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Access Is Essential!

child in wheelchair
Shana Scott

by Shana Scott

The purpose of preservation is to protect an object, document, or other material and ensure it lasts for future generations to see and use. But can you really call your collection preserved if people can’t access it? 

The US Library of Congress’s Preservation Directorate “sustains and ensures long-term access to these unmatched collections by evaluating, managing, and responding to the risks and challenges associated with the wide variety of materials in the Library’s care.”

An inaccessible collection may continue to exist, but it no longer serves the purpose of preservation. Access is essential to give a collection value for those who want to experience it now and in the future.

What Is Accessibility?

Accessibility can mean many things. The most obvious would be the ability to physically access the collection. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, access to the physical location of many collections was restricted overnight. Collections that were not already digitized and available online were suddenly inaccessible, even to the staff that maintained them. During this time, no one could benefit from the history and insight these collections offer.

In this case, digital access was the only option available. Digitization of historical collections is a great way to improve accessibility, with or without a pandemic. The barrier of physical distance is removed, allowing a collection that may have had only a small community around its physical form to grow into a larger, international community.

While the pandemic is a clear example of the importance of accessibility to the general public, it’s a rare and unprecedented one. There are far more routine problems that reduce the number of people who can access a collection in a meaningful way every day.

What Does Accessibility Mean for Persons with Disabilities?

Accessibility is a constant consideration for those with disabilities, and should be a factor when presenting collections or exhibits. People with disabilities must weigh the possible challenges of the location when making plans. Do they have elevators so I can reach every floor? Do they have audio descriptions so I can experience the collection the same way sighted people do? Have exhibits and aisles been planned with my equipment in mind? Getting stuck is humiliating. Is attempting access worth the effort or risk?
When you have an accessibility mindset, the ultimate question is, “How can all visitors receive the same chance to experience the collection?”
Let’s look at the creative approaches three St. Louis-based institutions took to answer that question.
Missouri History Museum—St. Louis Sound Exhibit

The Missouri History Museum has a number of accessibility features that are now standard in all new exhibits. Tactile elements, audio description, and open captioning are available to vision- or hearing-impaired visitors, and the entire building is wheelchair accessible.

The Missouri History Museum has both preventative and reactive measures to help those with sensory sensitivities. When they enter, guests can check out a free sensory kit that includes “noise-canceling headphones, anti-glare glasses, fidget toys, plush security blankets, and other items to support youth and adult visitors who have a variety of sensory needs.” For those who become overwhelmed, there is a sensory-friendly room that visitors can use to allow their museum experience to continue.

But for the designers of the St. Louis Sound exhibit, a question remained: how would those with hearing impairments be able to fully experience an exhibit on music, where audio is an integral aspect? The Missouri History Museum included two new accessibility features for this exhibit: an American Sign Language (ASL)-interpreted music video and a sound vibration box so that visitors can feel the beat of St. Louis–style hip-hop.

While I am not hearing impaired, I’m excited to experience these aspects of the exhibit for myself. Accessibility features benefit everyone.

Gateway Arch

When the time came for the Gateway Arch grounds and museum to be renovated in 2018, the design team worked with the St. Louis Office of the Disabled to create a universal design that both able-bodied visitors and those with disabilities would be able to access together. They focused on making sure people with any kind of disability were not separated or excluded from any part of the Arch grounds.

The museum and its activities and displays were created with all types of disabilities in mind. The front entrance is a sloped design to allow those with wheelchairs and other mobility aids to enter the museum together with their able-bodied friends and family. Tactile models are available for those who can’t see objects on display, and interactive screens allow those in wheelchairs or people with limited mobility to operate all available features.

One aspect of the Arch Grounds could not be made accessible, though. Reaching the top of the Arch is impossible for anyone who cannot navigate stairs, so to include everyone in the Arch experience, they created a replica of the inside of the Arch top in the museum. Cameras on the Arch transmit live video footage to the “windows” of the replica, giving those on the ground the same view as those on the top.

Saint Louis Zoo

While a zoo is not a traditional collection being displayed, it has a similar purpose: to provide access to unique and/or educational experiences. But compared to the general atmosphere of everyday life, zoos are often loud, smelly, and crowded, which can be overstimulating to people with sensory sensitivities.

In addition to more traditional accessibility measures such as ramps, Braille signage, tactile features, and helpful employees, the Saint Louis Zoo has made a recent effort to create a sensory inclusive environment.

All staff have ongoing training on identifying visitors with sensory needs and the proper way to handle a sensory overload situation. They also created signage and maps that mark areas with certain sensory stimuli, such as noise, smell, or extreme temperature, as well as areas that have less activity and stimuli for people to take a break in, if needed. This level of thoughtfulness towards the needs of their guests ensures all zoo-goers have the same opportunities for learning and enjoying its exhibits.


The pandemic may have removed access from everyone, but museums, libraries, and public collections should make sure that when they’re open, anyone can access them. If people can’t experience a collection, what’s the point of preserving it? True preservation can’t be achieved without considering how a collection can and should be accessed.

Need help exploring ways to make your collection accessible to a larger audience? We’ve got you covered.

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