The digital talking book, the next-generation library access medium for blind and physically handicapped individuals, took a step closer to reality.
Frank Kurt Cylke, director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), announced that NLS has initiated the development of a technical standard through the National Information Standards Organization (NISO).
A major development for the NLS program, the NISO digital talking-book standard will address problems of control, audio quality, media compatibility, copyright protection, ease of international interlibrary loan and affordability. Parties participating will include patrons, patron advocacy organizations, media producers (both volunteer and commercial), rights owners, equipment producers and librarians.
NISO is the only organization accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) to develop and maintain technical standards for information services, libraries, publishers and others involved in the business of creation, storage, preservation, sharing, accession and dissemination of data. There are currently more than 50 American National Standards in use.
"At present, library access for patrons is well served by analog cassette tape technology," Mr. