PubMed at the UW: A Promising Practice in Universal Web Design

Date Updated

The University of Washington Health Sciences Libraries have developed a how-to website for users of PubMed, a popular online database from the National Library of Medicine that provides citations for biomedical articles dating back to the 1950s. The how-to site, PubMed at the UW, teaches library patrons how to use the database and helps them understand the idiosyncrasies of the product that are unique to the University of Washington.

This how-to site, along with its host site HealthLinks (which features links to electronic journals, databases, newspapers, reference tools, software, the UW Libraries Catalog, and related health sciences resources), was created in the 1990s and has been through several changes, most notably a complete structural overhaul in 2002. The goal was to simplify the style and layout of the site while improving its accessibility and usability.

The following is a summary of the accessibility changes:

  • Outdated, nonstandard HTML was replaced with standard, valid XHTML.
  • HTML style attributes were removed and replaced with links to external CSS files.
  • Graphics were used sparingly and, where used, were supplemented with meaningful alternate text.
  • Fonts were defined in relative font sizes; users can enlarge these scalable fonts as needed by using browser text enlargement functionality.
  • Accessible HTML techniques were used in marking up online forms to assure that forms are accessible to screen reader users.
  • Instructional videos were created to compliment and in some cases replace static instructional web pages. All videos were closed-captioned with MAGpie, free multimedia captioning software from the National Center on Accessible Media (NCAM). All captioning work was performed by a student assistant, with the library's Education Technology Specialist acting as a technical adviser. After MAGpie had been installed and tested and the student had learned how to use it, it took the student sixty hours to caption all of the videos on the HealthLinks site.

Web developers at the Health Sciences Libraries claim that their concern about standards, accessibility, and usability is largely inspired by the grassroots efforts of The Web Standards Project, Jeffrey Zeldman's Designing With Web Standards, and Joe Clark's Building Accessible Websites. Their goal has been and continues to be to create an environment in which accessibility, usability, and standards-based design are part of the workflow.