The American Historian

Archives and True Accessibility

Lindsey Patterson

When I visit an archive, the basic concerns of research are on the brain. Which collection to begin with? Will I find that key document? Will I stumble upon my next project? Did I remember to bring pencils? What’s for lunch? As much as we plan for our research trips, many of us take for granted that we can enter the building that houses the archive, check in, find a seat in the reading room, request and receive materials, and take notes and make photocopies or scans. Many of us never consider how accessible archives really are. But speak to a historian with a disability, and we soon realize that the basics we take for granted are not so basic after all.

The field of disability history has grown in the past decade, and scholars in that field have examined how disability contributes to our reading of the past. But there is a disconnect between the inclusion of scholarship on disability and the inclusion of historians with disabilities. We should ask: how have disability and accessibility influenced our reconstruction of history? The answer begins in the archives that historians inhabit.

In 2007 the Society of American Archivists (SAA) began to address issues of accessibility in archives. A working group of archivists and people with disabilities conducted a survey to assess barriers to people with physical disabilities who work or research in archives. Sara White of the Wisconsin Historical Society and the SAA working group observes that while many archives expressed a willingness to provide services, “many institutions offered little beyond those required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).” As a result, over the past five years the SAA has held forums on accessibility and published a series of guidelines and recommendations, including a report available on the SAA Web site, “Best Practices for Working with Archives Researchers with Physical Disabilities” (www2.archivists.org/sites/all/files/BestPract-Disabilities_Researchers_0.pdf), which focus on architectural barriers and issues of mobility. The SAA forums and reports are important first steps toward making archives inclusive.

Recently I spoke with a historian with a physical disability who detailed his archive routine for me. First, he must contact the institution’s ADA compliance coordinator (if the institution has the funding to have one) to cover the basics: accessible transportation to the archives, the character of the neighborhood (including safety), the proximity of restaurants, the building’s floor plan, the procedures for emergency evacuation. Few details are trivial, so the researcher must probe the archive long before arrival. Will the heights of tables accommodate a wheelchair? How far is the reading room from the restroom? What personal items are allowed beyond the locker area? Many archives prohibit bags, so how can a person with limited hand function tote permissible items, such as a laptop or a camera? From such a perspective, the spaces of research take on new meaning. Cramped locker areas are not designed for wheelchairs. Long, beautiful hallways invite some historians from the registration desk to the troves of sources in the reading room but appear onerous to those with mobility impairments.

Access to archives is not an issue just for historians with impaired mobility. I also spoke recently with a deaf historian who is conducting research without an American Sign Language interpreter. Bringing an interpreter on research trips is expensive and not easy to coordinate. Passing a piece of paper back and forth between researcher and archivist is often effective for a summary explanation of one’s project and for requesting specific items, but may not foster the spontaneous conversations with archivists that can lead us to collections we had not considered or did not know existed.

Perhaps digitization of archival collections will offer some solutions for historians with disabilities, but digital is not synonymous with accessible. A blind graduate student told me about the challenge of completing a master’s thesis without being able to travel easily to do research, and thus had to rely on digitized archival collections. Many well-funded archives have digitized their finding aids, but those are often incompatible with adaptive software designed to promote visual accessibility. Archival documents themselves often feature cursive handwriting, fading ink, or small typeset fonts that are inaccessible to anyone with visual impairments and virtually undetectable by optical character recognition (OCR) software. Many audio and video files lack captions or transcripts. Archival digitization, when done well, can greatly benefit historians with disabilities, and like so many facets of accessibility, benefits us all. Better lighting, larger font options, captions, and magnified sound are helpful tools for all researchers. (Archive.org is an example of digitization done well due to its commitment to universal access.)

Thinking about the accessibility of archives will benefit our discipline. It may well change the way we do history by including new voices and extending the participation of those already in our conversations. As the historian Linda K. Kerber has noted, “those who articulate the needs of the disabled articulate the needs of us all.” We must ask ourselves: how can we support our archivist colleagues in making historical data accessible to scholars with disabilities?

The author is sincerely grateful to Geoffrey Parker, Sara White, Octavian Robinson, Jody Noll, Marissa Stalvey, and Viv Dunstan for sharing their experiences with her.