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NLS: That All May Read

Alternatives for Future Operations of the Books for the Blind Program

Section 2 - Current Program Operations Summary

The major functions in current operations of the Books for the Blind Program are summarized and any current plans for future operations are also cited. Services that network libraries are currently providing to their users, but are not NLS-sponsored services, are listed in Section 2.16 below and are not further addressed in this report.

2.1 Program Content

The NLS policy for development of its collection of reading materials, in several special formats for program users, is to reflect the offerings of a good, medium-sized public library and satisfy the information and recreational needs of all program users in the United States and U.S. citizens living abroad at no cost to the users.  It is not an NLS objective to develop academic or special (e.g., medical) library collections, which are controlled by other legal mandates and are of specialized content.

NLS has some latitude vis-à-vis its enabling legislation to select content appropriate for the program, and some current policies have been set by program directors rather than being specifically mandated by the law.  A Collection Development Advisory Group, which meets annually and provides recommendations for the development of program content to NLS based upon feedback from their constituents, consists of four network librarians, four program users, one member each from the American Council of the Blind (ACB), the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), and the Blinded Veterans Association (BVA), all of whom serve extended terms.  NLS does not wish to duplicate content that is either being provided free or at a low cost by another entity and effectively satisfies all or most demand (e.g., Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic producing and distributing educational materials in special reading formats).

However, given the objective of performing as a public library, materials offered in the program must be unabridged. Current commercial audiobooks, whether abridged or unabridged content and whether offered on compact disc (CD) or via Internet download, titles generally have rudimentary navigation and some have music overtones and/or theatrical emphases that some program users find objectionable. Synthesized speech—in its current state of technology—is also considered generally unsatisfactory by most users; however, NLS is interested in tracking this technology for potential use in the future.

2.2 Digital Talking-Book Machines (DTBMs)

The DTBM has proved to be a major success, with its functionality, reliability, and affordability already exceeding expectations.  While its reliability will be further tested over time, there have thus far been fewer than 100 warranty returns for the 200,000 units manufactured and allocated to machine-lending agencies (MLAs) through September 2010.

DTBMs are currently being fully deployed in the program, with production rates in the early months of FY2010 of about 23,000 units per month, and a current rate of about 20,000 units per month.  Production levels of 20,000 units per month are planned for the next 18 to 24 months, with levels declining to 10,000 to 15,000 units per month after that for an indeterminate time, but likely at least for the duration of the production contract’s three-year base period.  The production mix is currently 40 percent advanced units and 60 percent standard units, and this mix is expected to continue for an indeterminate time.

MLAs have made the necessary changes to their information systems to handle DTBMs, are distributing the units to program users, and generally handling the well-above-average workload—89 percent of machines allocated to MLAs were distributed to users through September 2010.  In the future MLAs will also store and distribute units from buffer stocks in their inventories, after all users have been issued units.  With the exception of users in Rhode Island, who are served by Massachusetts, users are currently served by MLAs within their own states.

All repairs on DTBMs have been performed under warranty (there is currently a thirteen-month warranty on each machine). It is envisioned that volunteers will do most or all DTBM repairs, with a commercial repairer being brought in only if required.  NLS is procuring and storing DTBM parts at NLS headquarters, and distributing parts to volunteer and commercial repairers as necessary.

Both multistate centers (MSCs) are storing and distributing packaging supplies and batteries for DTBMs to MLAs.  Back-up stocks of DTBMs will be stored in the future in MSCs.

2.3 Digital Book (DB) Cartridges

Like DTBM production, the production of DBs on flash-memory cartridges is currently in full gear. All of the 2,000-plus analog audiobook titles being produced by NLS contractors are being produced in DB format.

The production of cartridges (most are 1-gigabyte [GB] capacity, the remainder 2-GB capacity) has been going very smoothly, the units are reliable and within reasonable and budgeted price ranges. NLS provides cartridges to DB producers as government-furnished property. After some initial problems in production related to labeling, four NLS DB producers are creating and shipping both new and retro titles to network libraries. NLS maintains an archive collection of all DBs in its headquarters.

