Meeting Community Needs with Technology

Ensuring participation in digital technology by providing assistive hardware and software, staying on top of technology trends, and communicating with patrons.
Cuyahoga County, OH
Rebecca ‘Becky’ Ranallo

One of the largest library systems in the country, Cuyahoga County Public Library serves more than 600,000 people; its service area includes both wealthy and struggling suburbs of Cleveland. Becky Ranallo is in charge of Internet Media Services, managing the library’s web presence, including the public website and the employee Intranet; media production projects; media capture; and the online catalog. Becky and her team also schedule and lead technology training for patrons and staff.

The library has done extensive research to provide the latest in assistive technology for patrons with special needs. While the Cuyahoga County Public Library is focused on Edge Benchmark 11: Libraries ensure participation in digital technology for people with disabilities, its work touches multiple community values. 

Community accessibility is also an important component of digital literacy, which is covered by Edge Benchmark 1Libraries provide assistance and training with the goal of increasing the level of digital literacy in the community. By providing accessible technology, more of the library's diverse clientele can participate in technology and digital literacy training. 

Furthermore, the staff has amplified its own internal technology training, which is covered in Benchmark 8, so it can better meet the needs of the community. Becky says she and her team continue to see more and more people using their own devices (such as iPads) to access Cuyahoga County Public Library resources, as well as using the same devices in the libraries. The library gets tips from these "Bring Your Own Device" patrons who share how they're using the device and ways in which the library could improve its services. Continuing education and training have helped library staff better interact with technology and the patrons who use it. 

Working Through Benchmark 11

Like other libraries that have been successful in implementing Benchmark 11, the Cuyahoga County Public Library includes accessibility in its strategic plan. The existing strategic plan (completed in 2003) was crystalized into a mission, vision, and goals in 2009. The mission is: “Cuyahoga County Public Library will be at the center of community life by providing an environment where reading, lifelong learning, and civic engagement thrive.”

The mission, vision, and goals were further distilled into six priorities:

  1. Reconnect with reading
  2. Ensure every child enters school ready to learn
  3. Help youth reach maximum potential
  4. Put Cuyahoga County back to work
  5. Keep seniors healthy, happy, and independent;
  6. Connect with new Americans

In Becky's words, “The six priorities include accessibility for anyone at any stage, at any age.” The Cuyahoga County Public Library is currently updating its strategic plan, which will include similar points about accessibility for all customers.

Kids in the studioBecky says that the Cuyahoga County Public Library achieves all of Benchmark 11’s indicators. After six years, is undergoing a redesign that will ensure WC3 compliance. The World Wide Web Consortium (shortened to W3C) provides standards and guidelines for designing websites with accessibility in mind. When all of the library’s public computers where replaced in 2011, magnification built into the operating system and screen readers were included. While some of the largest Cuyahoga County Public Library branches already had work stations with JAWS screen reading software, Becky says it was important that magnification and screen readers be accessible to all patrons no matter their location, which meant having the technology installed in the computers. An additional benefit to getting new computers was being able to upgrade the monitors. Touch screen monitors can be rotated onto any terminal, which is beneficial for people who have difficulty using a keyboard or mouse.

Becky says the first step in updating your technology is to look at what you already have. It may not be the best solution long-term, but can help you serve patrons now. Just like Cuyahoga County Public Library, you may be able to make a series of upgrades using your own operating system. 

Almost all of Cuyahoga County Public Library’s work stations can accommodate a wheelchair or mobility vehicle. An ‘unprecedented’ capital campaign is enabling the library to upgrade 19 of its 28 branches, either by building new or renovating existing branches. When building is complete, all 28 branches will be ADA-compliant, as will access to library computers.

When asked how accessibility directly impacts Cuyahoga County Public Library’s customers, Becky said the library hasn’t done a formal patron assessment, but gathers anecdotes. Becky shared this anecdote about a former staff member who has become her go-to person on accessibility questions:

He’s lost most of his vision, and he and I talk on a regular basis about his ability to access our collection. He said that from his standpoint, getting an iPad was life changing to his ability to reconnect with resources; getting an iPad and being able to use our collection on it has made a huge impact on his ability to do the things he loves to do."

The Cuyahoga County Public Library is also using iPads as part of sensory-based programming for children on the Autism spectrum. Becky has received emails from parents who say the programs are having an amazing, positive impact on their kids. The county’s aging population has also brought about a need to customize solutions for those with additional needs or who require special assistance.

Collaboration and Partnerships

Kids at the computer lab

Meeting Benchmark 11 is very hard work, because adaptive technology is both expensive and ever-changing. Ranallo shared that you need to think creatively and be open to exploring alternative means, such as partnerships, to serve your patrons.

Forming partnerships with the Cleveland Public Library and Cleveland Sight Center has been the key to the Cuyahoga County Public Library’s success. Because JAWS and other adaptive technologies can be cost-prohibitive, the Cuyahoga County Public Library turned to the Cleveland Public Library as a source of information on other solutions. The Cleveland Public Library has a branch for the blind and people with physical disabilities and can be tapped for ideas on adaptive technology and the best ways to implement it.

According to Becky, “Working with partners and utilizing their expertise was the best way to both inform ourselves and our staff on the best way to handle people who need some additional access.” She goes on to explain that the partnerships work because they’re mutually beneficial – the Cleveland Public Library and Cleveland Sight Center also gain from their work with Cuyahoga County Public Library.

What about libraries that don’t have potential partners in their backyard? Becky suggests looking into virtual partnerships and sharing resources online and points out that many national organizations are willing to share expertise on specific topics.

The Value of Training

Becky and her staff have designed training sessions for the Cuyahoga County Public Library Adult Services and Youth Services departments to help staff recognize and serve patrons with disabilities or other unique needs. Becky says she and her team, however, don’t do it alone. In addition to partnering with the Cleveland Public Library and Cleveland Sight Center to provide services for patrons, Cuyahoga County Public Library turns to them for help with continuing education and training. You can consider reaching out to similar organizations in your area for similar support.

Looking to What's Next

Though OS-enabled magnification and screen readers currently help Cuyahoga County Public Library serve patrons with unique needs, Becky is thinking one step ahead to ‘what’s next’. “We’re relying a lot on the OS right now, and we need to look at other ways to handle that,” she says. Becky wants to look for more portable solutions, and she’s turning to the library’s partners to brainstorm ideas. As budget permits, she’d also like have more JAWS work stations.

Becky is also taking a look at an Open Source screen reader called NVDA and evaluating how the library might use it.

Three Ways to Start Benchmark 11

  1. Look at your existing public access technology and consider how you can repurpose or upgrade it.
  2. Consider partnerships! Look at what you have in your communities – Departments of Family Services and Human Services, local health centers, are ideas of where to start.
  3. Do your homework. Becky reminds us that there are a lot of free and Open Source resources online.

"While you still have to take some time and vet it, there are definitely some resources out there."