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Last Modified: December 18, 2023
Accessibility at Alberta Libraries Feature Image: A photo of a person with headphones on, making a motion to click something on the phone they are carrying. "Beyond the Stacks with Jessie Bach" is written in white text on a gold coloured background at the bottom of the graphic.
Accessibility at Alberta Libraries

by Jessie Bach

Just over five million Canadians, or about 13.5% of the population, self-identify as having difficulty reading traditional print materials, otherwise known as a “print disability.” The Canadian Copyright Act defines a print disability as “a learning, physical, or visual disability that prevents a person from reading conventional print.”

Alberta’s public libraries are committed to ensuring, to the best of their ability, that all residents have access to library materials and services that meet their diverse needs. They are supported in this on a provincial level by the Public Library Services Branch (PLSB), which is part of the Municipal Services Division of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. The PLSB has made accessibility a major priority.

I connected with Kim Johnson, library network advisor and leader of the accessibility team with the PLSB. “We’ve learned a lot about accessible books and accessible reading,” she said, referring to the way libraries have responded to a growing awareness of accessibility. “We’ve built accessibility into the Read Alberta eBooks project and added accessibility requirements to the procurement practices for e-content. We’ve helped local publishers and authors to learn about accessible publishing and to learn how to publish born-accessible books [books that are created accessibly from the beginning].” Furthermore, the PLSB supports libraries more broadly by providing yearly operating grants, support for interlibrary loan infrastructure, e-content, and accessible reading in public libraries through participation in nationwide organizations that provide reading materials in accessible formats.

So, what does this mean for print-disabled Albertans who use their local public libraries? Below is an overview of accessible materials and services—from access to print materials in alternate formats, to delivery services for those unable to travel to the library.

Books in Accessible Formats

Alberta libraries loan materials in accessible formats. Most libraries carry a selection of large-print books with a font size of at least 18-points or higher. These materials work well for readers who have some eyesight but have difficulties reading standard-sized fonts. However, large-print books have one downside in that they are often quite large and heavy and may be hard for some people to hold.

For many print-disabled people who may not be able to read text at all, audiobooks provide a perfect solution. Audiobooks are available on CD, MP3, and even an all-in-one device called Playaway.

Dyslexia-friendly books are available in easier to read fonts, and “hi-lo” readers can be borrowed by those who require a high-interest story told in simple vocabulary. There are also a handful of public libraries in Alberta that offer hardcopy books in Braille. Unfortunately, due to the size and cost of these books, Braille collections are small and new titles aren’t added with the same frequency as in the traditional collections. You will be able to find these items quickly in most library catalogues using a simple keyword search. Click here for an example from the TRAC library catalogue, which serves more than 175 Alberta libraries.

Depending on the collection priorities at your local library, items may or may not be available in all these accessible formats. Thanks to Alberta’s Resource Sharing Operational Policy for Public Libraries and the magic of interlibrary loan, though, they can be borrowed by anyone in the province!

eBooks & eAudiobooks

Downloadable eBooks are another great option for those who have difficulties reading standard text. eBooks are available through several services offered by most libraries in Alberta, including OverDrive, Cloud Library, Hoopla, and others. The reading apps, like OverDrive’s Libby, allow for a reading experience that can be tailored to an individual’s needs. For example, dark mode can be activated so that the text appears white on a black background. Fonts and font size can also be changed to a style that’s best for the reader.

eAudiobooks are also available through most of the same services as eBooks, and can be downloaded to a phone, computer, or other device. As with eBooks, options are often available to customize the playback, including reading speed and sometimes even the narrator’s voice.

Technology and Assistive Hardware

If you’ve been reading my column for a while now, you know that libraries offer so much more than just books. When it comes to accessibility for all, many Alberta libraries offer access to assistive technologies that make accessing information easier for patrons with print disabilities. At Calgary Public Library, for example, patrons can access accessible workstations which include adjustable height desks, screen reading and magnification software, adaptive keyboards, and other tools to help read, write, and listen to documents. They also offer assistive listening devices, Braille displays and signage, electronic magnifiers, text telephones (TTY), and text-to-speech devices.

Many smaller libraries also provide some equipment to assist with reading. At the Vermilion Public Library, for example, patrons can borrow from a collection of reading magnifiers, including a sheet magnifier and a hands-free magnifying visor. The Raymond Public Library, and many others across the province, offer access to DAISY Readers—simple, easy to use, digital talking book players that can be used to play discs or audio files borrowed from the library, CELA (the Centre for Equitable Library Access), or NNELS (the National Network for Equitable Library Service).


