While sitting down to watch the premiere of HBO Max’s The Last of Us series one recent Sunday, I began by asking my friends: “Does anyone care that captions are turned on?” This question is a routine first order of business for our viewing parties, and the answer is almost always “no.” Like so many others out there, we find that captions improve our viewing experience, even though none of us are part of the d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing communities. The onscreen text helps us focus on the story and remember important plot details, while also ensuring that we don’t miss a line of Pedro Pascal’s muttered dialogue.
In media, captions have a long and illustrious history dating back to the birth of cinema itself. One could argue that every film from the silent era was captioned—that is, if you count the “intertitles” (the blocks of text cut between scenes) for a Charlie Chaplin gag as captions.1 But as “talkies” eventually replaced the silent film format, deaf audiences were suddenly excluded from visual storytelling. Emerson Romero, a pioneer of deaf accessibility in entertainment, learned how to splice text cards into films, allowing text to display underneath the images and thus creating the first captioned talkie in 1947.2 Despite his early success, closed captioning was not integrated as a standard part of broadcasting until the 1970s, and it wasn’t mandated under U.S. law until the 1990s.3
Today, subtitles are an expected part of entertainment consumption, with technology advancing enough to even allow for live captioning. But as anyone who’s ever watched cable news on a gym TV can tell you, the resulting live captions are often inaccurate and lacking in nuance. Computer-generated captioning technology may be improving, but human-generated captions still have it beat for now. Plus, so much of the content that users consume in 2023 comes from sources other than major broadcasting entities, like the new frontiers of YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. And while these sites do provide computer-generated live captions, you’ve probably noticed how often these fail to capture contextual subtleties or adhere to grammar conventions. “Read Off the Rent Nose Reindeer” is actually not how that famous Christmas song goes.4
So, how does this apply to libraries? Well, for Whatcom County Library System, 2020 brought a massive uptick in our online content production. We started producing a YouTube series called WCLS Staff @ Home, in which library staff members shared an activity they were doing in quarantine and connected it to one of our digital services. For example, our director recorded a video about Ancestry Library Edition and Mango Languages, two library resources that helped her research her Dutch heritage, all while making “hagelslag” (buttered bread with sprinkles) in her kitchen. This eventually spread out into other kinds of content, such as Storytime and Homeschool Resource videos being produced by our Youth Services team. Captioning these videos became a top priority so that we could ensure they were accessible to all.
Because of my prior work experience as a captioning agent, I was asked to help with this project. Initially, I was able to keep up with our video output on my own, but as more and more staff members got in on the video-making fun, having only one captioner was creating a bottleneck. I created a training program for a new team of captioners, showing staff how they could use free online software called Amara to easily create captions on their own. I also built a spreadsheet system that our team utilized to claim which videos they were working on. Once someone had completed captions for a video, I’d review them and upload the final product to YouTube. After a couple months of this, our team had captioned nearly every video in our channel’s archives, and we were also able to keep up with the new weekly offerings. All of this was done without any staff member having prior captioning experience.
I explain our process to emphasize that any library can do this. Just as we care about accessibility in our physical spaces, it’s crucial that we make the same effort with our online resources. The general public’s Internet usage may have been accelerated by several years due to the pandemic, and this dramatic increase in usage is here to stay.5 ADA Standards for Accessible Design are a must for our facility designs,6 but good captions should also be a must for our ever-growing digital landscape. And you may be surprised to learn that their benefit extends far beyond the d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities.7 For example, captions have been shown to strengthen literacy in children.8 Watching a captioned video allows a child to map out sound and meaning, much in the same way they would if they were listening and following along as someone read aloud from a book. Adults are also subject to this benefit. Captions are demonstrated to have a massive impact on English-language learners, improving vocabulary, pronunciation, and inference skills.9 You’ll remember that I began by sharing how my friends and I choose to have captions on for what we watch together. We’ve noticed how captions aid our comprehension and memory for the stories we love, and I know that we’re not alone in that preference.
If all that isn’t reason enough, consider this: adding captions to videos allows more people to find them. Captions are an easy way to associate more text and findable keywords with your video, meaning that search engines will optimize your library’s content over others and display it for a wider audience.10 Disability rights lawyer and activist Haben Girma, whom I was lucky to see speak at the 2019 Public Library Association Conference, summed up this idea well by saying, “Making things accessible for a perceived few benefits your entire community.”
So, how can your library get started? Well, you could check out our training video on how to use Amara that also includes helpful captioning tips. Choose a short video you’d like to caption and try it out. It may feel a bit clunky at first, but after a project or two, you’ll be surprised by how quickly it becomes second nature. Try not to tear your hair out over details like whether to spell out numbers or use numerical digits. In the end, perfection matters less than the attempt. I guarantee that you, a human being with remarkable communication skills, will caption nuanced speech more precisely and legibly than a computer ever could. As with any issue concerning accessibility, the important thing is simply to begin.