The Joseph Smith Papers: An Accessibility Evaluation

The Joseph Smith Papers Project is a digital archive project that has made available online all known documents authored by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This project is a valuable resource for scholars interested in studying the history of the Mormon Church. The documents themselves have been scanned onto the website, allowing visitors to see Smith’s original handwriting on the original papers. Transcriptions of the texts with copious historical footnotes are shown alongside the scans.

Though the website provides a rich experience for some users, it cannot be considered fully immersive and inclusive because it suffers from major accessibility issues. Using the WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool, I ran an accessibility report on two pages that represent major functionalities of the site: the home page and a document view page. I will discuss each of these in turn.

Home Page

The home page poses some accessibility issues for users that require screen readers. In the WAVE report shown below, the page presents fourteen major errors and fifty-one color contrast errors.

The home page of the website displays fourteen major errors.
Using the WAVE tool, the home page presents accessibility errors.

Further examination of these errors reveals that buttons and forms on the page do not contain “label” HTML attributes that would otherwise describe their functions. For example, while users who are not vision-impaired can see that a specific form (and related button) is used to search the website, those using screen readers might not be able to use the search function.

The WAVE tool identifies missing label issues for page elements.
“Missing form labels” and “empty buttons” do not allow screen reader users to access those functions.

Additionally, the home page suffers from multiple color contrast errors, mostly in the form of links. The home page includes many links to other parts of the website, but for users with colorblindness or difficulties determining colors from each other, the links are too light compared to the background color. Consequently, users may not be able to see the text easily.

The home page of the website is crucial for users because it is the first page they see, it highlights the main features of the site, and it helps the user navigate the rest of the site. As comprehensive as this website seems, its home page presents some accessibility issues for visitors who may have vision impairments or require screen readers.

Documents View

Accessing the papers themselves shows the scan of the original documents, page by page, alongside a text transcription with editorial notes and footnotes. As immersive as this is for visitors not requiring a screen reader, it presents major issues for those who do. The document view is not accessible at all for some users, as shown by the WAVE report below.

The document view page presents 167 major issues.
Using the WAVE tool, the document view of the papers presents many accessibility errors.

This page, which examines one of Smith’s journal entries, contains over ten times the number of major errors as the home page. No doubt due to the complexity of the page, it is nevertheless difficult to access if you require a screen reader. This page suffers from the same issues as the home page: forms, buttons, and links are missing HTML labels that describe the function of the element.

The WAVE tool identifies missing labels on page elements.
The WAVE tool identifies missing labels on page elements, which pose problems for screen reader users.

Empty links for this view specifically means that screen reader users cannot easily view footnotes, flip to other pages in the document, and enjoy the full functionality of the page, including printing or sharing.

The WAVE tool shows 149 empty link issues.
Empty links mean that it is difficult for those using screen readers to easily navigate the page.

There are also color contrast and text size issues, due mainly to links to other parts of the website and editorial text shown in the transcription of the document. For users who want to experience this content, it is almost impossible for them to do so.

Inclusive Design and Conclusion

The Joseph Smith Papers Project provides unparalleled access to the original documents of Smith and the LDS Church, and its scholarship is comprehensive and well-researched. However, the website’s design is far from inclusive for those who use screen readers or those with vision impairments. The website also presents issues for broader audiences, including visitors who may have mobility issues or are limited by the devices used to access the site.

The two pages I viewed contained their own accessibility issues, but the overall design of the website presents more general problems. It is not easy to navigate the page by “tabbing,” and it is almost impossible to navigate by “tabbing” on document view pages. From my experience, the page randomly jumps around as you tab, but it is not clear where you are on the page because links and page elements are not highlighted as you tab. On the document view, a mouse is necessary for navigation because “tabbing” does not allow the user to turn document pages or open new menus or site pages. This presents problems for users who may not have a working mouse or who experience mobility or cognitive impairments that make using a mouse difficult.

Additionally, I did not see a (hidden) “skip to main content” button or link at the top of web pages, so screen reader users will have to hear the full navigation menu for each page. Users who do not have vision impairments but may still wish to hear pages read aloud will also be annoyed by this repetitive content as they navigate the site, compounded by the accessibility issues explained in my descriptions of the home page and document view page.

Finally, the website becomes distorted on a mobile screen or not-maximized desktop screen. For example, I “snapped” the document view page to the right side of my desktop, and I could not view some of the items on the navigation menus. I was unable to scroll down a menu and access the bottom items on those menus. Clearly, this restricts many visitors’ ability to use and navigate the website.

The project is aimed at users who are comfortable accessing the website on a large screen, rely primarily on a mouse, and can determine color contrast easily. It is primarily a text-driven archive, but the text present in the document view is still hard to access because of formatting and linking issues. Users with vision impairments, especially those requiring screen readers, mobility impairments, and cognitive impairments may be excluded from the website because of its design.

A more exclusive design would make better use of HTML labels (e.g., alt text and form labels), accessibility-centered formatting (e.g., headings), clearer navigation, stronger color contrast, and flexible view options. The Joseph Smith Papers Project is invaluable for historians and religion scholars and has done helpful work in making those sources available online, but unfortunately this important resource is only accessible to a limited audience.

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