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Celebrating a Decade of NNELS

Thursday, March 14, 2024

History and Context

In late 2013, the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS) was founded by a group of passionate librarians who cared about meeting the reading needs of people with print disabilities. At this time there was growing pressure to support public libraries with accessible-format materials, as this need was not being met. In response to this, members of Provincial and Territorial Public Library Council (PTPLC) agreed that accessible materials and services needed to be a fundamental aspect of the work of libraries, ultimately leading them to establish a nationwide network to ensure equitable library services, in partnership with the BC Libraries Cooperative. Together the two groups brought the initiative to life, and NNELS is housed by the BC Libraries Cooperative to this day.

At the outset, NNELS objective was to provide alternate format materials through public libraries in the funding jurisdictions (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon). NNELS quickly began to explore new approaches to achieve this based on a distributed, participatory, and inclusive model of library service for people with print disabilities.  

The vision was, and is, for Canadians with print disabilities to have access to the same books and information as everyone else, through their public libraries, and as NNELS engaged with users, it became apparent that on-demand production was vital for readers. The ability to request a specific book exemplified the transformative impact of on-demand production, making users feel like every other library patron. Library members and staff in funding provinces and territories could now send NNELS requests to have specific books converted into an accessible format. NNELS was also able to expand the number of people that it served; as of Fall, 2017, anyone in Canada with a print disability could access NNELS through their library, not just those in the funding jurisdictions.

While NNELS has taken on many additional projects thanks to federal grants, over the past decade, ensuring timely access to accessible books is still the top priority, and all of the projects and grant-funded work has ultimately centred on this goal.

Informed by Lived Experience 

Knowing that lived experience of print disabilities should be foundational to the work, NNELS began to hire people with print disabilities as soon as this was possible. Including those with print disabilities in NNELS staffing ensures the service reflects the needs, values, and input of the community NNELS was created to serve. In this way, NNELS is not only responsive but more importantly responsible and accountable to the public it serves.

The core work of NNELS was originally focused on quick conversions and creating synthetic DAISY audio format; NNELS started with outsourcing for simple and quick file conversions into alternate formats, but with additional funding and a growing knowledge of accessibility standards, NNELS was able to build an in-house production department to meet the growing needs of its users. NNELS draws on the knowledge and feedback from our staff with lived experience to ensure our production meets the communities’ expectations. Now, our conversions comply with new and evolving accessibility standards (like EPUB3 format), meeting the growing demand for human-narrated audiobooks, addressing increased expectations for quality alt-text for describing images, and producing both electronic and print braille editions of books. 

Accessible Publishing and Accessible Reading 

NNELS has evolved beyond its initial role as a digital repository and on-demand production service. It has become a leader in accessible publishing in Canada, through its work with publishers, evaluations of reading software and other library apps, and the development of resources for publishers, librarians, and other key stakeholders. The NNELS team has developed and honed expertise on almost every facet of accessible digital publishing and strives to share this information as widely – and as accessibly – as possible.

One initiative that exemplifies this commitment to accessibility is the annual Accessible Publishing Summit, which NNELS has organized since 2019. NNELS brings together experts in the accessible publishing production and distribution chain including Canadian publishers, publisher associations, technology experts, alternate-format producers, and librarians. Attendees are given time and space to share information and discuss how to advance the state of accessible publishing in Canada. The Summit also provides attendees the opportunity to learn about the user experience, first-hand, through demonstrations from members of the NNELS team. The summit was a key reason that NNELS was awarded the 2021 ABC International Excellence Award in Accessible Publishing, a milestone achievement.

While technology has rapidly revolutionized the digital landscape, barriers to access remain. NNELS aims to address these gaps, fostering equity and ensuring people have access to the information and materials they need. One of the ways NNELS does this is by creating digital literacy resources, such as tutorials on reading applications, to empower users to choose formats that suit their reading needs and preferences.

For a fully accessible reading ecosystem, all the pieces must be accessible to users of adaptive technologies: not only the content, but also the platforms to find/borrow and read books. Thanks to federal funding, NNELS has performed extensive accessibility testing on library and commercial reading applications and platforms from the perspectives of different print disabilities, relying on the team of Accessibility Testers. Reports with findings are posted online to support libraries in the procurement of accessible electronic resources. 

Some more exciting projects that NNELS has worked on include: 

  • Public Libraries Accessibility Resource Centre (PLARC) project: NNELS co-leads this together with the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA), in partnership with eBOUND Canada; 
  • Braille for Forthcoming Publications Project: NNELS works directly with publishers to create braille transcriptions of books which are released which are released the same day that the book is published.
  • Electronic braille project: NNELS has been contributing to the creation of a new electronic braille file type that aims to build powerful new possibilities for braille readers.
  • COVID 19 accessibility project: NNELS staff create accessible/described versions of important COVID-19 related materials, including charts, graphs, rapid test instructions, and more;
  • EPUB auditing projects: including the Publisher Workflow’s Project , which was done in partnership with eBOUND and ANEL, and audits for dozens more Canadian publishers since 2018; 
  • How do YOU Read? project: in partnership with eBOUND Canada and the Association of Canadian Publishers, NNELS conducted a survey and held focus groups, gathering important information about reading needs and preferences from hundreds of Canadians with print disabilities; 
  • The inclusion of accessibility metadata tags on records in the NNELS repository; 
  • And many more! 

Conclusion: A Decade of Innovation and Resilience

As NNELS celebrates its tenth anniversary, it reflects not only on its origins but also on its evolution. From a library service and on-demand producer of accessible formats into a leader in accessible reading and publishing in Canada. From its roots as a network providing equitable library service with a staff of just 3.5 to an organization capable of undertaking diverse digital accessibility projects with over 20 staff, many with lived experiences of disabilities. From a digital repository of 5,000 books to an accessible collection of nearly 65,000 titles. The tenth anniversary of NNELS is a celebration of innovation and resilience.  

NNELS has not only met its initial goals but has become a driving force in shaping the accessible publishing landscape in Canada. As technology continues to evolve, NNELS remains committed to ensuring equitable access to resources and services for readers with print disabilities, proving that its strength lies in being innovative and responsive in the face of uncertainty. As Diana Davidson, Director of the Public Library Services Branch in Alberta, and one of the founding member of NNELS puts it, "Accessibility is a continuous process, and NNELS is here to seize opportunities."