NEH Impact: New Pathways in Accessibility at the Helen Keller Archive

By supporting the preservation of cultural heritage at organizations across the U.S., the NEH works to ensure that their collections are accessible to the public. At the most basic level, NEH funding supports libraries and archives as they process important collections, enabling them to create the guides and databases that are crucial to researchers trying to access archival materials. NEH funding also helps organizations digitize collections, making collections like the Adams Family Papers, the Journals of Lewis and Clark, and Fox Movietone Newsreels accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

Over the past four years, NEH funding has helped one organization go a step further. With two grants for Humanities Collections and Reference Resources, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) has developed the Helen Keller Archive. Containing approximately 80,000 items, many bequeathed by Keller herself, the archive is the largest repository of its kind in the world. What is more, it is the first digital archive to be made fully accessible for blind, deaf, deafblind, and visually impaired audiences. That is a reflection of AFB’s priorities, as well as of Keller’s lifelong role as a disability advocate. The story of her life, as told through her personal possessions, should be accessible to everyone.

But making the archive fully accessible was not easy. According to archivist Helen Selsdon, the process was “painstaking—the back end of the website required an enormous amount of customization that was truly pioneering.” Eighteen usability testers helped ensure that the website would be accessible to the broadest possible range of users, including students and people who are unfamiliar with archives. Now, curated sections on the website help those who are new to research begin their search and provide resources for students participating in National History Day and other research competitions. The project is still ongoing, with new materials being added to the site and a team of volunteer transcribers ensuring that handwritten materials such as letters can be read by assistive technologies. None of this work could have been done without the NEH’s foundational support.

Beyond opening the Helen Keller Archive to a broader audience, the techniques piloted by AFB have gone a long way toward demonstrating that truly accessible digital archives are possible. By serving as a model and offering guidance to other archives, the project has proven itself globally significant in encouraging access-oriented digital archived design.


Photo Credit

Thumbnail image: Photo courtesy of the Helen Kellen Archive.

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