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Frequently Asked Questions: Digital Talking Books

1. I've heard that the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) is planning to change talking books to a "digital" format. What does this mean?

For nearly thirty years, the primary format for talking books has been cassette. Before that, they were recorded on phonograph records. Both of these formats are "analog," meaning that the records and tapes physically store a replica of the sound of the narrator's voice. Specifically, when the narrator's voice got a bit louder, the groove of the record actually moved farther from side to side, and, on a cassette, more magnetic particles lined up in the same direction. In a digital format, measurements of the narrator's unique sound waves are stored as digits-ones and zeros-the way computers operate. The Internet, CDs, DVDs, and memory cards for digital cameras all process and store information in digital form. Advantages to storing audio recordings as numbers include the ability to improve audio quality, the ability to use the same recording in a greater variety of ways, and the ability to integrate recorded information into a wide range of systems.

2. Will there be any advantages for the user with this new format?

Yes, there will be many advantages for users. Besides the potential for improved sound quality, a digital format will offer convenience to users, who will no longer need to turn over cassettes or change side-selector switches. Users will be able to jump forward or back by chapter, set bookmarks, and vary playback speed without affecting the pitch of the reader's voice. In some books, users will be able to jump by paragraph, turn on or off selected parts of the book (e.g., footnotes), do keyword searches, or hear selected words spelled.

3. Will there be a new playback machine?

Yes. Because digital talking books will be recorded on a new medium, and playback will involve many new features, NLS may develop two new playback machines. Both machines are expected to be smaller and lighter than the current C-1. One will have only a few controls and be easy to operate; the other will have more controls, offering the user more features.

4. On what kind of medium will the digital books be recorded?

Many factors will determine the physical medium for the digital talking book. Copyright law requires that the materials circulated be in a "specialized format" not usable by the general public. The medium must be resistant to damage both in the mail and in the hands of users. The medium must be low in cost, and able to accommodate a print/braille label. NLS staff envisions that some type of flash memory cartridge would best meet these needs. Although somewhat larger, it will be like those used in digital cameras. The final decision about medium will depend on the durability, cost, and availability of appropriate technology at the time it is needed.

5. Has NLS considered putting digital talking books on compact disc?

Yes. However, extensive research revealed many reasons why compact discs (CDs) would not be the ideal choice for NLS talking books. Contrary to popular belief, CDs are not durable. They can be easily damaged. People with limited dexterity find them difficult to handle. In addition, because the playback mechanism for compact discs is fragile, CD players would be prone to damage in transit and would require frequent repair or replacement.

6. I've heard that a new NISO standard for digital talking books has just been approved. Please explain.

In December 2001, members of the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) voted to approve "Specifications for the Digital Talking Book" as an American National Standard. On March 6, 2002, the digital talking-book standard was approved by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) as ANSI/NISO Z39.86-2002. The digital talking-book standard is the result of nearly five years of effort by an international committee comprising representatives from the community of users, librarians, advocacy groups, manufacturers, producers, international borrowers, and lenders. NLS led the effort begun in 1997 all the way to final adoption of the standard. The digital talking-book standard defines the structure and content of the set of electronic files that together constitute a digital talking book. These files are arranged to present print information to the reader via alternative formats. The most common format, of course, will be human speech. However, a digital talking book produced in accordance with the ANSI/NISO standard could include a file that contains the contents of the document in text form. This would enable output via synthetic speech, refreshable braille, or enlarged visual display of the text. Because of the expense involved, NLS is not likely to produce many digital talking books incorporating text files. However, the capability will be there when needed.

7. I've heard of DAISY; will materials produced by NLS be compatible with this format?

The DAISY (Digital Audio-based Information System) Consortium is working on many of the same digital talking-book issues. NLS is closely monitoring their work and collaborating on key initiatives. DAISY has developed and implemented several digital talking-book specifications, adding new features to each version. The consortium will include the ANSI/NISO digital talking-book standard as the most advanced in their set of specifications. Thus, materials produced by NLS will be compatible with DAISY players compliant with the ANSI/NISO digital talking-book standard, but not with players produced for earlier DAISY specifications.

8. Will any of the older NLS-produced titles be available in this new format?

Yes, the NLS Collection Development Section (CDS) staff has begun a multiyear analysis of the cassette book collection, identifying the titles most appropriate for conversion. In 2001, CDS chose an initial 1,000 titles to be put in digital format. Identification of these titles created a cross section of the recorded book collection, with genres selected in proportion to their representation in the full catalog. For this first group, CDS chose titles it judged to be of most enduring value. The process will be repeated in 2002 and subsequent years, with the annual number of selected titles increasing as needed to meet production goals. This approach assures that when NLS begins to distribute books in a digital format, a broad, representative range of titles will be available to readers. It is planned that, by 2008, retrospective audio titles cumulated since 2001 along with full annual production of current titles begun in 2004 will comprise a collection of 16,000 titles in digital format.

9. When will I see this new format?

The transition to a digital format will be a deliberate process consisting of several phases. Initially, small tests will be conducted involving a limited number of users. As results are known and the ultimate direction becomes clearer, larger field tests will be conducted. By the end of 2008, NLS plans to have 50,000 digital talking-book players available, with larger numbers produced in subsequent years until all NLS users have access to the new format.

10. Will there be any change for magazines?

Since magazines tend to be smaller and more ephemeral in nature, a wider range of distribution scenarios may be practical and cost-effective. The flash memory cartridges being considered for distributing books may be too expensive to use with magazines, which are not returned to libraries. It is possible that magazines may stay on cassette for an additional few years. When conversion becomes necessary because of equipment and materials obsolescence, a variety of distribution methods will then be considered, including the Internet, telephone, etc.

11. Will there be any new ways to read braille with the digital format?

Since 1999, NLS has been making braille books available in a digital form through Web-Braille, a password-protected web-based service. More than 4,300 books, all NLS-produced braille magazines, and several hundred music scores can be downloaded from the Internet. Although Web-Braille is a digital format, the files were created to be embossed on braille paper and don't contain information that would assist the user in easily navigating a book. However, a more flexible braille reading experience may be provided by the digital talking-book format. With a properly equipped player and a digital talking book that includes the full text of the book, reading and navigating the book in braille will be possible. NLS will produce only a limited number of digital talking books that include a full text file. Nevertheless, the presence of the text file will greatly increase the usefulness of some titles, making cookbooks or reference books, for example, easier to read and richer sources of information.

12. What can I do to help?

There will be many opportunities over the next few years for talking-book users to participate in field trials evaluating various features and user interfaces of prototype playback equipment. As field trial dates are established, talking-book users will be recruited for participation.

The above answers to frequently asked questions reflect current NLS understanding and planning for digital talking-book technology. Wording of answers does not represent a technical explanation. Such details are found in documents listed on the NLS web site <www.loc.gov/nls>.

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Posted on 2011-01-10