Web Accessibility in Digital Scholarly Editing: Considerations from a Survey on Inclusive Design and Dissemination.

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. Wout Dillen

    Universität Antwerpen (University of Antwerp)

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Answering the call for this year’s edition of the annual ADHO conference in Utrecht, the digital scholarly edition seems like a perfect example of those “complex models of complex realities” that humanists “analys[e] with computational methods and communicat[e] to a broader public” (Ciotti and Pierazzo, 2018). While trying to convey the complexity of textual development, transmission, and transmutation over time, an edition’s editor often faces the challenge of making this wealth of information understandable and accessible to its diverse target audience. Acknowledging that much of this effort depends on how we (as editors) answer questions such as “what do we make accessible?,” “how?,” and “to whom?,” my colleagues and I organized a panel at DH2017 (Montréal) to explore the layered conceptions of access and accessibility as they relate to the theory and praxis of digital scholarly editing (Sichani et al. 2017).
“Access,” we argued, “in all its iterations, continues to shape the discourse of digital scholarly editing as the field grapples with new models and methods” (Sichani et al. 2017, 128). Therefore, the panel would “frame a discussion around a broader definition of the concept in relation to the field of digital textual scholarship, by critically reflecting on its meaning for digital scholarly editions and theorizing how the term relates to issues of accessibility, usability, pedagogy, collaboration, community, and diversity” (ibid.). To gauge the community’s perspectives on these matters in preparation of our panel, we released a qualitative survey on inclusive design and dissemination (Martinez et al. 2017).
Since we were still receiving rich, nuanced data from the community, and because we wanted to use the momentum of the conference to attract even more responses, we decided to leave the survey open for some time after the conference. Of course, this meant that we could not make any firm statements about the survey data at the conference; so instead we used the results we had received so far as a way to open up the discussion, and present the audience with a series of questions rather than answers. Since then, we have closed the survey and analyzed its results, and are now ready to present them to the community.

Survey Description
The survey was distributed through a series of relevant mailing lists, social media portals, and via personal emails to practitioners in the field in our own networks. In total we received 219 responses, 109 of which completed every required question in the survey – resulting in a completion rate of 49.7%. Given the length of the survey (with 42 questions distributed over 14 pages, which most respondents took over 40 minutes to complete), this was a healthy completion rate. Taking into account that 65 (or almost 60% of our) respondents expressed their willingness to participate in a follow-up interview, it is clear that the issues raised in the survey are of considerable interest to the community – or, at least, to that portion of the community that we were able to reach with our survey.
The survey was structured around a series of themes relating to aspects of access and/or accessibility. After a demographic section (Q1-3) and a section designed to assess the respondent’s involvement or role in the development or publication of digital scholarly editions (Q4-6), the survey first focused on Open Access and licensing issues (Q7-11); access to the underlying code and software of the edition (Q12-18); cataloging and dissemination of digital scholarly editions (Q19-21); web accessibility (Q22-30); and inclusivity (Q31-37); before ending with a general question about digital scholarly editions, and an inquiry whether the respondent had any additional comments, or was open to the possibility of a follow-up interview (Q38-42). This paper will zoom in on the responses we received in relation to one of the themes that were broached in the survey: namely, ‘web accessibility’.

As I suggested above, one of the main challenges the editor of a digital scholarly edition faces when it comes to the presentation of their research is to walk a fine line between complexity and simplicity. On the one hand, the editor will want to present the user with as much relevant information as possible (to help them in their own research, and allow them to assess the editor’s interpretation of the materials), but on the other hand the editor will want to present this information in such a way that it does not overwhelm or distract the user as they are browsing through the edition. Since this turns interface design into a key aspect of the digital scholarly edition and a necessary tool to convey the editor’s interpretation to the edition’s users (Dillen 2018), we felt the need to examine the concept of “access” through the lens of web and software development in our survey as well.
In this context of interfaces, the term accessibility has a very specific meaning, where it refers to the adoption of strategies that make the web application accessible to all users – including those with (in)visible disabilities. George H. Williams lamented the fact that although “[o]ver the last decades, scholars have developed standards for how best to create, organize, present, and preserve digital information” for future generations, “the needs of people with disabilities” have largely been neglected in this pursuit (2012, 202). And indeed, following Williams, a strong case can be made that while it may not be possible for one edition to cater to all of its potential users, editors should at least try to cater to the broadest possible interpretation of the target audience we have in mind for the edition – which will inevitably include people with disabilities.
Especially in the field of digital scholarly editing,

