Case Study 3.1: Helen Keller Digital Archive
Launched in 2018, the Helen Keller Archive set out to provide access to more than 160,000 letters, documents, photos, press clippings, drawings, and media materials documenting the life and work of the famous author and activist. As sponsors of the project, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) laid out a mission to make the archive fully accessible to everyone including people with disabilities.
As they detailed in their accessibility statement, the AFB endeavored to make both the interface and content of the Keller Archive accessible such that people with disabilities could “access the site independently, via magnification, synthetic speech, or refreshable braille devices.” These goals flowed naturally from the AFB’s overall mission to “create a world of no limits for people who are blind or visually impaired.” The organization noted that, given Keller’s role in the disability rights movement, it was only right to make her materials available to “researchers and audiences directly affected by this history.”
As they pursued this mission, AFB adopted various strategies for improving the accessibility of the archive:
- Transcripts: They prioritized full transcription of documents—both typed and handwritten. For instance, this letter from Vicki Krese is accompanied by a full transcript.
- OCR testing: Using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) wherever possible, they completed transcripts with assistance from volunteers who corrected errors. As Robert Browder notes in ALA TechSource, it is important to test the outcomes of OCRing because errors occur in this algorithmic rendering of text.
- Project staffing: When available volunteer support was short, AFB turned to creative staffing solutions, drawing volunteers from Idealist.org to complete transcription and description work.
- Alt text and accessible platform: Photos like this image of Keller sitting with a small dog were described in detail for blind viewers. The photo viewer was designed so users could zoom and magnify portions of the image using keyboard-only commands.
- Intuitive keyboard-only access: Not only is the archive accessible to a person who cannot use a mouse but keyboard commands are also spelled out at the top of the media viewer.
- Transparency: Each page includes links for users who may be struggling with errors. For instance, images link to a section explaining why transcript text may be mistaken. This link leads to a full explanation of OCRing and accompanying errors, and the archive provides ready access to contact information in case of difficulties.
- Captions and audio description: Videos include audio descriptions, or explanations for viewers who cannot see the images on the screen. Each video is also captioned and followed by a full transcript of remarks. See, for instance, this film clip of Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy, 1928.
- Testing: The AFB worked remotely with 18 volunteers of various ages and abilities to refine the usability of the archive. They describe these tests in their accessibility statement.
These are only a few examples showing how the AFB, informed by its mission, incorporated accessibility into its planning and design from the beginning of the Keller Archive project.