the creation and maintenance of digital libraries (Chowdhury, 2002; Rosa and Lamas, 2007). Additional difficulties include...

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