Network libraries store DBs in their facilities, circulate them to their users, and manage the newly produced digital titles.  Rhode Island users are provided DB book services by Massachusetts under contract with the Rhode Island State Library, and Wyoming users are provided DB services by Utah; otherwise, users are provided DBs by network libraries within their own states.

Weeding with reallocation of DB cartridge copies among network libraries and reconditioning of DB cartridges and containers has not yet commenced.  A shorter minimum holding period for DBs under the Excess and Redistribution System (XESS) process, relative to that for RC books, is being considered.

Some network libraries are beginning to produce NLS audiobook titles on DB cartridges via in-house duplication for any titles for that require additional copies. NLS has recently provided a training module to instruct network library staff in the proper procedures.

NLS MSCs store both back-up DB collections for distribution via Interlibrary Loans (ILL) directly to users, as well as circulate DBs directly to program users living overseas. The Multistate Center East (MSCE) is also engaged in some production of foreign-language titles on DB cartridges.  The MSCE performs quality assurance (QA) of network library-produced materials that, if qualified, NLS places on the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) system. Both MSCs are also storing and distributing DB mailing containers used by network libraries to replace damaged containers for NLS copies.

2.4 Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD): Digital Books and Magazines via Internet Download

The implementation of the BARD system has been a major success, with 19,000 digital audiobook titles and 46 magazine titles (in multiple issues) currently on the system, about 28,500 users (about 11 percent of program users who have been issued DTBMs), and about 155,000 book and 7,500 magazine downloads for October 1, 2010.  To date, institutions have not been able to use BARD, but the policy has been approved to allow institutions will be authorized to use the system in the near future.  Users continue to join BARD at the rate of about 2,000 per month, and it appears likely that 10 percent of users with DTBMs will be using BARD in the near future.

LC currently provides the data storage, data processing, and telecommunications infrastructure required for the NLS BARD system via a single-server website.  This arrangement has adequate capacity given the projected number of users and associated activity.

The reconciliation of the library information systems with the Comprehensive Mailing List System (CMLS) for BARD updates of program-user authentication and authorization data, for which CMLS is the approving authority, are working but with some difficulty. Manual intervention is still required in facilitating information exchange between the systems.  Transfer of BARD user circulation data to network library systems to update has-had histories is progressing well.

Network libraries are currently assuming the function of registering users for BARD system.  This began with 10 RLs and 11 SRLs, and will be completed in several similar increments by March 2011.  A BARD administration training module was posted to the network library website where it is now being used.

2.5 Recorded Cassette (RC) Books

The production of analog cassette books has ceased. Copy Allotment orders for RC books continued through the end of FY2010 and production and shipping of RCs will likely last at least through the end of 2011.  The archive of RCs is maintained by NLS at its headquarters.

Network libraries store RC books in their facilities and circulate them to their users.  Rhode Island users are provided book services by Massachusetts under contract with the Rhode Island State Library, and Wyoming users are provided RC book services by Utah; in a less formal agreement, Mississippi users are provided book services for RC titles older than RC40000 by Alabama (and in return Mississippi is loaning large print [LP] and descriptive video [DV] to Alabama users).  Similar arrangements exist between other network libraries. Otherwise, users are provided RCs by network libraries within their own states.  The network libraries manage the collections of some 70,000 RC titles via weeding with reallocation of some copies to other libraries in the XESS process, and forwarding other copies to the NLS contractor for container reconditioning and cassette disposal.

Both MSCs store and circulate back-up RC collections via interlibrary loan (ILL), the MSCE stores and circulates special (foreign language) RC collections via ILL and the Multistate Center West (MSCW) stores and circulates RC books directly to program users living overseas.  The MSCs also conduct a Tape Quota Program, in which they produce copies of selected RC titles for network library collections (an activity that consisted of about 36,000 copies during FY2008 and is declining), and a QA program for network library-produced RC materials (primarily magazines, which are now in digital format).

2.6 Recorded Cassette Magazines

NLS intends to continue the production of RC magazines for the near future, and possibly through the transition (after all users have DTBMs

Forty-six RC magazines titles are produced by NLS contractors and distributed directly to program users through the mail, and are one-way, disposable media.  All of the magazine titles being produced and put on BARD are also being produced and distributed as RC magazines. NLS is conducting a pilot for the production of magazines in a digital format.

