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NLS Technical Circulars

Audio Technology Initiatives

Number 03-02

We live in the information age, a time of revolutionary change. After years of planning, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) will take advantage of the opportunities this revolution has brought by moving the talking-book program from analog cassette to a digital format.

In moving toward this goal, NLS has two major constraints: simplicity and cost. First, the program must be kept simple because its primary focus is reading for pleasure. Second, NLS has an inventory of more than 700,000 players and 20,000,000 books on cassettes. The cost of replacing this inventory is estimated at $150 million.

The basic program must be available to and usable by all eligible patrons at no charge. Some NLS services are provided to specialized groups Web-Braille users, for example), but only when the basic product is available to all (embossed editions for the readers who need them). As digital talking book (DTB) technology develops, NLS's primary focus must remain on the core group of patrons receiving the basic service.

Digital technology has made the book a complex artifact. It allows for many features. The challenge is to incorporate the complexity of the format and provide the features it makes possible without destroying the simplicity of the basic reading experience. The following illustrate some aspects of this challenge.

Digital audio environment

NLS will ensure that the chosen path is the right one for patrons and is the same one that the rest of the industry is following. Several projects now under way will help determine that choice.

To ensure keeping in touch with the industry, NLS collaborates with both public and private organizations internationally.
NLS initiated and led the development of a national standard to ensure that DTBs will be the same no matter who provides services to patrons and that organizations serving blind readers can share resources.
User survey
A study has been undertaken to gather data on user demographics and physical and cognitive abilities. The study will guide the design of the DTB player and the book distribution system.
Life-cycle cost model
NLS has developed a software tool that projects program costs under different scenarios.

Audio book

NLS has set a target date of 2008 to have enough books (20,000 titles) and players to begin distributing DTBs to patrons.

DTB procurement
NLS has issued its first request for proposals (RFP) with detailed specifications for procurement and quality assurance. Contractors will begin producing DTBs based on those specifications in 2004.
NLS plans to convert 10,000 of 40,000 analog recorded titles to a DTB format. An RFP for the pilot conversion of 200 titles has been issued.
Digital duplicators
NLS sponsored the development of a system that allows network libraries to duplicate analog cassettes from digital masters and to convert analog recordings to digital format.
Low-complexity mastering system
Most commercial digital systems are aimed at recording music rather than speech. NLS has developed a mastering system that is now being used in its own studio and is being installed in several network libraries.
Storage area network
A DTB is composed of a number of large computer files. A project is under way to define and procure the hardware and software needed to manage a collection of book files during recording and quality assurance at NLS.
Validation tool
NLS has completed an automated tool to ensure the accuracy of the files controlling navigation and playback.
Production workflow
NLS is analyzing workflow to prepare for changes required for DTB production.

DTB player

While some thought has gone into the possibility of patrons reading books online or downloading them to their own systems, it is expected that players will continue to be distributed to a significant number of patrons for some time. The replacement value of the inventory of NLS cassette players is $100 million, so DTB players will be the single largest cost item in the project.

NLS is putting significant effort into designing the player. It must be easy to use and maintain, but it must also provide a minimal set of navigation features such as moving from chapter to chapter.

Software player
NLS has developed software that permits people to read a DTB on a personal computer and use its navigation features. This will be used to test and refine features when designing the player.
Design contest
NLS sponsored a design contest in conjunction with the Industrial Designers Society of America. Innovative elements from the 146 entries will be included in the final design.
Design consultant
NLS hired a consultant who helped draft an RFP for designing the DTB player and the book distribution medium. The RFP will be issued in late 2003.
Transition study
contractor has been hired to develop a production plan for the phased transition from cassettes to DTBs.

Audio delivery systems

NLS has made significant progress in developing ways to build and store the DTB collection. The more pressing question is how to get books to more than half a million patrons. Online access and downloading are not an option for most of them, and NLS expects to provide books and players through the mail for the foreseeable future.

A number of initiatives to help develop a strategy have been devised.

