BY GAIL FINEBERG
Durable technology might seem like a contradiction in terms in the context of communications systems that become obsolete with passing fads and trends, but the Library's talking books have given millions of blind and physically disabled people free, reliable access to audio versions of books and magazines for 69 years.
Since the first talking book was recorded on a vinyl audio disc in 1933, the Library's National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has made only one major change in talking-book technology—to analog tape recordings and tape cassette playback machines in the 1970s. Even then, many users continued to listen to long-playing records on old record players created specifically for the talking-book program.
Now, 30 years later, NLS is moving toward its second major change, from analog recordings on miles of magnetic tape to digital recordings on tiny microchips—called Digital Talking Books (DTB).
NLS Director Kurt Cylke expects the DTB conversion effort to be completed in 2008. He said the changeover will mean converting approximately 30,000 titles (about 10 percent of NLS' collection) from analog tape recordings to master digital recordings and developing a digital playback device that is simple to use, portable, and above all, as durable as the rugged, four-track tape player that has been in service for nearly three decades. In addition, 2,000 digital titles (plus two million copies) will be added to the collection each year. The digital playback device will replace the tape cassette players now available for use worldwide.
"The change to digital versions of not only the playback machines, but also the collection, is a great challenge," Cylke said.
The cost of changing technology on so vast a scale is high—approximately $75 million over three years.
The first step in the complicated changeover was to develop a user-prescribed national standard for a DTB. In partnership with an international committee, NLS coordinated a five-year effort to write the new DTB standard, which was adopted by the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) in December 2001 and approved by the American National Standards Institute on March 6. Blind and visually impaired users formulated specifications for the standard, which will govern designs for DTBs.
User requirements for a future digital playback device include characteristics of the time-tested tape cassette players, such as tactile features for blind users; sound amplification for those who are hard of hearing; and large buttons, knobs, or other controls that are easy to grasp and manipulate, even for someone with limited dexterity or strength. The player must be simple to load, and flash memory cards storing the digital recordings must be large enough to handle easily. The device will have to withstand long, hard use and the rough-and-tumble treatment of shipping.
Extensive research revealed many reasons why compact discs 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 CDs is fragile, CD players would be prone to damage in transit and would require frequent repair and replacement.
On Dec. 4, 2000, NLS joined with the Industrial Designers Society of America to sponsor a contest for students to design a digital playback device that will survive future digital technology changes over the years and meet the users' requirements. These designs were not intended to produce a model to manufacture but to inspire the government's research and planning with well-considered design ideas.
Students from 28 design schools throughout the country submitted 146 entries, which were judged by a panel of six designers and senior NLS staff on June 7. The winners were presented awards at the designer society's conference in Monterey, Calif., July 20–23.
Lachezar Tsvetanov, a senior from Sophia, Bulgaria, studying at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut on a full scholarship, won first place with his "Dook," a digital player that looks like a sleek, slim book and opens to reveal a speaker and audio controls. He was awarded $5,000 in July for his design.
The audience he had in mind for his product was older users who are familiar with books. Blindness and visual impairment most often occur in later life. These individuals generally lack the tactile sensitivity to learn braille, so talking books become the way they read. "It was great to work on a product addressing the challenges faced by those whose needs are frequently overlooked," Tsvetanov said. "This was not only a design exercise, but also a life experience."
The judges selected two second-place entries and three third-place designs. Cylke, who conceived the design competition, said he was pleased with the quality of the entries. "This contest has given NLS an opportunity to examine what the brightest students in the industrial design world proposed as solutions to the complex design challenges which a digital talking-book player represents. We're truly pleased with the caliber of the entries and look forward to examining them further."
John Bryant, head of the NLS Production Control Section, coordinated the contest in cooperation with Gigi Thompson, the senior manager of communications for the Industrial Designers Society of America. Jim Mueller, a member of the society and chairman of its Universal Design Professional Interest Section, was the professional advisor. Mueller served as a judge along with Michael M. Moodie, NLS' research and development officer, who coordinated the five-year effort to develop the new talking-book standard; other judges included Thomas Bickford, a senior reviewer for audio books at NLS, who "read" his first talking book in 1948; Philip Vlasak, a partner of Personal Computer Systems of Michigan, which creates computer games for blind people; Brian Matt, a society member and founder and CEO of Altitude Inc., a Boston design and development firm; and Sam Leotta, a society member who designed bomber and fighter aircraft for use in World War II.
NLS' designs have set the pace of technology innovations over the years. In 1934, the long-playing 331/3 rpm record was developed for the talking-book program, 14 years before it became the industry standard. This disc technology was modified and improved over the years. By 1973, NLS had developed a flexible disc that would turn at 81/3 revolutions per minute and record more than two hours of sound. In 1980, "The Second Lady" by Irving Wallace was recorded on seven flexible discs, producing 14 hours of sound.
Field testing of tape recorders began in 1963. By the early 1980s, special four-track tapes with their durable players could record and play back 200 pages of print read aloud. NLS now has more than 23 million copies of some 340,000 titles available on cassettes. Cylke said that in the next generation of DTBs, an entire book will be placed on one microchip.
One big advantage of the digital format will be the capacity to index and retrieve information by keyword searches within the text. Users will be able to read an entire book without having to turn over a tape or disc, and navigational tools will enable them to skip quickly from chapter to chapter or paragraph to paragraph, or to bookmark passages for later reference. The sound quality of digital recordings is also expected to be higher than that of current media.
The production of current titles in digital format began this year. New titles will be recorded on digital masters and copied and released in analog format until digital playback devices replace cassette playback machines in 2008.
A recent NLS report, "Digital Talking Books: Progress to Date, May 2002" (see June Bulletin, p. 115), details the steps that NLS has taken so far and needs to take to advance the talking-book program. NLS has developed a life-cycle cost analysis model to compare the costs of the audio cassette program with projected costs of various technologies proposed for the new system. NLS is creating a collection of digital masters from which copies will be made for distribution and is writing software programs to check each digital file for formatting standards. The organization must select a copyright protection system to ensure that only eligible users have access to DTB recordings of copyrighted materials.
A long-term digital planning group, made up of consumer representatives and network librarians, is planning for the deployment of DTB technology through the long-standing national network of 138 cooperating libraries.
Second- and Third-Place Award Winners
Second Place ($2,000): Christopher Garnaas and Laura Hackbarth, Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. Entry titled "Nero." Faculty advisors: Pascal Malassigné (IDSA fellow) and Bill O'Dell.
Second Place ($2,000): Anna Mastriano, University of Bridgeport, Conn. Entry titled "Book Talk." Faculty advisor: Roy Watson.
Third Place ($1,000): Nicki Kuwahara, California State University, Long Beach. Entry titled "Digital Talking Book." Independent, self-directed project.
Third Place ($1,000): Brian Potempa and Michael Matheau Potempa, Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. Entry titled "Insight Personal Assistance Device." Faculty advisors: Pascal Malassigné (IDSA fellow) and Bill O'Dell.
Third Place ($1,000): Emilie Williams, North Carolina State University. Entry titled "D1." Faculty advisor: Percy Hooper (IDSA member).
An exhibit titled "'Dook'—Digital Talking Books: Machine Design Competition Winners," featuring the six winning designs, opened Oct. 21 and runs through Dec. 20 in the foyer of the Mumford Room, on the sixth floor of the Library's James Madison Building.
Gail Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library's staff newsletter.