A Case Study For Assessing Special Collections Spaces Using SAA Guidelines for Accessible Archives For People With Disabilities

Lindy Smith, Head of LaBudde Special Collections, University of Missouri-Kansas City

I started work as Head of LaBudde Special Collections at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) on August 1, 2019. UMKC is a mid-sized public university that is part of a larger state-wide system and located in an urban environment. Like many public universities, we have limited funding available for facilities. Our library building is over 50 years old, though the special collections reading room, collection storage, and staff areas have been remodeled over the course of the past decade, give or take a few years. The following is an informal assessment of our spaces that I have conducted using the Physical Environment section of the SAA Guidelines for Accessible Archives for People with Disabilities and some of the changes we have made or plan to make in the near future.

Physical Environment

Buildings and Grounds

SAA: At least one door should have automatic openers and should be wide enough (i.e. 36 inches) to accommodate wheelchairs and scooters.

UMKC: The library building has multiple accessible entrances, but the special collections reading room does not. We are closed off from the rest of the third floor and visitors must open one of a set of two large doors to gain entrance. Each of the two double doors is exactly 36”. The opening is about a half inch less because of the frame, but should still accommodate nearly all users. The doors are moderately heavy, automatically close, and require constant resistance to keep open. They are not easy to manage for someone with limited mobility or strength, in a wheelchair, or a staff member trying to navigate with a book truck full of collection materials. I have requested an automatic opener for our reading room and it is on the list of projects to be completed when we have available funding.

SAA: Eliminate obstacles that could be tripping hazards for people with sight disabilities or who use scooters/wheelchairs.

UMKC: We recently rearranged all of the furniture to allow for better sight lines from our desk and better collection security. All of our tables have built in power outlets, so we made sure we could still provide power. One table would require running a cord across the floor, so we have requested a cord cover to help mitigate it as a tripping hazard. We also made sure to leave as much space as possible between chairs (50” when pushed in) to allow for accessibility throughout the space.

SAA: Aisles/stacks should be wide enough (i.e. 36 inches minimum and 42 inches preferred) to accommodate wheelchairs and scooters. If they are not wide enough for wheelchairs to turn around (i.e. 48 inches), they should be open at both ends to prevent the need to back up for long distances.

UMKC: We do not have any publicly accessible stacks in the special collections space. We do have some wall mounted shelving but there is sufficient space around it for members of the public. Closed stacks areas all have at least 36” of clearance. They are only open at one end, but are not very long. This is an issue to address if we ever have the chance to reconfigure that space, but it would reduce our storage capacity and be prohibitively expensive to correct now.

SAA: If a public elevator is not available, visitors should be permitted to use employee elevators while accompanied by an employee.

UMKC: There are four elevators visitors can use to access our space: two in the library and two in an adjoining classroom building that has a direct link to our floor. This is not true of every floor in the building, so we are very lucky to be located where we are.

SAA: Bathrooms should have wheelchair-accessible toilets and sinks as well as proper disposal containers for medical and personal hygiene.

UMKC: We have two sets of public restrooms on our floor: one in the library (men and women) and one in the adjoining classroom building (men, women, and family/gender neutral). All offer accessible stalls and sinks. Waste disposal is a little trickier. Stalls in the women’s restrooms do have designated bins for hygiene items, but stalls in the men’s do not. Restroom trashcans are limited to only recyclable paper towel disposal.

SAA: Signage should be in large print, with high contrast between letters and backgrounds.

Signs should be printed on non-glare surfaces. Whenever possible, Braille should be included in standardized locations.

UMKC: All permanent library signage is in large print with high contrast and we have room numbers in Braille outside doors. Directional signage on our floor is on non-glare surfaces but the sign that identifies the reading room is shiny and silver. I plan to investigate additional options to identify the space.

SAA: Manually operated compact shelving should be avoided unless it is possible to ensure that someone with a disability can turn the crank arms. Electrically operated compact shelving is recommended.

UMKC: We have an automated storage and retrieval system (high density storage with a robot that retrieves and delivers stored materials to operator stations). Some computer stations do require the user to stand to both manage requests and retrieve the materials, some only required the user to stand to access the materials. Because of the nature of the system, we cannot change how it operates. We would have to provide an accommodation to staff members who could not stand or climb a ladder to retrieve items.

SAA: Flooring should comply with archival facility guidelines endorsed by the SAA, 14 such as sealed concrete, low-pile carpet or carpet tiles, or sealed wood floors.

UMKC: All floors are low-pile carpet tiles, sealed concrete, or smooth hard tiles.

SAA: Venues should be smoke-free and fragrance-free out of consideration for people who are sensitive to smells.

UMKC: We are a smoke free campus. We do not use any environmental fragrances, but employees are not prohibited from wearing fragrances or using fragranced products like fabric softeners or personal care products.

SAA: Venues should have zoned temperature and humidity controls which balance the preservation of the collections and the comfort of employees and visitors.

UMKC: This is an ongoing struggle. I am sure many readers can relate! It is generally comfortable for users in our reading room, but we have been dealing with improper temperatures in both collection spaces and staff offices. Both we and campus facilities are taking this seriously and it will hopefully be fixed soon.

Reading Room

SAA: The reference desk should be designed to flexibly accommodate both researchers and employees. At least a portion of the desk should be at a lower height to enable people using wheelchairs to interact with employees at eye level. If the desk is not accessible, an employee should meet the researcher in a more accessible location within the room.

Consider having dual screens at the reference computer so that a researcher can follow what the employee is doing. Enable communicating via chat if needed.

UMKC: We do have a lower portion of our desk. We also have one computer with a dual screen so we can demonstrate searching and browsing for users. We are in the process of implementing limited chat services where we wouldn’t have a separate account, but would be available to accept transferred requests from our main reference department.

SAA: Chairs should be height and ergonomically adjustable and mobile. Provide a variety of chair sizes and styles to accommodate all visitors.

At least one reading room table should be height adjustable.

UMKC: We only have one model each of chairs and tables in our reading room. They are not height adjustable. We have another model of chairs available in the space, but they do not have accompanying tables. This is a need to consider for the future. Currently furniture is only a few years old, lightly used, and we would not be able to make a good argument for replacing it at this time.

SAA: Consider providing an extra wheelchair or other mobility tools for visitors to borrow on site.

UMKC: This is not something we currently offer in special collections, but it might be something we could offer library-wide.

Overall, I think we have addressed many, but not all, of the Guidelines. Of those that remain, there are some that cannot easily be changed and will always require accommodations, some that can and are being easily fixed, and some that we can work to remedy over the next few years. I hope this has inspired you to take a look at your spaces and see what small or large changes you can make to improve the experience of your staff or researchers with disabilities.