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Web Accessibility: Values and Vigilance

The Duke Libraries are committed to providing outstanding service based on respect and empathy for the diverse backgrounds and needs in our community. Our guiding principles make clear how critically important diversity and inclusion are to the library, and the extent to which we strive to break down barriers to scholarship.

One of the biggest and most important barriers for us to tackle is the accessibility of our web content. Duke University’s Web Accessibility site sums it up well:

Duke believes web content needs to be accessible to people with a wide range of abilities, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological abilities.

Screenshot of Duke Web Accessibility homepage
The Duke Web Accessibility website is a tremendous resource for the Duke community.

This belief is also consistent with the core values expressed by the American Library Association (ALA). A library’s website and online resources should be available in formats accessible to people of all ages and abilities.

Web Content

As one of the largest research libraries in the U.S., we have a whole lot of content on the web to consider.

Our website alone comprises over a thousand pages with more than fifty staff contributors. The library catalog interface displays records for over 13 million items at Duke and partner libraries. Our various digital repositories and digital exhibits platforms host hundreds of thousands of interactive digital objects of different types, including images, A/V, documents, datasets, and more. The list goes on.

Any attempt to take a full inventory of the library’s digital content reveals potentially several million web pages under the library’s purview, and all that content is managed and rendered via a dizzying array of technology platforms. We have upwards of a hundred web applications with public-facing interfaces. We built some of these ourselves, some are community-developed (with local customizations), and others we have licensed from vendors. Some interfaces are new, some are old. And some are really old, dating all the way back to the mid-90s.

Ensuring that this content is equally accessible to everyone is important, and it is indeed a significant undertaking. We must also be vigilant to ensure that it stays accessible over time.

With that as our context, I’d like to highlight a few recent efforts in the library to improve the accessibility of our digital resources.

Style Guide With Color Contrast Checks

In January 2019, we launched a new catalog, replacing a decade-old platform and its outdated interface. As we began developing the front-end, we knew we wanted to be consistent, constrained, and intentional in how we styled elements of the interface. We were especially focused on ensuring that any text in the UI had sufficient contrast with its background to be accessible to users with low vision or color-blindness.

We tried out a few existing “living style guide” frameworks. But none of them proved to be a good fit, particularly for color contrast management. So we ended up taking a DIY approach and developed our own living style guide using Javascript and Ruby.

Screenshot of the library catalog style guide showing a color palette.
The library catalog’s living style guide dynamically checks for color contrast accessibility.

Here’s how it works. In our templates we specify the array of color variable names for each category. Then we use client-side Javascript to dynamically measure the hex & RGB values and the luminance of each color in the guide. From those figures, we return score labels for black and white contrast ratios, color-coded for WCAG 2.0 compliance.

This style guide is “living” in that it’s a real-time up-to-date reflection of how elements of the UI will appear when using particular color variable names and CSS classes. It helps to guide developers and other project team members to make good decisions about colors from our palette to stay in compliance with accessibility guidelines.

Audiovisual Captions & Interactive Transcripts

In fall 2017, I wrote about an innovative, custom-developed feature in our Digital Repository that renders interactive caption text for A/V within and below our media player. At that time, however, none of our A/V items making use of that feature were available to the public.  In the months since then, we have debuted several captioned items for public access.

We extended these features in 2018, including: 1) exporting captions on-the-fly as Text, PDF, or original WebVTT files, and 2) accommodating transcript files that originated as documents (PDF, Word)

Screenshot of an interactive transcript with export options
WebVTT caption files for A/V are rendered as interactive HTML transcripts and can be exported into text or PDF.

Two of my talented colleagues have shared more about our A/V accessibility efforts at conferences over the past year. Noah Huffman presented at ARCHIVES*RECORDS (Joint Annual Meeting of CoSA, NAGARA, and SAA) in Aug 2018. And Molly Bragg presented at Digital Library Federation (DLF) Forum (slides) in Nov 2018.

Institutional Repository Accessibility

We have documented our work over 2018 revitalizing DSpace at Duke, and then subsequently developing a new set of innovative features that highlight Duke researchers and the impact of their work. This spring, we took a closer look at our new UI’s accessibility following Duke’s helpful guide.
In the course of this assessment, we were able to identify (and then fix!) several accessibility issues in DukeSpace. I’ll share two strategies in particular from the guide that proved to be really effective. I highly recommend using them frequently.

The Keyboard Test

How easy is it to navigate your site using only your keyboard? Can you get where you want to go using TAB, ENTER, SPACE, UP, and DOWN?  Is it clear which element of the page current has the focus?
Screenshot of DukeSpace homepage showing skip to content link
A “Skip to main content” feature in DukeSpace improves navigation via keyboard or assistive devices.
This test illuminated several problems. But with a few modest tweaks to our UI markup, we were able to add semantic markers to designate page sections and a skip to main content link, making the content much more navigable for users with keyboards and assistive devices alike.

A Browser Extension

If you’re a developer like me, chances are you already spend a lot of time using your browser’s Developer Tools pane to look under the hood of web pages, reverse-engineer UIs, mess with styles and markup, or troubleshoot problems.
The Deque Systems aXe Chrome Extension (also available for Firefox) integrates seamlessly into existing Dev Tools. It’s a remarkably useful tool to have in your toolset to help quickly find and fix accessibility issues. Its interface is clear and easy to understand. It finds and succinctly describes accessibility problems, and even tells you how to fix them in your code.
An image from the Deque aXe Chrome extension site showing the tool in action.
With aXe testing, we quickly learned we had some major issues to fix. The biggest problems revealed were missing form labels and page landmarks, and low contrast on color pairings. Again, these were not hard to fix since the tool explained what to do, and where.
Turning away from DSpace for a moment, see this example article published on a popular academic journal’s website. Note how it fares with an automated aXe accessibility test (197 violations of various types found).  And if you were using a keyboard, you’d have to press Tab over 100 times in order to download a PDF of the article.
Screenshot of aXe Chrome extension running on a journal website.
UI for a published journal article in a publisher’s website after running the aXe accessibility test. Violations found: 197.

Now, let’s look at the open access copy of that same article that resides in our DukeSpace site. With our spring 2019 DukeSpace accessibility revisions in place, when we run an aXe test, we see zero accessibility violations. Our interface is also now easily navigated without a mouse.

Screenshot or DukeSpace UI showing no violations found by aXe accessibility checker
Open access copy of an article in DukeSpace: No accessibility violations found.

Here’s another example of an open access article in DukeSpace vs. its published counterpart in the website of a popular journal (PNAS).  While the publisher’s site markup addresses many common accessibility issues, it still shows seven violations in aXe. And perhaps most concerning is that it’s completely unnavigable via a keyboard: the stylesheets have removed all focus styles from displaying.

Concluding Thoughts

Libraries are increasingly becoming champions for open access to scholarly research. The overlap in aims between the open access movement and web accessibility in general is quite striking. It all boils down to removing barriers and making access to information as inclusive as possible.

Our open access repository UIs may never be able to match all the feature-rich bells and whistles present in many academic journal websites. But accessibility, well, that’s right up our alley. We can and should do better. It’s all about being true to our values, collaborating with our community of peers, and being vigilant in prioritizing the work.

Look for many more accessibility improvements throughout many of the library’s digital resources as the year progresses.


Brief explanatory note about the A11Y++ image in this post: A11Y is a numeronym — shorthand for the word “accessibility” and conveniently also visually resembling the word “ally.” The “++” is an increment operator in many programming languages, adding one to a variable. 

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