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Equity Beyond Access

by on September 26, 2019

Extending Fuller Library Service to People in Residential Care

Universal access is a core value of librarianship. According to principles of universal access, every person regardless of age, size, or differing abilities is afforded easy, flexible access to information and resources. Libraries integrate these principles into design of spaces and equipment. But even the most well-designed building or website can remain beyond reach of people in long-term care facilities, many of whom are unable to travel to library buildings and also lack access to private telephones, online services, or internet-enabled devices. Delivery of materials alone does not bridge the divide. Face-to-face outreach to these residents may be necessary to provide equitable service.

A literature review reveals two main gaps in library and information science research on the issue. There is a lack of research incorporating perspectives of differently-abled people, let alone people residing in long term care facilities, regarding their preferences for services. There is likewise little in the way of a systematic widespread approach to the provision of outreach to these residents. Addressing both of these issues would go a long way towards ensuring people in residential care experience the same level of library service others in the community enjoy.

Among the few researchers to examine library services from the perspectives of the differently-abled are Clayton Copeland[i] and J. J. Pionke[ii]. Copeland’s work prompts reflection on the terms “disabled” versus “differently-abled.” The term “differently-abled” puts the emphasis on the abilities of the person, not the barriers imposed by society. Bringing this into the practical realm of outreach to people in residential care, one might ask: Are these residents any less able to appreciate literature and learning, or have we merely constructed an environment that makes it difficult for them to access the resources? On the contrary, people with restricted access may be even more appreciative of, and benefit even more from, outreach services than typically-abled people.

Copeland explains that while National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) services are essential, public libraries relying exclusively on the NLS to serve differently-abled patrons may be engaging in ‘separatist’ or ‘segregationist’ tendencies[iii].  Some large library systems have a designated branch to administer the Talking Books program and deliver materials to the homebound. While efficient, care should be taken to assure this doesn’t create a separatist situation in which differently-abled customers are referred to remote services when their needs could be handled locally.

The essay “Poverty and the Public Library” emphasizes that offering equal service to all can mean extending more to those who have less[iv]. While the authors were writing about the economically challenged, this principle can apply to any group experiencing greater barriers to access. (It should also be noted that many of the elderly and differently-abled also face greater than average economic challenges.)  Just as we might waive a fine or proof of residence to provide equal access to materials for the poor or homeless, we might extend more off-site programming and outreach for those who cannot physically access the branch, even though such efforts require an investment of staff time.

More on issues of social justice relating to the differently-abled come from researchers J. J. Pionke and Jill Lewis. Pionke writes about universal design as a concept that extends to all aspects of library service, calling for a mental shift in how we perceive both the functionally diverse and the issue of access, imploring libraries to address this as a social justice issue[v]. Similarly, Lewis points out spotty implementation of universal access measures and services for the differently-abled and decries the lack of equity in information access despite the feasibility of such measures[vi]. She points out difference in perspectives between librarians, who may think they are doing enough, and the differently-abled who may perceive otherwise.

The ALA recognizes that equity extends beyond equal access to deliberate action to ensure community members have needed resources. There are certainly challenges to expanding service: staff time is limited and coordinating with outside facilities can be tricky. However, the benefits go both ways. Bringing services outside the confines of walls and webpages brings more visibility to vital library resources. Extended outreach can create more meaningful opportunities for volunteers. Outreach targeted to community needs may help justify funding and secure grants.

People living in residential facilities have much to offer libraries: they vote, they have friends and family who vote, they may contribute to local history projects and archives, they have unique perspectives, and they are often greatly appreciative of services others might take for granted. By extending a fuller range of services to all members of the community, the library strengthens community bonds and increases in visibility and relevance.

Note from the author: I intend to follow up this piece with one that presents examples of libraries engaging in outreach to people in long-term care. Please feel free to contact me if you have experience with such efforts or know of good examples.


[i] Copeland, C. A. 2011. Library and information center accessibility: The differently-able patron’s perspective. Technical Services Quarterly, 28(2), 223-241.

[ii] Pionke, J. J. 2017. Toward holistic accessibility: Narratives from functionally diverse patrons. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 57(1), 48-56.

[iii] Copeland, C. A. 2011. Library and information center accessibility: The differently-able patron’s perspective. Technical Services Quarterly, 28(2), 223-241

[iv] Machreon, P. & Barriage, S. 2016. Poverty and the public library: How Canadian public libraries are serving the economically challenged. In Class and librarianship: Essays at the intersection of information, labor and capital. Ed. Estep, E. & Enright, N. California: Library Juice Press.

[v] Pionke, J. J. 2017. Beyond ADA compliance: The library as a place for all. Urban Library Journal, 23(1), 1-17.

[vi] Lewis, J. 2013. Information Equality for Individuals with Disabilities: Does It Exist? Library Quarterly, 83(3), 229-235.

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