Friday, 26 February 2010

Equality in electronic delivery - thinking about inclusion

I got to thinking the other day about if/how delivering library services electronically had any positive effect on equality issues. I imposed two conditions on this thinking:
  • I've always been wary of the "which groups' needs do we need to be addressing?" approach. Partly because in principle equality should be about everyone. Partly because this usually degenerates into a box-ticking exercise. (A colleague was once told that his library service needed to do more to address the needs of women, retired people and children. "That is the sum total of our customer base," he replied.) Mostly because we need to be addressing the actual needs of the individual customer, not the perceived needs of the group we have shoe-horned them into.

  • Adaptive technology doesn't count for this exercise. This isn't to belittle its potential usefulness, it's just a separate issue.

I'm concerned about the impact - or not- our mainstream, vanilla-flavoured services are having. If a customer has to identify themselves as having "special needs" of one sort or another we're already playing from the back foot. With all good intentions we can sometimes be creating a barrier; as I once heard someone say to a council official: "Sometimes I feel like saying to people: 'look, this is about me, not my disability!'" Libraries can, and do, address those special needs very effectively and sensitively, but how far can we can deliver an appropriate service through the usual channels without first having to identify the need as being "special?"

One commonly-perceived negative becomes a potentially-important positive in this context: the electronic delivery mechanism is impersonal. It doesn't notice your height, weight or gender. It doesn't know the colour of your skin or your tone of voice or your accent. Your hair could be green or white or ginger. All those subjective value-loadings that human beings are prone to are not involved in the process. In that respect, at least, there is an equality of offering. Of course, there is no guarantee of equality of delivery - the layout, or language, or choice of service(s) may be excluding factors.

At the moment we provide a fairly basic suite of services:

We could, and should, do more than this. Especially bearing in mind the interactive potential of these resources and the various web 2.0 resources that are available. I'm frustrated that we don't have more interactive forms on the web site, particularly something as basic as a membership form. There are technical reasons with the corporate content management system that makes it difficult to create forms but this is something we're going to have to find a way of addressing or working round pretty soon.

The online services we do currently provide are available remotely 24 x 7, which means that customers don't have to be able to physically get to a library building during library opening times to receive library services. Which is a great boon for people who are time-poor due to family or caring commitments. And for housebound people.

Some of our housebound customers search the web catalogue, place reservations on the items they want and the items are delivered to them by the housebound library service. They continue to get the personal interaction with the Library Assistant who does the visits but they gain some control over the selection of items in the basket. It's a win:win situation - the customer can make specific choices and the Library Assistant can provide additional reading/listening suggestions based on those choices.

I think there's a lot of scope for doing more work with the reading lists. We could do more to explain the ways that people can build their own reading lists, or use the online reading lists I've already created, to help them with their studies or literacy skills. Or reading lists for people working with people with special needs or who need help with their English literacy.

And we shouldn't forget the online e-book resources we've been using to meet the needs of visually-impaired people wanting to study classic texts. Librivox and Gutenberg have both been useful a few times.

I think I'm barely scratching the surface here, even with the limited services we're providing...

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