Library patrons with print disabilities also have access to the services of two nationwide not-for-profit organizations, CELA and NNELS, mentioned above.

Logo: The National Network for Equitable Library Service, NNELS

CELA and NNELS offer extensive collections of materials in a wide variety of accessible formats, including audiobooks on CD, MP3, downloadable MP3 eAudiobooks, Braille print, eBooks in EPUB and PDF, DAISY discs, and downloadable DAISY files. These services are funded by the province, and while not technically provided by Alberta’s public libraries, library membership is a prerequisite to access and library patrons must self-identify as having a print disability.

Logo: The Centre for Equitable Library Access, CELA

CELA provides access to more than one million titles in multiple accessible formats. The collection goes beyond books, including magazines and newspapers too. NNELS offers many of the same services as CELA, with one exciting addition—the creation of accessible format texts upon patron request. This means that if a patron cannot find the book, magazine, or article in the format  that works best for them, the folks at NNELS will create it for them.

Homebound Services

Many Alberta libraries offer home delivery services for those who are unable to travel to their local library to access reading materials and programs. Patrons of Marigold member libraries, for example, can take advantage of a free mail-delivery program called Library to You (or L2U). After registering for L2U users will be mailed a hardcopy of the curated catalogue of selected materials to choose from, which includes a request card to fill out and mail back to the library. The requested items will then be mailed back to the patron, along with a postage paid return envelope. This service is not only useful for those physically unable to visit the library, but also for those without access to the internet.

In more urban areas, such as Lethbridge, library users unable to visit the branch can sign up for Homebound Services. For eligible patrons, Lethbridge Public Library will have a trusted community volunteer select, check out, and hand deliver library items to their home every three to four weeks. The volunteer will then collect the items when the loan period is over and return them to the library.

“Branching” Out…

Recently, Kim Johnson of the PLSB was surprised to find that, despite their efforts to provide accessible resources in public libraries, many government documents themselves are inaccessible for people with print disabilities. She told me, “We wanted to change that. After some research and consultation, PLSB began a Government of Alberta-specific initiative to make existing documents more accessible and to teach content creators in the public service how to create accessible documents from the start.” To do that work, the PLSB assembled an accessibility team (affectionately known as the A-Team).

According to Johnson, “This small but mighty team aims to ensure that all Government of Alberta documents can be accessed by all Albertans. We know that while it is easy to create an accessible document, many people just don’t know how to do it. The team’s goal is to empower everyone to create accessible content. To date the A-Team has trained more than one thousand public servants and we hope to make our way through the entire Government of Alberta. We also review existing documents and advise individual government units on accessibility. For example, we’ve worked closely with the Be Prepared team in the Alberta Emergency Management Agency to review and remediate over fifty of their documents, which inform Albertans on what to do in emergency situations.”

This goes to show that when it comes to public library accessibility, there is always more to learn. That’s why the PLSB has taken their show on the road, travelling across the province to train public library staff on how to create accessible documents and other content. Kim Johnson and the A-Team have “have tailored the training for libraries and even included accessibility advice for some of the library community’s favourite content creation platforms like Canva and LibraryAware.” They also provide review services and feedback on documents and reports created by public libraries.

“We know that public libraries serve all Albertans, including patrons with print disabilities,” says Johnson, “and that’s why, for the past decade, we’ve set our focus on accessibility.” 


Please note: Different libraries and library systems throughout the province offer different reading options and services in their local areas. If you would like to know more about accessible library service in your area, contact your local library!


About the Author:

Beyond the Stacks is a column about libraries in Alberta and the useful and necessary services they provide.

Photo of Jessie Bach, author of this article

Jessie Bach grew up on a family farm in Southern Alberta and is a lifelong library user and book lover. She has a degree in history from the University of Saskatchewan, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. Jessie has worked in archives, academic libraries, corporate records management, and now public libraries. Her current role is Communications & Engagement Manager at Marigold Library System. She currently lives in Calgary with her partner and, in true librarian fashion, three cats. Jessie likes to read (of course), knit, consume way too many true crime podcasts, and lift weights in the gym.

Feature image credit: SHVETS production through Pexels.