Helping People with Disabilities in the Bookstacks

One thing I have noticed is how few libraries have plans for helping people with disabilities retrieve books from the stacks.

  • What should people with low vision do if they can read a book with assistive technology, but have difficulty reading the spine labels? What if they want to browse?
  • The bookstacks aisles may be wide enough for a wheelchair, but how are they going to be able to reach material from the top shelf? For that matter, what about individuals with mobility issues that prevent them from reaching very far overhead or using a kick-stool?
  • Audiobooks are great for people who have low vision or are totally blind, but how can they differentiate between one CD case and another?

Allowing people to request checked-in items helps people with disabilities a LOT (provided the catalog is accessible to screen readers, that is.) No worrying about how to reach the top shelves, no worrying about trying to read the tiny font on the spine labels, and a reduced need to ask for help. Unfortunately, there are many libraries that do not allow catalog-based paging of materials, probably for logistical or financial reasons. Especially at academic libraries. I can just see how popular it would be for, say, grad students to page about 100 books. Even if only 10 grad students do that, that’s 1000 books to look for.

There may be technological means of allowing only individuals with documented disabilities to page not-checked-out books. It theoretically would be pretty easy to include a field that identifies people who need assistance.

Even with this, people with disabilities should have access to joy of browsing the stacks. Us able-bodied, sighted people find all sorts of books that we might not have otherwise found in the catalog. After all, we frequently teach people to browse around a specific call number to find similar material on a particular topic, right?

If someone is unable to browse, what can they do? Ask a librarian to go with them and read the titles from similar books in the area? I can see some of you running through logistics in your mind. It’s hard to get away from the circulation or reference desk when the library is busy. It’s hard to justify helping just one person when 10 others need to be assisted. People with disabilities know this. However, all should have equal access to information, regardless of abilities.

We should say “yes.”

“Would you mind waiting for a few minutes until my student worker comes back? She’ll be able to help you.”
“I would be glad to help you. Please wait a minute while I find someone to cover the desk, and I’ll go up with you.”
“I would be happy to help you, bu we’re very short-staffed at the moment. Will you be able to come back in an hour?”

We may not always be able to help individuals immediately, but I highly recommend making arrangements or appointments to help them at a specified later date. That way they know that we want to help them.

In fact, if we offer browsing appointments to people who need it, that would be even better. They can submit a request through KnowledgeTracker or your library’s question management system, email a designated email bounce list, call, whatever, but it would help both them and us.

That leaves just one other question: How can we let people know that we can help them? I highly recommend having a page for disability services on your website. Don’t hide it–put it right there on the front page. Let people know they can page materials. Academic libraries–feel free to have a statement encouraging people to register with Disabilities Services, but please, provide service anyway while the Disabilities office works on the paperwork. Tell people they can stop by and seek browsing assistance. You can also tell them that if you are busy, you may not be able to help them right away, but make sure you make it clear that you WANT to help them. Provide multiple communication options – form, email, IM/e-reference, phone, etc.

If you have the time, money, and inclination, you can produce Braille labels for large-print books and audiobooks. However, this is not absolutely necessary. Unless, of course, you have a large blind and Braille-literate population. Having a staff member help is probably the more cost-effective way of serving people for most libraries, plus then you have a framework in place to help people with other disabilities, too.

Oh. Also, don’t forget to train your staff members. It’s awkward to offer a service without letting your staff members know.


I found only one example of bookstacks paging online so far from the University of Chicago Library. If your library has an example you’d like to share, I would appreciate! I’ll add them here.

If you have other advice or a story to share about helping people with disabilities, please comment–I love to learn how other libraries handle disabilities services. We all have much to learn from each other.

This entry was posted in Library Science. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *