Braille Book Review

September-October 2006

In Brief

The following information is reprinted from two issues of NLS Flash, a newsletter created to bring current information on NLS progress in digital technology to patrons, library staff, and other interested individuals.

Flash, June 2006, volume 2, issue 7

Digital Long-Term Planning Group assures smooth transition to digital talking books

Understanding that the best ideas often emerge during discussion among knowledgeable parties, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, created the Digital Long-Term Planning Group (DLTPG). The group provides thoughtful counsel, helps to identify problems, and offers options to possible problems, thus helping NLS with the transition to a digital technology.

"The Digital Long-Term Planning Group heightens NLS's awareness of all possible effects the transition will have on talking-book patrons, state librarians, and the 138 libraries in our network," said NLS director Frank Kurt Cylke. "The group is assisting in the development of an efficient, cost-effective system that continues to prioritize patrons' needs and enhance their reading experiences."

Putting patrons first

NLS knows that the most practical and constructive feedback comes from individuals who possess firsthand experience with the program and digital expertise. Because of the digital transition's scope, complexity, and potential impact on the blind and physically handicapped community, NLS involved all affected parties as much as possible throughout the planning process.

NLS created the digital group in 2001 to guide planning for the digital talking-book (DTB) transition. The sixteen-member committee includes state and regional librarians, representatives from national consumer groups, such as the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB), and NLS staff.

Because librarians and consumer representatives are familiar with the current talking-book system and many are aware of new trends in digital technology, their recommendations are important.

"The librarians have a unique perspective and consumers have a perspective librarians don't have," said Karen Keninger, regional librarian at the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Iowa. "The ability to talk out ideas has been very valuable to the digital conversion process."

Many members are also patrons. They have personal stakes in the process. "We're the ones who work and live with talking books day-to-day," said David Andrews, a representative of the National Federation of the Blind. "We provide input on what will and will not work."

Sound advice

The selection of flash technology as the medium for book delivery is just one area where the DLTPG involvement yielded a realistic recommendation. The group reviewed several delivery options for talking books--flash, CD-ROM, and a magnetic hard-drive system--and concurred with NLS that flash technology simplified audiobook use and was durable. It also made the most economical and logistical sense.

The group also commented on issues ranging from the design of the digital talking-book player to distribution, an issue that has received considerable focus.

Introducing the Digital Long-Term Planning Group


Paul Edwards
American Council of the Blind

David Andrews
National Federation of the Blind

State Librarians

Irene Padilla
Maryland State Department of Education
Division of Library Development Services

Robert C. Maier
Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners

Sara Jones
Nevada State Library and Archives

Michael York
New Hampshire State Library

Doris Ott
North Dakota State Library

Peggy D. Rudd
Texas State Library and Archives Commission

Donna Jones Morris
State Library Division, State of Utah

Regional/Subregional Librarians

Barbara Goral
Retired, Colorado Talking Book Library

Meredith Beckhardt
Florida Bureau of Braille and Talking Book Library Services

Karen Odean
Illinois State Library Talking Book and Braille Service

Karen Keninger
Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Iowa Department for the Blind

Kim Charlson
Massachusetts Braille and Talking Book Library
Perkins School for the Blind

Richard J. Smith
Wolfner Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Missouri

Kathleen Kappel
Pennsylvania Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

QA develops first fully qualified DTB

Robert Norton, head of the Quality Assurance Section and Avi Shapiro, QA software engineer, were commended along with the entire NLS Materials Development Division staff for developing the first fully qualified digital talking book, Joan Didion's Where I Was From, recorded by Carolina Talking Books. The book, narrated by Constance Crawford, was completed on May 18, 2006.

Flash, July 2006, volume 2, issue 8

A look back at the origins of the digital project

More than fifteen years ago the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, along with other talking-book programs worldwide faced the realization that analog cassettes would eventually become an outdated and ineffective technology for audio reading materials. In a meeting organized by NLS director Frank Kurt Cylke, world figures in the field of library services for the blind gathered to discuss the future of talking books. It was time they considered what form the next-generation talking book would take.

In early April 1990, librarians and talking-book experts convened at the P.V. Doyle House in Dublin, Ireland to formulate an action plan to guide development of future talking-book technology. The group included Ian Bruce, director general of the United Kingdom's Royal National Institute for the Blind; Cylke; Euclid Herie, managing director of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind; and Desmond Kenny, chief executive officer of Ireland's National Council for the Blind. These leaders and their policy and technical staff exchanged information on existing and emerging audiobook technology as well as thoughts on improving the library experience for blind and physically handicapped readers.

"This conference was a defining moment in the history of talking books," says Cylke. "We concluded that it was beneficial to work together to improve our programs and to explore technological advances that could provide patrons with better audiobooks in the future."

The group discussed such issues as cassette utilization, playback machine inventory, book and machine production data, and research and development surrounding future talking-book technology. User needs were addressed as were means of involving appropriate consumers, libraries, associations, and other stakeholders in planning next-generation talking-book systems. One thing was clear--any future system would need to be designed with users in mind. Chief among user priorities was equipment that would be easy-to-use, reliable, flexible, and portable and the audiobook system would need to meet the full range of needs both of blind and of physically handicapped readers.

Going digital

NLS has a long history of incorporating technological innovations in the development of its products and services. (NLS pioneered the use of the 33-1/3 rpm long-playing phonograph record.) After considerable research, NLS determined in 1996 that flash-memory was the optimal technology to replace analog cassettes. A digital solution would offer substantial improvements in the patron reading experience, including enhanced audio quality, portability, and book navigation features. Further, with their large memory capacity, flash cartridges would enable most audiobooks to be housed on a single cartridge--a vast improvement over the multiple cassettes that one book requires.

NLS has long sought to provide its patrons with the best service possible, and this often involves staying abreast of new technologies. From the phonograph records used in the 1930s to analog cassettes and the digital flash cartridges of the future, NLS remains dedicated to providing all talking-book patrons with a user-friendly system that enhances their reading pleasure while keeping up with the pace of change.

Mapping new territory

Given its advantages, flash-memory technology was identified as the NLS system of choice; but implementing the conversion process required more planning. Based on thorough research, NLS set out to develop a comprehensive strategy for digital conversion. The mission would be guided by user needs and the goal of optimizing the talking-book reading experience.

The project has worked toward a 2008 deadline, with key implementation milestones along the way. In 1997, NLS's Digital Talking Book Standards committee and the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) began creating a technical standard to define features of the digital talking book and its player as well as file specifications, production issues, and copyright protection schemes. In 2002, NLS began producing all recorded book masters exclusively in a digital format. In 2004, NLS started converting analog files to a digital format. By 2008, NLS plans to have 50,000 digital talking-book machines ready for distribution to patrons. In addition, NLS will have 10,000 new titles in digital format and another 10,000 existing analog titles converted to digital by that date.

Throughout the planning stages of the digital talking-book system, NLS has sought the expertise of accessible-technology engineers, such as HumanWare and Battelle, as well as input from patrons and librarians. What better way to ensure a successful digital transition than to involve the very people most affected by the change?

The Digital Audio Development (DAD) committee, created in September 1998, has been very influential in planning and guiding the transition. It initiated the project by outlining twenty steps that are essential to designing and implementing the digital talking-book system. Design activities included prioritizing digital talking-book features, simulating a digital talking book using a personal computer, developing multiple player prototypes, and building digital talking-book computer software. Implementation activities included narrowing the player media choices, beginning full-scale production and deployment of digital equipment, and establishing methods for continuous patron evaluation of the digital system.

To ensure that digital-talking book machines are designed with users in mind, NLS conducted a series of eight user-needs and usability tests. Participants were asked to assess such issues as the layout of the player's controls and their size, shape, and tactility. The participants also responded to the player's navigation features. Feedback during these sessions was essential, and influenced refinements to the final design of the machine.

NLS also sought input from the Digital Long-Term Planning Group. Consisting of consumer representatives and state and regional librarians, the group was established in 2001 to provide feedback and guidance throughout the transition process. The members offered insight on such issues as player design and digital talking-book distribution systems.

Stepping closer to a digital future

This August, NLS will pass a long-anticipated milestone. This is when a functional prototype will be introduced. Based on the usability test results, approval was granted to proceed with a working prototype. While the machine will require further testing before it is mass produced, the prototype is an exciting step toward the digital future.

Digital Talking-Book (DTB) Milestones
-Defined and prioritized DTB features
-Coordinated development and publication of Specifications for the Digital Talking Book (ANSI/NISO Z39.86)
-Simulated a DTB player using personal computer
-Developed a computer-based, life-cycle cost analysis (LCC) model for the NLS system and for candidate digital systems
-Developed computer software for DTB production and presentation
-Developed software to test conformance of players and DTBs with the ANSI/NISO standard
-User survey
-Player transition study
-Distribution flash cartridge study
-Player and flash cartridge design contract awarded
-Distribution system design contract awarded
-Distribution system design contract Phase I, II

Start 1/12/04 - Finish 10/1/08

The following ongoing projects, set to conclude in 2008, are shown with start dates in parentheses.

-Web-Magazine pilot (1/12/04)
-Digital data management system development (11/1/04)
-Player and flash cartridge development (3/1/05)
-Design DTB containers and labels (6/1/05)
-Web-Book pilot (6/1/05)
-Prepare DTBs for distribution (10/1/05)
-Distribution system implementation (10/1/06)
-Flash cartridge production (3/1/07)
-Flash cartridge duplication (5/1/07)
-Manufacture initial lot of DTB containers and labels (8/1/07)
-Full player production (9/1/07)

For information on the NLS Digital Project, contact:
Jean M. Moss
Digital Projects Coordinator
Fax: (202) 707-1690

To view the Strategic Business Plan on the Web visit:

To view the Flash newsletters on the Web visit:


The following announcements may be of interest to readers. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped reserves the right to publish announcements selectively, as space permits. Items mentioned, however, are not part of the NLS program, and their listing does not imply endorsement.

Dialogue magazine published bimonthly

Dialogue magazine provides news, information, and resources to people experiencing vision loss. The magazine, which was published quarterly, is now available bimonthly (every two months) in order to increase the number of practical articles related to living with low vision, assistive technology, and careers, as well as to provide timely updates on the latest aids and devices. Highlights from recent issues include stories of people who are blind and successfully employed and articles on finding support groups, driving with low vision, adapting the home environment, and purchasing the best tech tools. For more information or to subscribe, call 800-860-4224 or visit The magazine is available in large print, braille, cassette, diskette, and e-mail formats.

New magazine available on NFB-NEWSLINE

Diabetes Self-Management magazine has just been added to NFB-NEWSLINE, bringing the total number of available magazines to four. AARP the Magazine, the Economist, and the New Yorker are also available in audio format from NFB-NEWSLINE. AARP the Magazine appears bimonthly and offers information on current events, travel, arts, and medicine to senior citizens. Diabetes Self-Management is a bimonthly magazine containing up-to-date, practical information on nutrition, exercise, new drugs, medical advances, self-help, and many other topics people need to know to optimize their health. The Economist, a weekly magazine, focuses on trade, finance, science, and technology. The New Yorker is a weekly magazine popular for its editorials, cultural news, and acclaimed fiction.

NFB-NEWSLINE is a free service provided by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and NLS. NFB-NEWSLINE converts printed content to synthetic speech, which readers may access twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week by using a touch-tone telephone. Patrons of NLS can register by calling their cooperating network library and asking to subscribe to NFB-NEWSLINE.

Next section of Braille Book Review | Braille Book Review Home Page

Go to the NLS Home Page