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Standards Committee
Distance Learning Section

Standards for Distance Learning Library Services
Revision Process & Input

As of July 2008, the DLS Guidelines has undergone both a document revision and name change.  Its new name has been changed to DLS Standards.  You can review the revised DLS Standards at:


The last major revision of the Guidelines was completed in 1998 with minor revisions approved in June 2004. The Guidelines now require another comprehensive update. The current review process started over a year ago and an Open Hearing was held at ALA's Annual Conference in Chicago in June 2005 where attendees discussed issues and provided input. This page summarizes comments provided at that hearing and will be updated throughout the entire review process.

The latest edition of the Guidelines are available in full text at this web site:

For a print copies, contact: Rob Morrison: 435-797-1477 or (through December 2, 2005) or
Jack Fritts:


Additional opportunities to provide input will be available at ALA's Midwinter Meeting in San Antonio, January 2006 and at the Off-Campus Library Services Conference in April 2006. A progress report will be presented at the ALA Annual Conference in June 2006 and a draft published in College and Research Libraries News.

Guidelines Revision Proposals (as of November 2005)



        remote vs. distance learners
        human interface to services
        workloads and resources (specify reasonable vs. excessive)
        models (distributed vs. centralized)
        ADA (equal rights statement for the disabled)
        Information technology (issues and quality; describe the ideal)

Guidelines Sections







Management and Introduction


Revising the "Guidelines"

Axel Schmetzke's Statement

With the recent advances in digital information technology, distance education could potentially open up unprecedented opportunities for a hitherto underserved segment of the population: people with disabilities. This is particularly true for people with print disabilities, who, be it because of blindness, visual impairment, or motor problems, have difficulties attending traditional on-site programs. With the help of screen readers (software that converts the text on the screen to voice or sends it to a Braille embosser) digitized text is, at least potentially, accessible to those who are unable to see print or who, because of a learning disability, have difficulty reading it. With suitably accommodated input devices, many individuals who cannot hold books or turn pages because of motor impairments are able to navigate even through lengthy electronic documents.

Unfortunately, the very technology that has opened the door to unprecedented information access also harbors the possibility for the very opposite. Just as there are enabling and disabling conditions in the physical environment, so are there conditions associated with digital technology that result in the inclusion or exclusion of certain people. Technology that is not universally designed, i. e., without consideration for the full spectrum of human (dis)abilities, is likely to contain access barriers for some. For example, scanned-in image-only pdf files, which are frequently found in libraries’ electronic reserves, are completely inaccessible to screen-reader users.

A review of the distance education literature and investigations into the accessibility of the web sites of distance education leadership organization has shown that, at least until a few years ago, few distance education experts were aware of, or paid attention to, the need of people with disabilities. An analysis of the guidelines of national associations, especially the “Principles of Good Practice for Electronically Offered Academic Degree and Certificate Programs” developed by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHI) and the “Guidelines for Distance Education” issued by the North Central Association (NCA) Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, reveals that neither of these two documents, which received the endorsement of all U.S. regional accrediting commissions, addressed the importance of universally designed instructional resources.

This said, let me turn to our very own “Guidelines for Distance Learning Library Services”—guidelines that, undoubtedly, have been influential in shaping individual libraries’ policies and practices.

Even in its most recent (2004) version, nowhere in its ten sections is accessibility for students with disabilities addressed. While the philosophy section underscores that “access to adequate library services and resources is essential,” and while the services section requires that library services “should be designed to meet effectively a wide range of informational, bibliographic, and user needs,” disability-related access needs are not mentioned.

One could argue that this is simply an issue too specific to be explicitly addressed in such a broad document, that this issue is covered by the general language of the “Guidelines,” or that it is the task of other regulations, such as the ADA or disability-related campus policies, to address this issue. Such arguments are not very convincing—for two reasons:

(1) The Guidelines for Distance Learning Library Services do address other specific issues, such as copyright fair use policy. Just as the authors of the “Guidelines” deemed it important to emphasize that “access to reserve materials” must be provided “in accordance with copyright fair use policy,” could they not have included a similar statement that calls for the universal design of online resources in accordance with the spirit of the ADA (or, perhaps, in compliance with federal Section 508 Access Board standards)?

(2) Many librarians, including those in charge of distance library services, lack awareness about accessibility-related issues. General language in policy documents may suffice when those who try to follow them already understand what is implied by the broader terms. But this is often not the case with regard to accessibility. Most librarians who read the current “Guidelines,” or use them as the basis for their own policies, are likely to construe the mandate to provide “access to adequate library services and resources” only in terms of connectivity—as a mandate to provide off-campus access to the library network and the online resources for which it serves as a gateway. At the present, the additional concern that these very resources are only fully accessible if they have been properly designed does not occur to most distance-educators and librarians. The issue of accessible design of basic online library tools and instructional material is simply not on their radar screen. In order to get it there, the next revision of the Guidelines for Distance Learning Library Services need to explicitly spell out the importance of an accessible online infrastructure, which serves the needs of all off-campus students, including those with disabilities.

My suggestion is far from outlandish. For example, California Community Colleges adopted a policy that calls for accessibility from the very onset:

“One of the primary concepts of distance education is to offer students ‘Learning anytime, anywhere.’ Therefore all distance education resources must be designed to afford students with disability maximum … access … ‘anytime, anywhere’ without the need for outside assistance.”

“Distance education resources must be designed to provide ‘built-in’ accommodation where possible (i.e. closed captioning, descriptive narrative) and/or interface design/content which is accessible to ‘industry standard’ assistive computer technology in common use by people with disabilities” (California Community Colleges. Chancellor’s Office. 1999. Distance education: Access guidelines for students with disabilities. Available online at:

Admittedly, California Community Colleges adopted such policy not without some prodding by the Office for Civil Rights following some student complaints. I urge the DLS Guidelines Committee to expand its leadership role by incorporating comparable accessibility clauses into the next revision of its Guidelines—not in response to legal pressure, but simply because of our shared belief that an inclusive, barrier-free educational system is the right thing to put into place.

Axel Schmetzke, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
900 Reserve
Stevens Point, WI 54481