Accessible digital services for the cultural heritage sector

By Nick Butler


Baby with a hearing aid watching a video on a smartphone. Accessible digital services help GLAM institutions engage with all users.

A new report from the Auditor-General shows how offering accessible digital services can help institutions in the cultural heritage or GLAM sector achieve their goals, and increase their impact.

In Digital access to information and services: Learning from examples, the office of the Auditor-General reviewed the work New Zealand’s National Library is doing to provide accessible digital services. They also used an outside assessor to check the National Library website’s accessibility.

“The independent assessor told us that the National Library’s website received the highest score out of all the government websites that they had assessed,” the report said.

This case study shares accessibility lessons from the Auditor-General’s report and from Sam Minchin, Manager, National Library Online. While these lessons are aimed at the cultural heritage / GLAM sector (galleries, libraries, archives, museums), they apply to many other sectors too.

Lessons from the Auditor-General’s report

The report identified four main lessons:

  1. Providing digital services and digitised assets needs to be well planned and managed because it takes time to do it well.
  2. Maximise the use of digital information and services by basing them on an understanding of your users’ needs.
  3. Keep track of changing technologies and expectations, and adapt your processes and service to meet the resulting changes in user needs.
  4. Use third party channels to get your digital information out there.

What are accessible digital services?

Accessible digital services are services that all people can access through digital devices, regardless of disability, device, location or bandwidth. They’re generally available through your website and apps, along with things like kiosks or onsite interactives.

“Accessibility is about being inclusive, so everybody can use stuff, regardless of who you are or what your situation is,” says Sam.

Disabilities might be visual, hearing, motor or cognitive. They also might be passing (a broken arm) or permanent. People might be using a grunty PC with a big screen and broadband, or a mobile phone in a bright, noisy street.

In the cultural heritage sector, these services are often ways you help your customers learn about items in your collections. For example, these might be art works in a gallery, books in a library, documents in an archive or exhibits in a museum. Your customers might want to learn about them online or visit in person. So the services might include:

  • searching
  • ordering
  • reserving
  • buying
  • saving, organising and annotating
  • booking visits or tours
  • getting help from staff.

For the National Library, services tend to be collection-based.

“About three-quarters of our traffic is relating to people searching for stuff in the collections. That would encompass the people who are searching, who are looking at results pages, looking at records pages,” says Sam.

Achieving your aims through accessible digital services

Having accessible digital services is important for many of the metrics that teams in the GLAM sector track. For example, you might track the size and diversity of your audiences, and their level of engagement and satisfaction. Hitting these metrics helps you have the impact your institution is aiming for.

In New Zealand, if you’re a government agency your digital services must be accessible. You need to follow the government web standards.

Even if you’re not a state agency, it’s worth following these standards. That’s because it helps you:

  • protect your brand
  • promote your institution.

If, for example, your website excludes some people, you run the same sort of risk from bad publicity that you would if you turned people away at the door.

And making your website accessible can increase the traffic considerably, in particular by helping search engines find your content. Moreover, what you do for people with disabilities can make life easier for everyone. Nobody ever complained that a website was too easy to use. Greater satisfaction leads to more return visits.

Father and daughter using a tablet.

Accessible digital services help the Library turn knowledge into value

For Sam and the National Library, offering accessible digital services is a key way they help New Zealanders turn knowledge into value by making it easy to find, use and re-use.

“We preserve the nation’s memory for economic and cultural benefit, so people can actually access that stuff and then produce new knowledge,” Sam says.

“From their research they can produce their own ideas. That might be through publications, it might be through newspaper articles, it might be a kid researching a school assignment. You then create a spiral. New knowledge is created, we collect it, and then new knowledge can be made from that.”

The Auditor-General’s report notes that the Library has been putting information and services online since the early 1980s, providing information and services to a wide range of people. This has led to:

  • greater access to information about the collections
  • greater access to digital information
  • increased and improved services.

The larger the pool of people using the Library’s services, the greater the value created.

Accessibility standards

The global web standards organisation W3C have guidance on how to make these kind of services accessible to everyone online. These are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). They are also useful for non-web mobile content and applications.

On their own, the guidelines can be hard to understand. However, there is other help available, including from the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). If you’re after a New Zealand point of view, check out the government web standards guidance.