NLS has a contractor operate and maintain CMLS, which manages RC and braille magazine subscriptions.  The network libraries update CMLS with user and magazine subscription data from their information systems using a semi-automated method that requires some manual intervention.

2.7 Cassette Book Machines (CBMs)

The production of Cassette Book Machines (CBM) ceased in 2007, and the program operates using the existing inventory of CBMs.  The majority of units are being used by readers, with the balance of the national inventory in buffer stocks at MLAs.  There was also an inventory of more than  57m684 CBMs in the MSCW as of October 1, 2010, approximately half of which are known to be defective and the other half potentially operable.

NLS procures and stores CBM parts at NLS headquarters, and distributes them to repair groups upon request.  Lifetime buys have already been made of all appropriate CBM parts.

Volunteers continue to repair defective CBMs, with parts provided by NLS.  With a declining CBM repair workload caused by a shift to DTBMs, there should be sufficient volunteer capacity to see the program through the transition.

Both MSCs store and distribute CBM packaging supplies and batteries to MLAs.

2.8 Braille Books (BRs)

NLS currently produces between 500 and 600 book titles in braille in bound-volume format annually, which average about 50 copies per title.  About 30 titles per year are also produced in print/braille bound volumes.  Both of these types of braille books are distributed to the network libraries.  This level of production is also planned for the near future.  An archive of these books is maintained at NLS headquarters.

Braille volumes are stored in and circulated from network library collections to program users.  Distribution from network libraries has undergone a significant degree of consolidation over the years, because of the centralized operations.  Initially several RLs—the Utah RL in the west and the Massachusetts and Philadelphia RLs in the north—began serving braille users in other states.  Philadelphia provided braille service to all of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and West Virginia, while Massachusetts began providing braille service to mos of the New England states, Washington, D.C., and North Carolina. The Utah RL, which began by serving RLs in the west before expanding its braille service all the way to the east coast with service to Georgia and South Carolina, now serves 22 states.  During FY2009, about 27,255 individual and 2,929 institutions were provided about 342,039 volumes of braille books for circulation.

Both MSCs store and distribute copies directly to users from back-up braille collections. The MSCW stores and circulates books from the braille special collection (BRA) and Jewish Braille Institute collections and the MSCE stores and circulates books from the foreign-language collection (BRF), as directed by network libraries.  Both MSCs also store and distribute braille mailing containers to network libraries upon request.

2.9 Braille Magazines

NLS intends to continue the production of braille magazines for an indeterminate time. About 269,000 braille magazine copies were circulated to program users by NLS contractors during FY2008, and about 35,000 Web-Braille downloads were made by 5,800 users.

The 33 braille magazine titles are produced by NLS contractors and distributed directly to program users in the mail, and are one-way and disposable.  All of the titles being produced as braille magazines are also posted on BARD.  CMLS is used by network libraries and NLS contractors to facilitate braille magazine production and distribution in a manner identical to that of RC magazines (described in 2.6).

2.10 Rigid Disks (RDs) and Talking-Book Machines (TBMs)

Services for rigid disks (RD) and talking-book machines (TBMs) have migrated almost entirely from network libraries to the MSCW.  Network libraries have forwarded virtually all of their RD collections and TBM inventories to the MSCW and circulation, while not completely gone from libraries, is limited (about 1,200 copies nationwide in FY2008, more than half of which were from the MSCs).  An inventory of about 1,000 TBMs is currently available in the multistate centers.  NLS holds approximately 18,199 RDs.

2.11 Music

Music materials are circulated in braille, audio, and LP (bold note) formats directly to program users from NLS headquarters; NLS intends to begin circulating music on digital cartridges by the end of 2010.  During FY2008, just fewer than 1,000 users received about 4,100 copies of music in audio format, and about 600 users received about 1,800 copies of music in braille format. To avoid delays caused by USPS security procedures, users return music materials to MSCE, which in turn delivers the materials to NLS headquarters via UPS.

