Here’s an invaluable blog post by Viv Dunstan, a historical researcher who is a wheelchair user, on her experience of using archives. Searchrooms are often small, cramped spaces which are tricky to get around. Staff are helpful but there is only so much they can do. She explains the value of good quality catalogues which help readers decide whether they need to visit at all, and of digitisation on demand.
Viv’s experience of archive spaces is easy to recognise. So many archive services are constrained by unsuitable buildings, squeezing users into whatever corner can be created for them. All I can suggest to those services with difficult spaces of this kind is to consult users about their experiences, do the best you can with what you have, and use accessibility concerns to help you make your case for improvements. Our reading room is better than some but is far from ideal – however, we rearranged it a couple of years ago to improve access, with pleasing results.
Of course, accessibility goes beyond the searchroom. Making catalogues and collections available online allows huge numbers of people to engage with them without needing to visit (though not forgetting that these also need to be accessible to all, often a legal requirement and a moral one too).
Improving spaces and services for people with disabilities makes them better for everyone, staff and users. For instance, improving access for wheelchair users also makes it easier for staff using trolleys to do their jobs. And webpages designed with accessibility in mind will work as you would want them to regardless of old browsers or slow connections. And after all, most people have some kind of disability at some point in their lives!
Picture credit: Bob the lomond’s flickr stream, license CC BY-NC 2.0.