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NLS: That All May Read

NLS Patron Survey (2003)

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1.0 Executive Summary

The majority of the Talking Books produced by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) are analog cassettes that are played on NLS-distributed playback devices.  This format has been a reliable and cost-effective method for distributing recorded books and magazines; however today’s vast multi-media technology options have far surpassed analog cassette technology. Consequently, NLS plans to introduce digital playback devices for its audio books and magazines within the next 5 years. 

In making its transition to a digital Talking Book format, NLS faces decisions about hardware design, medium, and distribution systems. Inevitably, NLS must consider practical matters such as cost, durability, and availability of appropriate technology. The equipment and delivery systems, however, also must be well-suited to the people who will use them. To make good design decisions, NLS needs more information about its patrons’ abilities and preferences. To that end, NLS commissioned the NLS Patron Survey to help staff anticipate (and proactively address) problems using the new equipment that users might have, identify possible barriers to user acceptance, and design the new equipment so it will address users’ reading needs.

Using disproportionate stratified random sampling, we identified subscribers who belong to the following age groups:

The first four strata corresponded to young adulthood, middle-age, early-to-mid old age, and late old age. The fifth stratum consists of the subscribers for whom Comprehensive Mailing List System (CMLS) information on year of birth is missing (2% –  3%). These subscribers were used in the sampling frame to avoid bias. 

The analysis is based on telephone interviews with 447 subscribers.  Below we summarize the major findings about (1) subscribers’ background characteristics and technology use and (2) their experiences with the Talking Book service and playback machine.

Background characteristics and technology use

In two respects—educational attainment and type of community—NLS patrons are diverse. Their highest grade or degree runs the gamut from 11 or fewer years of formal education to graduate school. Patrons are only slightly less likely to be living in a rural community or small town than in a suburb or city.

This diversity notwithstanding, the demographic profile of the NLS subscriber population is clear. Subscribers are primarily white, middle-aged and elderly people with late-onset serious vision loss and modest means.

Nearly all subscribers use at least one high-tech device, such as a remote control, that is commonplace in the broader American population. The use of high-tech adaptive devices, computers, and the internet is less widespread but still significant.

Use of high-tech devices is more common among younger than older subscribers. This fact, in turn, suggests that the use of all types of high-tech devices—and, by extension, interest in NLS’ forthcoming digital playback machine—is likely to increase over time. 

Current barriers to the use of computers and other high-tech devices include low income, inaccessibility to people with disabilities, and (perhaps most important), generational issues that suggest a lack of exposure, or only a brief and unsatisfactory exposure, to computers and what computers can do.

Experiences with the Talking Book service and playback machine

Across age groups, NLS is the primary source of playback equipment, and the NLS machine is the one subscribers use most often. Similarly, their Talking Book library is the primary source of reading material.

In two respects, older subscribers make up NLS’ principal constituency. First, the majority of subscribers are 65 or older. Second, they—especially subscribers who are 85 or older—are the heaviest readers.

Handling the tapes and manipulating the machine’s controls are less likely to pose a problem than understanding certain aspects of machine operation. Although the vast majority of subscribers operate the machine to play tape themselves, half received help in learning how to use the machine.

Implications for designing the new playback device and preparing subscribers for it

Subscribers need and use the accessibility features their current NLS machine offers. These features include large print and braille labeling on cassettes, raised symbols on some keys, and easy-to-manipulate controls.

Based on subscribers’ top-of-mind concerns and the importance they attach to eleven possible improvements, the following are their top priorities for the new playback device:

There are likely to be pockets of resistance to the new digital playback equipment. Half of subscribers either have no top-of-mind concerns about the current machine or say they would change nothing about it. Another harbinger of resistance is generational differences in subscribers’ exposure to and use of personal computers. For retirement-age subscribers, most of whom neither own nor use a computer, the digital device might be very intimidating.

Good communication about what the new equipment is and how to use it will be critical to fostering acceptance, especially among subscribers who were born before or during World War II.  A multi-pronged preparation effort that appeals to different constituencies is likely to be needed:

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Posted on 2006-05-30