Accessible Digitisation Projects – Stephanie Nield

Some of you who attended ARA’s conference in Glasgow this year may have seen myself and others give talks about diversifying archives’ audiences and becoming more inclusive and representative of the communities we serve. I appeared on a panel representing the Leonard Cheshire Archive with the Mass Observation Archive and Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archive. You can view our talks here.

In my presentation I talked about how we made our recent Heritage Lottery Funded project ‘Rewind’ accessible for disabled people. The whole project had accessibility for disabled people as its first priority. I feel confident in saying that usually the archives profession does not take this into account much further than providing a wheelchair accessible entrance to a building, a disabled WC and maybe a hearing loop (if it works). This means we are isolating potentially 22% of the population (1) from archive services, whether they are provided online, via a mobile device, or in a search room.

Off the record 1

Archive volunteers using a PC.

Our evidence is anecdotal, but the project team did some comprehensive Googling of recent archive digitisation projects to see if there was anyone we could learn from. We found that most digitised sound recordings and films made available online do not come with transcripts, subtitles or audio description. To repeat, they are inaccessible to potentially 22% of the population. This isn’t good enough.

What did we learn from our digitisation project? As we were digitising sound clips, the first challenge to solve was how to present them online. Platforms like SoundCloud are not accessible as they provide no way of including a transcript in the same place as the sound clip. I have seen people use PDFs for transcripts in iTunes, (how to do it is here) but it is very limited (only works on the latest recording) and PDFs are not always screen readable. Also, iTunes is not open source, which may make it ineligible for some funders.

Off the record 2

A picture of adaptive equipment from 1986 – showing a PC being operated by a foot switch (technology is more advanced now).

We got around this by converting our sound clips to YouTube videos. Using the video editing software Adobe Premier Pro, we made a film for each sound clip, and uploaded the transcript as subtitles. YouTube has guides for this. You can see an example on our website here, but remember to switch the subtitles on using the settings button if they do not automatically play.

Films with a soundtrack were presented online in the same way as the sound clips, but we had a selection of films which we also had audio described for people with vision impairments. You can view examples here.

Audio Description services are available to purchase if you have budget. A guide to doing it yourself is available here.

Accessibility needs to be considered when designing websites. Useful resources can be found in this guide and the W3C web accessibility initiative. If, like us, you have a funder – include budget for a designer and platform builder with expertise in this area. You won’t regret it.

Off the record 3

Two people using a present day adaptive mouse to use a PC.

We digitised a journal for presentation online and learned that digital publishing platforms where you can turn a page digitally (e.g. Issuu) are neither accessible to screen readers, nor easy for people to use who do not have the dexterity to use a mouse or have vision impairments. This meant that we decided to have the journal digitised to PDF with OCR (screen readable by some readers) and then had the PDFs converted to word to be available on request. Word is the only format at the moment which is screen readable by all software. Again, this was factored into the budget from the beginning and our funder was happy to fund this type of activity.

Finally, always test your website with people who use adaptive and assistive technology to use the web. This is an opportunity to find people in your audience who do use the technology and what they find useful and appealing. If this is difficult to do – download a screen reader to a PC to test it out. NVDA is the one that we used and is free. A guide for setting up an existing PC, Mobile or Tablet to make it easier to use is available here.

Stephanie Nield, Archivist, Leonard Cheshire

(1) Department of Work and Pensions “Family Resources Survey” accessed 04/12/2018 at


  1. Reblogged this on archive steph and commented:
    Very proud to have had my work featured in the excellent ARA New professionals’ ‘Off The Record” blog. Do have a read here and also give them a follow.

  2. Pingback: Promoting archives on social media in an accessible way – archive steph

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