Accessible Audiobooks in a Post-CD World

Apps can provide service to low-vision patrons, but librarians need to prepare

June 26, 2023

Alyssa Hanson (right) and Melody Dworak speaking at the "Accessible Digital Libraries: Navigating Audiobook Apps with Low-Vision Patrons" session at the 2023 American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago June 26.
Alyssa Hanson (right) and Melody Dworak of Iowa City Public Library speaking at the session "Accessible Digital Libraries: Navigating Audiobook Apps with Low-Vision Patrons" at the American Library Association's 2023 Annual Conference in Chicago on June 26. Photo: Rebecca Lomax/American Libraries

Audiobooks on CD are a valuable tool for visually impaired readers, but CD technology is in decline as Bluetooth is replacing CD readers in computers and cars, and fewer audiobooks are being published in the format.

Iowa City Public Library is now purchasing books on CD by request only, and by FY25 it plans to phase out its CD formats. Librarian Melody Dworak and Web Specialist Alyssa Hanson shared what they have learned about providing app-based audiobook service in the session “Accessible Digital Libraries: Navigating Audiobook Apps with Low-Vision Patrons” at the American Library Association’s 2023 Annual Conference and Exhibition in Chicago on June 26.

Dworak said the change was shocking to many patrons when it was announced—one even called it “senior abuse”—but even that patron was satisfied when Dworak was able to demonstrate the audiobooks available on apps like Libby and Hoopla, where collections are strong and growing.

Those apps represent a significant change for users, however. Moreover, Dworak said, “Librarians need to improve their technical literacy to be able to serve patrons in the future.” Librarians accustomed to demonstrating techniques visually need to adapt their thinking and learn how low-vision patrons will use those apps in order to provide the assistance and instruction those users are likely to need.

Both iPhones and Android-based devices have assistive technologies built in, including built-in and customizable voice commands, magnification, and screen readers. There are also specific gestures that need to be learned for a person with low vision to be able to control the device. “It’s a little bit different rhythm than what you use as a sighted reader,” Hanson explained. There are several swiping actions that need to be learned to navigate through a page, and actions that may require only a single tap for sighted users may require two or three. Additionally, some gestures are universal, but others are specific to one type of device.

While the system is complicated and new for most sighted librarians, Dworak said it’s possible to learn the basics fairly quickly and develop further skills over time. But it is a good idea to prepare before trying to help patrons. “Learn an app’s roadmap for the fastest path to a goal, know the content of audiobook apps, and to practice the accessibility controls,” she recommended. Also, practice using your systems with your eyes closed.

Dworak and Hanson shared a list of commands for operating smartphones using accessibility features that they prepared for the 2022 Iowa Library Association Conference that librarians can learn. They also recommended guides to screen reader gestures from Deque University, and Apple’s and Google’s support pages for their screen readers.


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