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Book Review: Web Accessibility
Web Accessibility: Practical Advice for the Library and Information Professional. By Jenny Craven, Facet Publishing, 2008, ISBN 978-1856046251, 192 pages.
There are many books on Web accessibility but they tend to come at the subject from quite a narrow area of Web design. This is especially true of books published in the USA, a country which has quite limited Federal legislation on the need to implement accessible Web sites and intranets. It is a subject that should be of passionate interest to our profession in its commitment to providing access to information to all who request it. We not only have a duty under legislation to provide accessible access but, as the back cover of the book highlights, also a moral duty.
When I opened this book I was immediately struck by the immense experience of the contributors to this book, and even more so by the very considered and elegant introduction by the Editor. Jenny Craven is a Research Associate at the Centre for Research and Information Management (CERLIM) at Manchester Metropolitan University and an acknowledged expert in this area.
Chapters and Subjects Covered
After the very well written introduction by the Editor, E.A.Draffan (University of Southampton) reviews the tools used for widening access to the Web, including changing some of the default settings on a PC as well as various third-party keyboards and screen reader/text-to-speech applications. Chapter 3 is written by Dr. Simon Ball (Senior Advisor, JISC TechDis Service) and covers Web design principles and good practice. I was disappointed that there were no illustrations in this section, or links to sites that exemplify good practice. The motivations and arguments for accessibility are then elegantly outlined in Chapter 4 by David Sloan (Project Lead, Digital Media Access Group, University of Dundee), covering social, technical, economic, legal and policy factors. His discussion about the lack of clarity concerning Web accessibility requirements in the UK Disability Discrimination Act is especially valuable.
Chapter 5 on accessibility and guidance is written by Julie Howell, who was on the staff of the RNIB for over a decade and is now Director of Accessibility at Fortune Cookie. I've had the pleasure of several discussions with Julie over years and have always been impressed by her combination of passion and professionalism in the advancement of Web accessibility. Both qualities are evident in her analysis of the Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines and related regulations.
In Chapter 6 David Sloan discusses approaches to accessibility evaluation and assessment, listing some of the automated tools that are now available as well as the issues to be considered in user evaluations with disabled users. Professor Peter Brophy (Director of CERLIM and Professor of Information Management at Manchester Metropolitan University) contributes a very elegant analysis of the issues for library and information service managers in Chapter 7, setting out a seven-step approach towards the development of a policy towards providing the best possible level of Web accessibility. I especially commend Richard Eskins (Senior Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University) and Jennie Craven for tackling the subject of the inclusion of Web accessibility in library and information science curricula, illustrated by examples of good practice from UK courses.
In Chapter 8 Jenny Craven then sets out some best practice examples of Web accessibility world-wide, with an excellent bibliography. However again there are no illustrations in the text, though I appreciate that there is always the danger that the Web site will no longer be such a good example by the time the book is published. Finally Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus advisor UKOLN, University of Bath) takes a look into the future, examining the limitations of the current Web Accessibility Initiatives and the work that is now in hand to revise them.
This is an excellent book on two levels. First it is an admirable handbook on a very broad cross-section of Web accessibility issues, and even if I would like to have seen more examples of good (and poor!) design this is but a small criticism of this book. As I said in my introduction to this review there are many books that get into the detail or HTML-implementation of accessible design, but this book complements these in a very well-considered way. Two topics are missing from this otherwise very comprehensive book. The first is commentary on the way in which content management software (CMS) applications facilitate the inclusion of accessible content in Web sites and intranets. In general CMS products from UK vendors offer significantly better functionality than products from US vendors. Amazingly the initial release of the new Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 application has poor support for the creation of accessible content. The second is a warning about search software. Many search software products offer only a limited ability to configure the search interface to be Web-accessible. The result is that a perfectly accessible Web or intranet site can be degraded substantially by the search application.
All managers responsible for ensuring that Web resources are accessible to users with any form of disability should have a copy of this book on their bookshelf without delay, but only after reading it.
In addition Jennie Craven, the Editor of the book, and Facet Publishing, deserve credit for an exemplary example of a multi-author book. The Editor's introduction to the book is one of the best I have come across. The authors write to a consistently high standard with good current bibliographies and lists of Web resources, and each chapter complements the others without anything more than an inevitable but limited amount of duplication. The best accolade I can offer is that if the author names were excluded the reader would have no sense that the chapters were written by different people. A note to other publishers: it can be done!