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NLS: That All May Read

Alternatives for Future Operations of the Books for the Blind Program

Section 5 - Major Assumptions for Long-Range Planning

This section of the report presents the major assumptions about operations of the Books for the Blind Program that have been used for long-range planning in the past.  These assumptions will also continue to be generally used for future long-range planning—since most of these will still hold—although certain aspects of some may change as future operations evolve and such changes are noted.

5.1   Assumption 1: Changes in policies, programs, and procedures will be implemented so as to have little or no negative impact on program users.

Users served by the program span all socioeconomic, cultural, and racial groups and constitute, in effect, a microcosm of the population of the United States.  As such the level of knowledge, skills, and abilities, especially as they relate to automation and web technology, varies greatly among users.  While striving to make every program user self-sufficient with independent access to NLS materials, it is understood that for some users this goal may not be reachable and NLS and network libraries have a responsibility to serve these users as well.

5.2   Assumption 2: Centralized book and equipment production and program coordination from NLS, with decentralized user services from network libraries, will continue.

Since its beginning in 1931, the Library of Congress and its network of cooperating libraries has benefited from a centralized/decentralized configuration in the Books for the Blind Program.  The centralized selection of titles for the collection, and the contracting for these titles to be first transcribed into braille and later audio (record, analog cassette, and now digital formats), ensured not only that any title selected for the program would be available to eligible users throughout the United States, but there were economies of scale in that purchasing transcription and narration of titles in multiple copies reduced production costs as more copies were acquired as the program grew.  Some books, like braille books, provide a better reading experience in a hard-copy format (e.g., functional like cookbook) and will likely be necessary for some time to come.

It has been generally assumed that books and equipment will be purchased centrally and distributed to a decentralized network of libraries for circulation, although this modus operandi is not a certainty in the future.  Thus each state that administers a library for blind and physically handicapped individuals will be able to staff their library to meet the needs of its own particular users.

5.3   Assumption 3: Number and size of network libraries will vary, but will continue to cover specific geographic areas.

The network grew from 19 regional libraries in 1931 to 26 in 1934. A second growth spurt of RLs began with the establishment of an RL in Florida in 1950 and extended through 1976 with the establishment of regional libraries in Puerto Rico and Vermont.  At this point, there were 56 RLs, a number that remained stable until 1995 with the establishment of an RL in North Dakota. Currently only one state, Wyoming, does not have a regional library, but users are served by the Utah RL.

Last year, 2009, marked the first closing of a regional library when the southern Ohio RL administered by the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, closed after 78 years of service. The northern Ohio RL administered by the Cleveland Public Library then assumed service for all users in Ohio.

The concept of subregional libraries was initiated in 1969 and by the mid-1980s had expanded to 104 in 22 states.  At that point, due to a number of factors—including economic downturns—implementation of automated circulation systems and more cost-effective communications, the number of SRLs has been reduced to 57 in 13 states, with the expectation that there will be further consolidations in the next few years.

While it is believed that the network at the regional library level will continue to exist, there will be changes in focus and workload.  In the short-term (through the transition) regional libraries will continue to perform all the functions that they currently perform.  However, also in the short term, regional libraries may move toward collection consolidation or contracting out with other regional libraries for circulation of RC collections, which would reduce aggregate space requirements but not aggregate shipping and receiving workload.

5.4   Assumption 4: NLS will continue to offer catalogs and physical and electronic collections.

NLS continues to contract for production of books, playback equipment, catalogs and other publications, and an online International Union Catalog, and has added the new BARD service from which users can download NLS-produced audiobooks and magazines.  Web-Braille, a separate website through which program users can download NLS braille books and magazines, is also available. These two websites will be combined in the next several years.

NLS will remain responsible for posting its books and magazines in both formats to BARD and, following the pattern for previous services, is in the process of training network libraries to take over administrative responsibility for BARD within their geographic service areas.  Network libraries will need to retain staff for provision of reader-advisory services, BARD administration, promotion of the program within its service area, and distribution functions unless or until the library contracts with another RL for such services.

5.5   Assumption 5: The network will continue to fund library service for eligible residents of their geographic jurisdiction.

At the decentralized (network library) level, costs have always centered on library services, storage space for collections, and staffing to maintain and circulate the collections.  Local (state, city, or county) libraries have a closer connection with individual users for outreach services, reader-advisory services, and material delivery than would centralized service centers providing national-level coverage.  NLS will identify functions and services of contemporary public librarians and their directions and visions for the future.

5.6   Assumption 6: NLS will continue to identify and adapt technologies to support a high-quality reading experience and may also extend these types of support to the network.

