Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Library’s YouTube channel didn’t get much use. There were only 20 videos uploaded in its first five years.
Then, the pandemic hit, the Library doors temporarily closed, and in-person programming ground to a sudden halt.
“Our programming team did an amazing job of pivoting to online programs,” said Library volunteer coordinator Jessica Link. “They were able to offer fun, educational, artistic online programs.”
From story times to author talks to workforce development classes and beyond, the team created, filmed, and uploaded more than 125 virtual programs to YouTube in the space of a few months.
But with all this content suddenly available to anyone with an internet connection, a different kind of accessibility became a concern. Library staff wanted to offer closed captioning to make the videos accessible for patrons who are Deaf or have hearing loss.
“One of the key tenants of public libraries is accessibility, and as we pivot to reach people who cannot come into our facilities, we need to make sure we’re thinking about that,” Link said.
YouTube has an auto-captioning service, but it quickly became apparent it was not ideal.
“When we’re doing a Read Woke program and the closed caption can’t even get that author’s name right, that’s a problem,” Link said.
She started to look for solutions, and brought in two Library volunteers, Coe College students Piper Cooper and Olivia Calvin, to help. Cooper is serving at the library as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer through the Iowa Campus Connect program, which matches college students with community organizations. Calvin is volunteering at the Library through Coe’s work study program.
“I really enjoyed being a part of this initiative since its inception. It has been really cool to work on this team and see the process of developing a new volunteer program,” Cooper said.
The team started working with a program called Amara, which lets users upload closed captions and subtitles to videos.
Creating accurate and useful closed captions turned out to be more complicated than they initially thought it would be.
“The number one thing is making sure the message is a clear message, that you are accurately transcribing a message. The readability is a factor – where you do your line breaks, for example. It’s all of these little nuances. The people doing the captioning have to be aware of standard captioning guidelines, and on top of that the Library’s standards and guidelines. It’s an interesting process,” Link said.
Calvin and Cooper worked to understand the process of captioning and developed a virtual training program so that other volunteers can be brought in to help with the effort.
“I love knowing that I’m a part of something that can make the programming at the library more accessible,” Calvin said. “This has been kind of a humbling experience. I appreciate closed captioning more, now – it does take a lot of time and effort. But doing it right is also one of the biggest rewards, because you’re helping people overcome barriers.”
The volunteer role launched in January and is still ramping up. Link said an added benefit of the program is giving library volunteers a way to participate remotely during a time when most haven’t been able to come into the building. People can volunteer to help from anywhere in the country, or at any time that is convenient for them.
“People can be part of the library on terms that work best for them. I love that this program serves accessibility for both patrons and volunteers,” Link said.
Eventually, Link hopes the library can add subtitle options with translation of videos into different languages.
“It would be fantastic to get to a point where we had volunteers helping subtitle,” she said. “I think it would be a great opportunity for students … I just like to keep dreaming and pushing that envelope.”