As opposed to, for example, digital collections hosted by GLAM-institutions (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums), which are typically much more aware of (and have implemented features to minimize) web accessibility issues.

discussions regarding different user needs typically refer to those with non-academic backgrounds (Apollon et al. 2014, 93; Pierazzo 2015, 151) rather than to users with (in)visible disabilities. In addition, as two major (though mainly Western) points of reference in the field, neither Sahle’s (2016) nor Franzini’s (2016) catalogues mention accessibility in their respective lists of criteria for digital scholarly editions. This suggests that otherwise widely adopted standards such as @alt texts for links and images, consistent use of header tags, legibility of fonts, attentive use of colors and contrast, etc. are not sufficiently acknowledged or adopted in the field. In the web accessibility section of our survey, we wanted to test this hypothesis, while also gauging the community’s perspective about making web accessibility a prevailing concern for digital scholarly editions.

Objectives of the Paper
After an introduction to the survey, its methodology, reach, and some of our more general survey results, this paper will zoom in on its web accessibility section. Going over this section’s results in more detail, this paper will map our respondents’ awareness of relevant accessibility guidelines, as well as their position towards implementing them; illustrate what kind of accessibility features they offer (or have seen other editions offer); delineate how web accessibility issues are tested, resolved, and incorporated in the edition’s workflow; and discuss in which cases the survey data suggests a regional divide in the answers we received to these questions. Taking some of the possible biases in the survey’s data into account, this paper will then draw its conclusions from our survey results, review their implications for the field of digital textual scholarship, and suggest a way forward. In general, however, we can already say that while the survey suggests an overwhelmingly positive attitude towards making digital scholarly editions web accessible, the community also conversely indicates some marked resistance towards its implementation. This implies that six years after Williams’ essay, there is still a marked lack of field consensus about how or why to practically implement web accessibility features. That is why this paper (and the survey on which it is based) also aims to raise awareness in an attempt to give these issues a more central place in our discussions of digital scholarly editing.


Apollon, D., Bélisle, C. and Régnier, P. eds. (2014).
Digital Critical Editions. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

Ciotti, F. and Pierazzo, E. (2018). “Digital Humanities 2019: ‘Complexities.’ Call for Papers.” dh2019.adho.org,
https://dh2019.adho.org/call-for-papers/cfp-english/ (accessed 27 November 2018).

Dillen, W. (2018). “The Editor in the Interface. Guiding the User Through Texts and Images.” In Bleier, R., Bürgermeister, M. , Klug, H. W., Neuber, F., and Steiner, G. (ed.),
Digital Scholarly Editions as Interfaces. Norderstedt: Books on Demand.

Franzini, G. (2016). “Catalogue of Digital Editions.”
https://github.com/gfranzini/digEds_cat/wiki (accessed 1 July 2018).

Pierazzo, E. (2015).
Digital Scholarly Editing: Theories, Models and Methods. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Sahle, P. (2016). “A Catalog of Digital Scholarly Editions.”
Digitale Edition.
http://www.digitale-edition.de/ (accessed 1 July 2018).

Sichani, A-M., Dillen, W. Martinez, M., Kelly, A. and Bleeker, E. (2017). “Refining Our Concept of ‘Access’ for Digital Scholarly Editions. A DiXiT Panel on Accessibility, Usability, Pedagogy, Collaboration, Community, and Diversity.” In
Digital Humanities 2017
 (Montréal, Canada): pp. 127-129.

Williams, G. H. (2012). “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities.” In Gold, M. K. (ed.),
Debates in the Digital Humanities, 1st ed. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, pp. 202-212.

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Conference Info

In review

ADHO - 2019

Hosted at Utrecht University

Utrecht, Netherlands

July 9, 2019 - July 12, 2019

436 works by 1162 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (14)

Organizers: ADHO