NLS is developing, and intends to implement, a functionality that will enable a program users to request that a book be downloaded, wirelessly, directly to their players. This will likely have an enormous impact on the responsibilities of network libraries.  The goal is being pursued at a time when some 65 percent of the United States has access to broadband, and the current administration has made broadband accessibility a priority over the next few years as noted in Section 3.  NLS will also continue research and development efforts regarding synthetic speech in order to provide peripheral information such as footnotes not currently recorded in audiobooks.  NLS intends to stay current with the progress of synthetic-speech technology, with a goal of implementing the technology for NLS-produced titles when the quality level becomes acceptable.  Continuing improvements will also be made in BARD functionality by investigating the feasibility of both Really Simple Syndication feed and e-mail notification/prompting of users with program content.  Lastly, NLS will develop a plan for systematic improvements to the existing catalog and to BARD.

5.7   Assumption 7: NLS and network libraries will continue to provide “easy” service for the less technically enabled.

While technically savvy program users have embraced BARD, a large proportion of the population being served is not knowledgeable about or comfortable using computers, and may never be comfortable with such technology.  There is an ongoing concern about provision of services to these individuals in the future program.  Currently NLS is meeting this need by providing hard-copy (RC, DB cartridges, bound braille) books.  This would change with the implementation of the functionality described above in Assumption 6; however the relative ease of use of the service for users would be maintained in such a change.

5.8   Assumption 8: NLS and network library service will expand into areas of reference and reader services and technical instruction and innovation to bring libraries for the blind and physically handicapped (LBPH) service on par with services provided to sighted individuals.

The provision of BARD for those users who are comfortable with such technology and the wireless download for those who are not will drastically change service requirements at network libraries.  Hard-copy collections can be dramatically reduced or possibly eliminated, and network library staffing can focus on reader-advisory service, reference service, and technical support.  However, there should be provisions made for the availability of hard copies of digital books, either through duplication onto DB cartridges at network libraries or through agreements with other network libraries that choose to maintain hard copy collections.  To this end, NLS intends to investigate the areas listed in Appendix 4.

5.9   Assumption 9: The law establishing the Books for the Blind Program will remain in effect.

While the law governing NLS has not been amended since 1966, a change in the law is possible if NLS identifies additional objectives that need to be pursued to meet its mandate.  Seeking legislative change would require both approval from the Library of Congress and support from the blind community, consumer groups, network libraries, administering agencies, and the library profession in general.

NLS will also investigate the feasibility of including earmarked funding in specific situations.  This may be in the budget as a line item, such as the Library Services Technology Act.

Funding for a centralized library service (i.e., centralized storage and distribution of books and/or equipment) will also be explored. If NLS chooses to pursue this course, many network libraries could disappear.  A relevant question then becomes could each state be invoiced for the services provided to the users in their states and, if so, how and what would the charges be, and how would the payments be collected?

5.10 Some Likely Changes in the Future

Given the assumptions above—provision of service to users at a level at which they are comfortable, centralized acquisition and production of books into braille and audio formats, centralized acquisition and distribution of playback equipment, continued support of BARD by NLS, continued existence of a network of cooperating libraries, and possible expansion of types of support NLS will provide—what changes can be expected in the network of cooperating libraries with a high degree of certainty?  Several of the changes most likely to occur are identified below.

  1. As previously mentioned, the subregional library concept is waning and could disappear entirely in the next 5 to 10 years. This will mean that regional libraries will assume responsibility for all program collections and circulation within the states they serve.
  2. Facility space continues to be a concern for many regional libraries.  NLS can assist the network by developing a Network Library Manual entry for audiobooks (analog) that parallels the entry for braille service; that is, a regional library can choose among the following options:
    a) retain a complete RC collection; b) contract with another library for RC service; or c) maintain a partial RC collection and contract with another library for titles it no longer has.
  3. The implementation of BARD means that an ever-increasing percentage of program users will have the capability of self-service in that they can go on BARD, identify a book or magazine (in audio or braille), and download it.  However, there will be for the foreseeable future users who do not and will not have the ability to take advantage of BARD.  NLS is working on a modification of the digital player which, in 5 to 10 years, will assist these program users.  Specifically, it is the possibility of wireless downloading of a book directly onto a specific user’s playback machine.  The implementation of this capability is related not only to development of the functionality at NLS, but the implementation of broadband capability throughout the United States. Once both these elements have been implemented, network libraries will no longer need to maintain physical collections of recorded titles. This will mean secondary savings for libraries in terms of needed collection space, and first-hand savings in the lessening need for circulation and collection-maintenance staff. The savings, however, will be partially offset by the need for increased reader-advisory service and a need for staff with an understanding of computers and the Internet who can assist users with technical service issues. Finally, there will be a need for staff to promote the program within the regional libraries’ service areas to ensure that all eligible individuals are aware of the program.

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Posted on 2011-03-14