Accessible library - interview with Marta Piasecka
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First published in Polish by Monika Schmeichel-Zarzeczna
A modern library is a place for everyone, and it is an egalitarian and inclusive space. Library staff are strongly attached to their communities and design activities based on local needs. In this post, however, I would like to focus on a few specific audiences who have special needs. Who are they? What services do you offer to them? How do libraries fulfil obligations imposed on them under current legislation? I have had the pleasure of discussing accessibility and solutions applied in libraries with Marta Piasecka, accessibility coordinator at the Municipal Public Library in Lublin.
Monika Schmeichel-Zarzeczna: Accessibility is a topic that has recently gained importance in the activities of cultural institutions, including libraries. Under current legislation, we must provide access to people with special needs, including the disabled. I am often asked who people with special needs are.
Marta Piasecka: These are largely people with disabilities, as you have mentioned, but also senior citizens and parents with young children. It is important to remember that in our libraries, each reader is treated as an individual, and their needs are addressed accordingly. However, I think that as far as accessibility is concerned, we need to distinguish between the three groups in particular.
MS-Z: You have said that every reader receives special treatment at a library. Do you believe that Lublin libraries are accessible? What does it actually mean? What kind of accessibility are we talking about?
MP: Accessibility can be seen at different levels. In terms of infrastructure, for example, it ensures that a senior citizen or person with impaired mobility can easily access the library without stairs and other obstacles. But it can also be viewed on a mental or service level. Moreover, this is a challenge that librarians need to take up in order to match the expectations of special groups of readers.
MS-Z: Does it mean that a librarian must also be accessible? What does accessibility stand for to library staff? How are they to meet the expectations?
MP: First of all, to respond to users' different needs, librarians must be competent. They must show empathy. You often hear that a person comes to a library not only to get a book but also just to talk. Many of our clients are elderly and lonely people at risk of exclusion. And to them, a librarian, shop assistant or postman are the only people they can talk to. Openness, empathy and other soft skills are the most important qualities a librarian should display.
MS-Z: You have mentioned the elderly. Should librarians have other special skills to work with people with disabilities? In which areas should they train?
MP: Firstly, when discussing people with disabilities, you must remember that they form divergent groups. When considering mobility impairments, you must think first and foremost about architectural adaptations. Deaf people come to our libraries, too, although not many of them. This is mainly because they only use sign language and do not speak Polish, which is a foreign language to them. If they have lost hearing at some stage of their life, such as an accident or illness, it is possible to communicate with them. What is important, however, is that many of our librarians respond to the needs of people with hearing impairment. Some time ago, a large part of our team completed a Polish Sign Language course. This is why we try to reach out to deaf people and make them aware that they should not fear problems with communication. They can visit our library, and they will be understood. Another group are people who are blind or visually impaired. They need to get help in choosing literature, e.g. an audiobook or a file for an ebook reader. As far as people with mental disabilities are concerned, they usually come to the library with a guardian. To them, the soft skills of librarians that I have mentioned earlier are fundamental.
MS-Z: A lot has been said recently about digital accessibility and accessibility in architecture. How do you deal with them in the Lublin library?
MP: Our library is a network of 40 branches that are located in different parts of the city. Unfortunately, not all of the branches are accessible yet, as they are located, for example, in old buildings. However, we are trying to make them more accessible and inform about it. On our website, we provide information with detailed directions, like the ones from a bus stop. When publishing such info, we indicate what obstacles may be encountered, for example, by wheelchair users. And I think that in this context, accessibility in architecture is strongly related to digital accessibility. Posting such information on the website will allow users with disabilities to choose the right branch that is accessible to them. The accessibility of the collections is also important. For example, for visually impaired people, we offer more and more books printed with larger fonts, we can record collections as files for ebook readers, and we offer audiobooks. The same is true about the content we publish online. We try to ensure that our videos have subtitles and are thus more accessible.
However, when it comes to digital accessibility, each library website must feature an accessibility declaration concerning contents that are posted online. Therefore, such a statement has been featured on our website for some time. As I have mentioned, we describe each branch in terms of its architectural accessibility. We provide information on door dimensions or distances between the shelves. In addition, we describe all the photos on the website for visually impaired or blind people so they can imagine what is depicted. We do the same on our Facebook fan pages. On social media, we add subtitles to our videos, too.
MS-Z: You have mentioned image descriptions. Could you tell us what you should pay attention to when preparing them?
MP: The most important thing is to describe in plain language what you see in the picture. For example, you look at a photo presenting a landscape and write that there is a tree on the left, the sky is blue with five clouds, and you can see a tractor in the distance. You have to put yourself in the shoes of a blind person, close your eyes and think whether the description you have heard is clear to you.
MS-Z: Last year, you organised the Signed Poetry Festival at the library. Could you delve into this project a little more?
MP: We held a sign poetry festival last October. It was a project co-financed by the Kultura Dostępna programme of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. The festival began with a meeting with Magdalena Jankowska, a poet from Lublin, who talked about her work. The main theme was a sign poetry workshop led by Arkadiusz Balzak from Wrocław. We built many events around the workshop that were dedicated to both deaf and able-bodied audiences, to mention culture animateurs. The festival events were diverse and included workshops, panel discussions, and film screenings. For example, we organised a meeting with a psychologist for deaf people. All the activities aimed to encourage the participants to become culture consumers. Deaf people are often afraid to take the initiative or participate in cultural events, fearing that no one will understand them.
Children and young people from a special needs education centre participated in the sign poetry workshop, which was a hit. They were so engrossed in the activities that they did not want to leave. They wanted to perform and create. This made us realise how much they need to participate in such events and how much joy they give them. Another highlight were two lectures prepared by the work without barriers employment agency. Deaf people could register with them and get help in finding a job. During the workshop addressed to an able-bodied audience, the participants learnt how to employ deaf people in the culture sector. There were also two meetings with the 'Katarynka' Foundation. During one of them, we discussed how cultural institutions could reach deaf people. The second workshop was devoted to adding subtitles to videos.
As an accompanying event, the documentary Znaki (Signs), directed by Wojciech Klimala, was screened. It is an extraordinary documentary about Iwona Cichosz - a Polish woman who became Miss Deaf World in 2016. A meeting with the director and producer followed the meeting. On the last day of the festival, the participants of the sign poetry workshop performed. The festival was so successful that we decided to organise its second edition next year.
Marta Piasecka – since 2008, an employee of the Municipal Public Library in Lublin. Initially as a librarian, then as manager of Branch Office No. 2, and currently as a promotion and marketing specialist. For years she was also associated with the Lublin media. She has collaborated with Gazeta Wyborcza, Kurier Lubelski and local radio stations. She hosted the "Kulturalnik" programme on Lublin TV for some time. She is also an author of training courses on PR and media.
Monika Schmeichel-Zarzeczna – art historian, trainer, librarian. She works at the Municipal Public Library in Lublin. She conducts activities using the latest technologies in education, writes projects and supports the development of people of various ages and representatives of diversified social groups. A member of the LABiB Association, EPALE ambassador, and holder of a scholarship funded by the Minister of Culture and National Heritage. She runs the bibliotekaaplikacji.com portal.