Creating libraries that everybody can use

With help from Perkins, Auburn Free Public Library has become a truly accessible community resource

Three people standing in a library looking at a SARA CE

Ellen Hall demonstrates the SARA CE, a stand-alone text-to-speech device that scans and reads aloud books or magazines in multiple languages.

April 30, 2015

They say it takes a village to raise a child. Perhaps it can also be said that it takes community partnerships to create libraries that everybody can use, including people with disabilities.

That seemed to be the case when the Auburn Free Public Library hosted a legislative breakfast on March 27, sponsored by the Massachusetts Library Association and the Friends of the Auburn Free Public Library, to celebrate their accomplishments in creating a library that is more welcoming and accessible to people with visual and other disabilities. 

I had the pleasure of representing Perkins at the event along with Joann Becker, an assistive technology specialist and trainer for Perkins Solutions. I spoke about the partnership between Perkins and the Auburn Library, which began when the director and staff attended one of the Perkins Assistive Technology In-service Training for Library Staff in December 2014.

The Perkins Library and Perkins Solutions helped Library Director Carolann MacMaster to select assistive technology for the library and train some of the staff to better assist people with disabilities.

The library eventually purchased JAWS, software that reads aloud text on a computer screen; and MAGic, a magnification program for users with low vision. Patrons will also have access to the Topaz, an electronic magnifier that displays printed materials on a large monitor; and a SARA CE, a stand-alone text-to-speech device that scans and reads aloud books or magazines in multiple languages.  

Attendees at the March breakfast had a chance to tour the suite of assistive technology devices and specialty software as well as the newly renovated library building, where doorways and other spaces were widened to accommodate people in wheelchairs. 

Collectively, the improvements to expand accessibility services took several years to accomplish, and involved multiple stakeholders from the community, local and state government. On hand to talk about the journey to improve library services were State Representative Paul Frost of Auburn, and Auburn Town Manager Julie Jacobson, who spoke about the on-going importance of having a vibrant library in the town of Auburn that is accessible to the entire community.

The funds to purchase assistive technology for the library came from a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) Grant, administered by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. Roland Ochsenbein, a member of the board, commended the board of directors of the Auburn Library, and their staff, on their vision and commitment to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to information and services.

Ochsenbein also provided some sobering facts related to the use of library services. For example, state funding for libraries has decreased over the past 14 years, even while usage of library services has increased by 39 percent over the past decade. He spoke about the vital role community libraries play in providing literacy programs, access to the internet, ESL and citizenship classes, and information about employment.

Through its partnership with Perkins, staff from the Auburn Library had a chance to visit the Brooks Free Library in Harwich, whose robust assistive technology program VITAL (Visually Impaired Technical Assistance in the Library) has been established for over a decade, run mainly by volunteers.

The Brooks Free Library model of involving members of the community, many of whom have disabilities, to teach others how to use assistive technology devices and software in a formalized program has had remarkable success.  The VITAL program helps ensure that the technology is used on a daily basis and more patrons have the skills and ability to access information and services.

Libraries like Brooks and Auburn are impressive examples of truly accessible community resources. Hopefully, more cities and towns across the nation will follow their lead and engage in community partnerships that benefit every citizen.

Ellen Hall is a business development manager in the assistive technology division at Perkins Solutions.