Accessible Technology Year after Year

One library commits to technology for all on an ongoing basis
Billings, Montana
Kathy Robins

How does the Billings Public Library in Montana successfully achieve Edge Benchmark 11 year after year? As Systems Administrator Kathy Robins explains, it’s by making digital technology for people with disabilities part of the library’s long-range and strategic plans.

In this case study, we discuss Edge Benchmark 11: Libraries ensure participation in digital technology for people with disabilities.

As systems administrator for the Billings Public Library, Kathy Robins coordinates all of the library’s digital initiatives. In many ways, her job duties are as varied as the landscape she lives in: the library serves almost all of Yellowstone County, Montana, spanning 2,649 square miles. With a main library, branch, and bookmobile, the library serves approximately 100,000 people in and around Billings. The branch is uniquely housed in the local community college and jointly staffed by the library and school, with plans for a new facility to begin construction in Fall of 2013.

In this interview with TechSoup for Libraries, Robins describes why the Billings Public Library has been successful in achieving Benchmark 11. We learn that by making digital technology for people with disabilities part of the library’s long-range and strategic plans, it remains a top priority year after year.  

What made your library successful?

As systems administrator, Robins’ duties at library range from infrastructure, to hardware, to digital services. She’s involved in decision-making about everything from setting up networks to digitizing content. At the same time, she’s always planning for "what’s next," whether that’s offering a new database or upgrading existing software on the library’s computers.

Robins has been in her position for just over three years, but says the library’s institutional commitment to serving people with unique needs has been in place for many more. An ongoing renewal of its commitment to digital technology for people with disabilities is a reason Billings Public Library has been achieving Benchmark 11, she explains. The library has a long-range plan that spans 10 to 15 years, a shorter-term strategic plan, and annual goals and work plans that map out what needs to be accomplished now.

So what does Billings Public Library do to try and meet the technology needs of its diverse population?

First, Robins says, it maintains a WC3-compliant website. Even though Billings Public Library is a city/county library, it is considered a department of the City of Billings. The city contracts with CivicPlus, whose sites are WC3 compliant. Robins herself has also taken advantage of continuing education classes from CivicPlus to learn more about building and maintaining WC3 compliant websites.

Next, the library offers adaptive workstations that have JAWS-enabled screen readers or touch screen computers with Bierley magnification. Robins reports that there are three ADA terminals at the main library and an additional at the branch library. All of the stations are equipped with ergonomic mice and large-print keyboards (which have yellow keys with large black letters) that can be rotated to other work stations if needed; furthermore, all stations can accommodate wheelchairs. In the library’s new facility, "every single workstation — no matter if it's an ADA terminal or not — will be able to accommodate a wheelchair," Robins said.

Third, Billings Public Library staff members receive training on recognizing and serving patrons with disabilities. During 2012, library staff received a series of trainings on serving patrons with mental health disabilities. "We had four speakers come in," said Robins. "These are local people from the community crisis center, counselors who are working with people with disabilities, and people with disabilities themselves." In addition to having outside speakers, staff also give presentations on new assistive tools and technologies.

What did you learn during this process? 

Try new things. Robins says it’s important to be open to change, support staff who propose new ideas or ways of doing things, and to create time to explore new things. "I’ve learned it’s important to enlist the help of other people when I’m trying to do things. Ask for expertise," said Robins. "Even if you don’t get something that you want, you’ve communicated with a stakeholder in your community and built a relationship so they remain a library supporter."

Where did you run into trouble?

At one point, the adaptive workstations at the library had a variety of equipment and software and each station was unique to itself.  This setup made orientation to the technology more difficult for staff and for patrons.

How did you overcome those challenges?

The library was awarded a grant and standardized the capabilities of all of the ADA stations.  In that way, patrons were able to become familiar with the technology and have confidence at subsequent visits to the library, knowing that all workstations were configured the same.

What was your key to success?

Robins reiterates the importance of institutionalizing your commitment to serving people with disabilities and other unique needs in a strategic plan. "I’ve often thought, 'If you don’t have a goal, you’re not going to reach it,'" said Robins. "I think they key is having it be part of the strategic plan. Take a look at the long-term plan and break it up into short-term plans."

What would you do differently?

While says she and other managers at the Billings Public Library actively work on community-building relationships every day, Robins says there’s always room for improvement. She believes the library could do more outreach. Tying this to Benchmark 11, Robins mentioned that the library could do a better job of spreading the word about its resources for people with disabilities by hosting demonstrations on adaptive technology in various parts of Billings.

What advice would you give to a colleague?

Robins says the first step to success is to set a goal. Next, figure out who and/or what will help you achieve your goal. If it’s a person, enlist their help. Robins offer easy-to-follow advice on how to build new connections in your community. “

Just say 'Can I have coffee with you? I want to talk about things that might be possible,'" she said. "It doesn’t have to be long; it could be half an hour. It might sound scary to people, but you can learn a lot from it."

What you come up with may not be your best idea, she says, but experts and patrons can help you shape an unformed idea into something excellent. Don't be afraid to ask for help!

What three steps would you tell a colleague to start doing now?

  1. While Robins believes going out and talking to people in the community helps develop relationships and ideas, she cautions that you "have to turn it into something." Take a chance. Do something new.
  2. Start with simple changes, like buying one or two pieces of adaptive technology such as ergonomic mice and a large-key keyboard to make an ADA workstation.
  3. Work with a company that sells adaptive equipment, like Bierley Electronics, to develop creative ways to budget for new devices. Or, for a simple and inexpenseive way to add adaptability, purchase a larger monitor and increase the resolution on the screen. Then train staff to help patrons change the resolution on larger monitors for an interim solution.