Tips for accessible digital services

To help both product owners and developers create accessible websites, we’ve put together practical guidance on how to meet accessibility standards.

Twelve tips for creating an accessible website

For apps, both iOS and Android have built-in accessibility features. Here’s guidance for developers on:

Tips for providing help through your digital channels

If you offer a range of contact and help options, people can choose the one that works best for them. Also, if you give your front of house staff training in looking after visitors with disabilities, make sure you include the teams that provide online support.

Accessibility tips for Product Owners or Managers

Build in accessibility from the beginning

“It’s something you want to be thinking about really early on, because to make changes can be difficult,” says Sam. “Don’t wait till the end and then go, ‘Let’s get an audit to see if we’re accessible’.”

That said, it’s worth getting an external eye run over your site. For example, the National Library team were working on a number of accessibility issues but the assessor found other opportunities for improvement that the team weren’t aware of.

Get the team on board

“We had a session here where we got some accessibility people in,” says Sam. “That helped a lot, just raising general awareness”

“The developers really need to buy into it, because it can feel like it’s an additional overhead to be thinking about accessibility.”

The same goes for designers and the people who load content onto your site (or app).

Build empathy

“I think there’s nothing quite like actually getting some people in to talk about their experiences in using websites, or to show the team what it’s like to use them,” says Sam.

Testing your site with the kind of assistive technologies that people with disabilities use is very powerful too.

Accessible digital services — challenges for the GLAM sector

Sharing digital versions of your artifacts

A key service the sector provides is access to digital collections. While more artifacts are created digitally these days, many need to be digitised first. However, as the Auditor-General noted, digitisation is complex and ongoing.

Luckily, you can get guidance on digitisation from the National Library’s DigitalNZ website.

The Auditor-General noted ways that the Library makes access to the collections easier, and these can be useful for others in the GLAM sector:

  • Searching to discover over 30 million digital items about New Zealand from more than 300 digital collections
  • Using the DigitalNZ application programming interface. Learn how you can use this digital collection aggregation API to pull other content onto your site or to share it with others.
  • Highlighting digital information that isn’t copyright.
  • Sharing digital information through social media.

Making sound and pictures accessible

Cultural heritage institutions often have lots of images, video and audio.

You want your images to be accessible for people with limited sight, your audio for people with limited hearing, and your video for either. In order to do this you need to provide text descriptions of these assets. These might be alt text for images, transcriptions for audio and video, and captions for video.

As well as helping people learn what’s in your collection, these descriptions help search engines learn about them. Moreover, combining these with full metadata helps you get more traffic from Google and co.

“Accessibility is not just for people, it’s for bots, machines, things to come in and search the content and discover it,” says Sam. “The majority of our traffic would be coming in directly from Google.”

This post on the MOZ blog shows how to provide accessible images and video, while also helping search engines.

And, more specifically, here are some tips on captioning video from the blog.

Lasting benefits

“We were really quite proud that the work which had gone into our website back seven or eight years ago has produced a site that is still really accessible,” says Sam.

One result of this early focus on delivering accessible digital services is that the benefits accrue thereafter. This helps you attract more visitors or users. It also leaves more of them more satisfied. They’ll be more likely to recommend or return to your institution. And with this growing engagement comes greater impact.

Digital services resources for the cultural heritage sector

Helping people enjoy your treasures — Sharing digital collections: Guide for galleries, libraries, archives and museums

Moving GLAM applications to the cloud — DigitalNZ cloud migration case study

Developing a digital heritage portal for and with the people of the Pacific — Co-design case study

Building visitor engagement through clear copyright info — Copyright for digital GLAMs

Creating an easy-to-search archive revolutionises research — Papers Past digital archive case study

Further reading

WAI’s Easy web accessibility checks

The Arts Access Aotearoa accessibility directory

Robin Hunt (AccEase and Arts Access Aotearoa) on the digital divide and the GLAM sector

Understanding user needs: Product discovery for Scrum Product Owners

If you have a te reo collection, this report could be interesting: Kōrero Kitea: Ngā hua o te whakamamatitanga — The impacts of digitised te reo archival collections: Report and analysis of the online survey

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