Intellectual Access
Should we be fortunate enough to have purchased diverse, controversial, obscure or politically radical material, we need to make people aware that we have this material and where it is.

It has only
been in the
last few years
that the
Library of
Congress has
eliminated a
whole range of
discriminatory
subject
headings.


The standard cataloguing practices at university libraries are developed largely for mainstream materials. The vast majority of academic libraries have access through subject heading and classification based on the United States Library of Congress system. The vocabulary used for subject access to most university collections is controlled by a thesaurus compiled by the Library of Congress.

This institution has traditionally been monumentally slow in catching up to current trends, particularly with respect to subject analysis. It has only been in the last few years, for example, that the Congress has eliminated a whole range of discriminatory subject headings for women, such as the infamous "women as'' headings. Why can't enlightened cataloguers just use enlightened subject headings to describe books, you ask. Once again libraries are trapped by the easy and less expensive routes.

Most Canadian academic libraries find it much cheaper and more convenient to use large cataloguing utilities to derive cataloguing copy. Automated cataloguing methods work best for standard works from mainstream publishers where cataloguing records are created in machine-readable form, either pre-publication or shortly afterwards. These records, with their standard subject headings, are made available to libraries that subscribe to these cataloguing services. Most libraries rely heavily on copying the subject headings assigned to books by large central agencies.

Materials which are difficult to catalogue, which may include local, obscure, ephemeral, special interest materials--in short, some of the items one would expect in the inclusive academic library--may languish for a long time in the backlog area of cataloguing departments. It is specialized, very time-consuming and therefore expensive work to start with the book in hand and assign subject categories and call numbers, with no guidance from the major cataloguing utilities. This means access to materials that fall outside the mainstream may be delayed even if they do reach the library.

Physical Access
There are the obvious physical barriers to any library collection. People in wheelchairs cannot reach the majority of the collection. People who have difficulty reading or using print materials have only limited number of materials available. While the demise of the card catalogue has made it easier for many to reach catalogue information, the difficulty of reading computer screens has created a different barrier for some. Very few library staff are trained in sign language to help hearing impaired users.

Most libraries do their best, with limited resources, to provide such things as doors that open automatically, recorded books, braille signs, "talking" computerized catalogues, machines that will read text aloud, large print terminals, and reference services to meet special needs. The use of cd-rom periodical indexes has enabled those who can't use conventional printed sources to do their own library research using specialized computer software. As well, the advent of the "virtual library ," where computer-literate users may access a wealth of information from all over the world, has reduced the need to be physically present in a library to use its resources. All of these services demonstrate where library technologies have been of enormous value in eliminating physical barriers.

Many libraries, including my own, have these services. However, this still does not mean equal physical access for all users. It usually takes much longer for students with "special needs" to get the information they require, especially if it must be recorded or is accessed through special equipment. In addition, to get the enhanced service, students must identify themselves as disabled to the staff. All library staff must be sensitive to the needs of all users, and libraries that strive to be inclusive must find solutions.



Back Contents Next