Hello, collective wisdom --

I'm wondering what approaches people have taken to encoding finding aids for browser display in a manner that is useful to folks who access web pages through non-visual means (e.g., a screen reader).  I know that HTML tables (a) aren't supposed to be used for layout and (b) can pose problems for people using alternate means to "read" web pages, and the hierarchical nature of finding aid descriptions poses a sort of extra level of problem.

Given this sort of data:

Box	Folder	Contents
1	1		Awards
1	2		Citations
2	1			Family
2	2			Friends
2	3			Travel
2	4		Scrapbooks

how does one create HTML that is both good HTML and non-visually accessible/meaningful?

Here are the approaches I've thought of so far:

FIRST:  One could encode the entire box/folder listing as a simple 3-column table, with the columns being "box" "folder" and "contents." I could then assign a @class attribute to each <td> (e.g., class="level1" class="level2") and use CSS to indent "Awards" "Citations" "Friends" etc. to the appropriate level for the visual folks.  Technically this is probably the most correct in terms of HTML, since the data does consist only of three types: box, folder, and contents.  But would the class attribute be any use to the non-visual folks?  Is it recognized by screen readers, and would it be enough to convey the hierarchical information in a useful manner?

SECOND:  One could do it as a multi-column table, putting the different levels into different columns (in the example above I'd need five columns: box, folder, c01, c02, c03) and spanning as necessary.  That (sort of) preserves the hierarchical nature of the information but it means there will be a bunch of extra columns, and I feel like this is using the table more for layout purposes than for actual tabular data.  Plus web-readers don't always do well with spanned columns - might just be a big mess -- and big tables can be slow to load in general.

THIRD: One could use separate tables for each set/subset of boxes/folders, and include the full hierarchy as the table caption, e.g.:

<table><caption>Memorabilia</caption>[box/folder list]</table>

<table><caption>Memorabilia - Photographs</caption>[box/folder list]</table>

But that poses problems when the list drops down to a lower level briefly and then comes back up (what do I do with "Scrapbooks" in his scenario, since the "Memorabilia" table is already closed above?  A separate table captioned "Memorabilia - continued"?)

FOURTH:  And of course the final option would be to not use tables at all and instead use different heading levels (<h1> <h2> etc.) to indicate subordinate levels of description, same as in a page of regular text that has topics and sub-topics.

Are there other approaches I've left out?  Does anyone have experience and/or thoughts on this?

Michele Combs
Lead Archivist
Special Collections Research Center
Syracuse University
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