Feather pen writing on a scroll representing history.

How to make historical documents accessible for low vision

Using free assistive technology resources to make primary sources accessible for vision impairment.

Some of my academic assignments as well as personal side projects have required me to examine copies of primary source and historical documents in a variety of formats. These documents are often more difficult to read than modern-day printed documents because of faded ink/colors, low contrast, or other quality issues. Because of this, I often have to change how I approach reading historical documents with assistive technology and have a few different options for reading or interacting with content. Here are my tips for how to make primary source and historical documents accessible for low vision, and my favorite assistive technology tips.

Typewritten documents

Typewritten documents are inclusive of documents that are produced using a typewriter or computer. Unlike handwriting, each typewritten letter/number/symbol has a generally consistent appearance and size. This consistency makes typewritten documents a great candidate for OCR technologies, which recognize text from images.

Options for reading typewritten documents with assistive technology:

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Handwritten documents

Handwritten documents may not have consistent size or appearance for letters/numbers/symbols, and older documents may have faded ink colors as well. OCR technology is less reliable for detecting text, especially cursive text, but there are still a few other options.

Options for reading handwritten documents with assistive technology:

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Scanned PDF copies of text

Many libraries have scanned PDF copies of handwritten or typewritten historical documents that can be configured to be compatible with assistive technology. This can be done by the librarian or document production team.

Options for reading scanned PDFs with assistive technology:

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Primary source videos/film

Primary source videos and films that are archived with museums, presidential libraries, and similar sources often include a captioning file and/or transcripts that can be read by the viewer to get more information. Transcripts also often include a description of visual content in the video/film.

Viewers that are sensitive to flashing or flickering animations may prefer to read transcripts for primary source videos as they may contain floaters or flickering effects depending on the quality of the film.

Other options for watching primary source videos/film with assistive technology:

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The majority of libraries, museum archives, and similar sources will have a caption or image description linked with digital copies of images/photographs that provides information about significant visual details, such as who is in the picture and where it was taken. This is similar to including alt text for an image, though the caption/image description is “exposed” so that anyone can read it.

Options for viewing historical images/photographs with assistive technology:

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Audio recordings

While audio recordings themselves do not involve any visual content, audio playback tools may be difficult to use with assistive technology.

Options for listening to audio recordings with assistive technology:

Maps (physical and digital)

Maps often have a high level of visual detail that require more careful examination compared to reading text, as each letter and symbol are of critical importance. Personally, I prefer to read digital maps when possible as larger maps may be cut off or more difficult for me to read due to the size, while digital maps can be fit to my device screen.

Options for reading maps with assistive technology:

Related links

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By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes, www.veroniiiica.com

Updated November 2023; original post published august 2018.

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