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A Congress.gov Interview with Willa Armstrong, Digital Accessibility Specialist

Today’s interview is with Willa Armstrong. Willa is a digital accessibility specialist in the Library of Congress.

Describe your background.

I knew I wanted to be in libraries for life so I went to graduate school to study information and library science. Afterwards, I did a stint in academic publishing; but I made my way back to libraries with a job at the New York Public Library (NYPL). I started in the NYPL Labs department working on everything from ordering equipment for mass digitization efforts, to putting together hackathons, to building crowdsourcing applications. I was lucky enough to work with the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, a partner in the Library of Congress’s National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. That was my entry point to my current focus of digital libraries and accessibility, a role I had first at NYPL and now here at the Library of Congress.

A smiling woman stands in front of rocky cliffs and a waterfall.

Willa Armstrong. Photo by Sue Foo.

How would you describe your job to other people?

My job is to make sure everyone has equal access to information. In a digital context, this means creating products and services that provide equitable access to people with disabilities. It means considering all users, designing inclusively, and building accessibility practices in from the start. It also means working to identify and remove existing access barriers. I get to work on projects across the Library, but my direct team is the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) IT Design Team; we focus on user experience design, accessibility, user research, and quality assurance.

I develop and drive initiatives to scale up our work in this area. Everyone has a role to play in accessibility so I also educate, guide, and support colleagues in their work.

On any given day I might give a staff training on how to code websites that can be used solely with a keyboard, review a new design for a web form, or interview a patron with a reading disability to learn from their experience using the Library.

What is your role in the development of Congress.gov?

Currently, I’m a subject matter expert and a coach. The team is committed to accessibility and has been incorporating inclusive practices, but there’s always room to improve. I recently completed a site-wide accessibility audit identifying issues and areas of improvement. I’m collaborating with the team on prioritization, strategies, and solutions to resolve these.

For example, we identified some text with fairly low color contrast. The User Experience team worked on an updated design which we implemented. Now, the site is more legible for low-vision users, and for mobile users reading outside under glare from the sun.

What is your favorite feature of Congress.gov?

Front and center on the homepage is the Current Legislative Activities section. It’s so great that on any given day you can get information on what is being discussed in both houses. As a citizen, it keeps me informed. As a staff member, it reminds me of the breadth and depth of the legislative branch’s mission.

What is the most interesting fact you’ve learned about the legislative process while working on Congress.gov?

I always knew the collection and services of the Library supported the work of Congress (it’s in the name.) Since joining, I’ve learned much more about the services part. Wow! The information work and analysis done by the Congressional Research Service is impressive.

What’s something most of your co-workers do not know about you?

During grad school I interned at the research library at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. Books from Thomas Jefferson’s library had been part of a larger gift to the Washington University in St. Louis. A turn of the century manuscript catalog had a record of these books. So I was transcribing the catalog and helping locate the volumes among the larger, current collection.

A previous version of Jefferson’s library was sold to renew the Library of Congress after destruction of its collections during the War of 1812. So it’s interesting to think about what those two collections had in common and what information sources were being used by the early Congress.

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