The Michigan Library Scholars program was something that I applied for because I was very interested in the topics provided, and accessibility is something I had not had much experience with. I saw it as a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow, and I wanted something meaningful to do in my summer. Japanese Studies is something that interests me a lot, even though I am a rising senior double majoring in Psychology and Communications, and do not plan to work in the field of Japanese Studies. Nevertheless, I am extremely glad I was able to have this opportunity. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to work with three really great mentors: Keiko Yokota-Carter, Stephanie Rosen, and Ben Howell. They gave me great guidance, advice, and assistance in my work.
My project, Increasing Accessibility to Digital Image Collections in Japanese Studies, primarily consisted of me writing image descriptions for three digital collections: the Alfred Hussey Collection: Japan's Constitution Slides which were a set of lantern slides accompanied by a text pamphlet to inform the public about the New Constitution in Japan. The Mushi no Utaawase Emaki is a 15-foot long scroll displaying a poetry competition between insects. Some of my learning objectives were to understand the philosophy and principle of accessibility of library resources, learn to describe image to visually impaired users in context of the materials and help them appreciate Japanese history and art, identify the works of the Asia Studies unit and how the unit fits into the larger Library in order to get a clearer understanding of the complexity of a university library system, improve communication skills to work professionally with people with different backgrounds, and demonstrate project management skills in order to lead other projects both at the University of Michigan and after graduation. I felt that I made progress on all of these goals.
There was so much to learn in regards to this project. I learned that Usability and Accessibility were not the same thing - usability is ease of use, and accessibility is the possibility of use. I also learned that being cognizant of accessible language is very important. Additionally, I had believed that “katana” and “kimono” were words that were easy for anyone to understand, due to my own background and history of consuming Japanese media. However, my mentors informed me that those words weren’t necessarily common in the English language and may not be accessible for everyone. I also learned some of the context around the new Japanese constitution and the history behind it. The new constitution gave Japanese citizens freedoms and equal rights that were not there before. I also learned a bit about project management - I was essentially managing myself for the duration of the internship. My mentors were wonderful and there to give me support and guidance, but they never micromanaged me, and it was really up to me to get all the tasks done on time. Over the course of the internship, my mentors and I tackled difficult questions such as “how to describe very visual elements?”. There were a lot of different parts to some of the images. We discovered that different dress of different characters had significance; such as, what period in history they were from, where they came from, what class they were. Many images had multiple layers to them. Between the two collections, there were deeply cultural, historical, political, artistic meanings to the images, especially the Alfred Hussey Constitution Slides. It was a challenge to balance both the practical image description of simply describing what was happening or present in the picture, along with the context and meanings behind the images. My mentors and I worked around these challenges by discussing them, and by doing some research.
There were a lot of ways that working on this project helped me learn and grow, and also positively impact the library. The content became more enriching as we continued to work, especially on the Mushi no Utaawase Emaki. I began learning to see the layers of meaning in the images and understanding the cultural, historical, political context. Tied into this, I also had to learn how to describe elements to communicate the meanings embedded in them, and how to describe them also for folks who cannot see. Additionally, I had to learn how to not add too much information or things we don’t know, but giving just the right amount of information, almost like Goldilocks. Descriptions that are too long are boring and difficult to get through, but descriptions that are too short do not offer enough information. Thus, I had to figure out how to address all the meanings in a simple and concise way.
I spoke to my mentors about how my work has impacted the library, and they explained to me that the questions about accessibility in these digital collections in Japanese Studies will lead to more questions and further research in the other departments of the library. The descriptions will be available as a tool for both scholars, the general public, and visually impaired users. These descriptions also serve as a model and precedent for all of the library’s digital collections, and the library has begun thinking about making content available to everyone in the best way they can understand. The image descriptions also provide multiple ways to be able to experience the digital collection, especially for people that use a screen reader.
We reached out to Brandon Werner, a screen reader user working at the library. He looked over my image descriptions and said “I was very impressed by the image descriptions. One thing I really liked was use of what I assume are the correct Unicode characters for the languages depicted... I also really liked how the facial expressions are themselves described. I think someone who is totally blind might not actually know what facial expressions look like so this is a great detail. The image descriptions are also a perfect length in my opinion.”