Physical book
Each audio book is now sent as a container of cassettes. For the 2008 target date, it is probably that each book will still be sent on its own medium most likely a nonvolatile memory (flash memory) cartridge. Though not final, the selection of flash memory is fairly firm, based on consultation with a semiconductor expert and discussions with major producers and users of flash memory.
Internet delivery
While the delivery of physical books is expected to remain central, a steady increase in the number of users getting their materials over the Internet may be foreseen. NLS plans a pilot study when enough DTBs are in service for a valid test.
Other electronic delivery systems
NLS has held discussions with people who proposed a cable-based delivery system, and is evaluating a project in Australia and the United Kingdom aimed at satellite delivery of books.
On-demand technology
NLS is investigating the feasibility of producing books on demand instead of maintaining a collection. The cost of establishing collections in network libraries at the levels currently maintained for cassettes may be prohibitive. Also, the space and staff resources needed to house and circulate collections in network libraries are particularly burdensome. NLS is therefore looking at an automated system that would accept a list of books to be mailed to patrons, write the books to memory cartridges, label them, and prepare and address mailing containers. Returned books would be recycled. With such a system, the number of cartridges required would be reduced to the number in circulation and would level off to a small number purchased annually for replacement. Network libraries would no longer be required to shelve audio book collections.
National distribution center
NLS is exploring the feasibility of one or several national distribution centers using on-demand technology. Network libraries would continue to serve patrons as they do today, except that they would send electronic files of mailing requests to distribution centers. Because on-demand technology would be beyond the reach of all but the largest network libraries, a compromise is sought: network libraries would house and circulate the 20 percent of the collection that is in high demand representing 80 percent of the circulation), and the national centers would use on-demand technology for the rest.

Braille books

In the early 1990s, NLS instructed braille contractors to provide electronic copies of the books they produced. That led to two recent initiatives.

Braille books going back to the early 1990s and all new braille books and magazines are now available online through the Web-Braille system <www.loc.gov/nls/braille>.
Braille replacement volumes
Sometimes individual volumes of a book get lost and render the book unusable. A library that has lost a volume can now order a new embossed, bound copy and put the title back in circulation.

Network library operations

NLS and network libraries are partners. For a long time, NLS has investigated and developed technology for network libraries in the form of circulation systems, on-demand labeling systems, and assistance in developing local recording programs. Among new initiatives are several related to local book production, for which libraries have been anxiously waiting. In addition, one initiative that has been under way for the past few years has been providing some relief to network libraries in their everyday operations.

Network library services Web page
This service relieves libraries of much of the paperwork that comes with a partnership such as this. Libraries can now use the Internet to identify and order books from NLS, obtain bibliographic data for their circulation systems, order supplies, update their own data in the NLS subscription and inventory databases, send a variety of forms to NLS, and retrieve publications NLS sends to libraries. Annual and semiannual statistics are now gathered through this site, which supports the interlibrary loan service (about 10,000 transactions a month).

General program direction

Digital Long-Term Planning Group
This group consists of two members from consumer groups, three state librarians and eight network librarians, and the director of the library of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Members were selected for their demonstrated interest or expertise and their willingness to speak up on issues of importance. The group was formed to allow NLS to work more closely with the network on DTB planning and also to investigate parts of the digital world other than talking-book technologies.
Commercial audio books
One of the areas where technology is changing the environment for NLS is the growing availability of unabridged commercial audio books. A project is under way to assess the feasibility of purchasing, rather than producing, audio books that are formatted to NLS standards. Several of these books have already been produced and distributed under this project.

Other alternatives

A number of technologies have been evaluated, including CD-ROM, hard-disk systems, and commercial off-the-shelf players. Players close to what NLS needs may be available, but always require extensive adaptive modifications. NLS plans therefore to produce a machine that, while based in commercial technology, is designed specifically for NLS patrons.

While it might be useful to some patrons to receive a player or distribution medium loaded with many books, it is generally agreed that it would not work for all. NLS can consider this in the future, after the basic service is in place.

Through this technological revolution and its attendant changes, NLS will continue to serve its patrons, who may continue to depend on the service to provide high-quality reading materials.

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Posted on 2010-11-12