2.12 User Registration

The registration of users for the program, including verification of eligibility, is performed by the network libraries using applications created and distributed by NLS.  This registration typically takes place concurrently with registration for the network library’s other, i.e., non-NLS-sponsored, services.  Because NLS also uses CMLS as a program user demographic database, network libraries also enter user information into CMLS whether or not the users subscribe to any magazines or use BARD.  Approximately 60,000 users are registered in the program annually by network libraries. Similarly, approximately 60,000 users leave the program annually through death or other reasons, and their records are removed from the library information systems and CMLS by the network libraries.

2.13 Reader Advisory Services

Network libraries currently provide all reader advisory (RA) services in the program.  RA services include assisting users with the use of playback machines; assisting in the selection of reading materials, including the use of Profile Select, a service that provides users with a book list based on their preferences; and placing specific orders for books, magazines, and machines from users into the library information systems.  Some, but not all, network libraries also provide reference services to users.

2.14 Additional Services

In addition to the major services cited above, NLS also produces documents including catalogs of books and magazines, forms, manuals, and other publications, and supplies such as bar-code labels and library property labels.  After being purchased by NLS, these supplies are shipped to the MSCs and are then stored and distributed to network libraries upon request.  These functions will remain at the MSCs for the foreseeable future.

2.15 United States Postal Service (USPS) Deliveries

The USPS delivers virtually all of the materials required for the program under the auspices of Free Matter, for which the USPS receives a congressional subsidy.  This includes the movement of all reading media and machines among points of manufacture and supply to NLS, MSCs, network libraries, and users.  During FY2009, about 25.2 million items were handled by USPS for the program, the vast majority being audiobooks and audio magazines.

2.16 Network Library Services Outside of NLS Program

Network libraries offer a number of other services to their users that are not sponsored by NLS.  These services include, but are not necessarily limited to, outreach; registration for the programs (whether using NLS-sponsored services or not); maintenance and circulation of LP book collections; maintenance and circulation of DV collections; production and distribution of local and special-interest materials; provision of adaptive equipment; assistance with General Equivalency Diploma training, employment applications, etc.; and reader advisor staff for these services.

2.17 Status of Major Service Providers in Current Program

NLS. Congress made available to NLS $75 million over six years to accelerate the pace of the transition to the new digital system. The NLS budget for FY2010 is just over $70 million which includes about $13.5 million of funding for the transition.  The NLS annual budget, net of the funding for the transition, is thus about $58 million and is expected to remain at about that level for the near future.

Network Libraries. Network libraries will realize various benefits after full implementation of the new digital system, including less storage space requirements for DBs versus RCs, less inspection required for DBs versus RCs, fewer machine repairs for DTBMs versus CBMs, less handling of DTBMs for repairs versus that for CBMs, fewer communications with program users for machine-related problems for DTBMs than CBMs, and a reduced network library distribution workload because of BARD’s ever-increasing share of book circulation.  However, network libraries are currently operating in a dual-mode of audiobook circulation (i.e., RC and DB new titles, DB retro titles, and the extensive RC collection are stored and circulated), receiving and distributing very high volumes of new playback machines, taking over BARD registration and technical support from NLS, and facing budget cuts caused by the current economic downturn.  Many SRLs have closed in recent years, and several SRLs are closing during 2010 as a result of budget reductions.  NLS is advising these operations on an approach to dealing with this consolidation.  While it is not known what network libraries are currently spending in aggregate for NLS-sponsored operations, it is likely in the same order of magnitude as the expenses incurred by NLS or approximately $60 million to $70 million per year.

USPS.  The USPS is currently under pressure from Congress to cut costs and eliminate its operating deficit.  It is considering the elimination of Saturday deliveries, which amounts to a one-sixth or approximate a 17-percent reduction in the frequency of delivery of materials to all customers (Free Matter users included).  For FY2010, the USPS was appropriated $82.8 million for combined Free Matter and mailings of voting materials to U.S. citizens overseas.  It is estimated that about 90 percent of this amount—or about $75 million annually—is for delivery of Free Matter.

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Posted on 2011-03-14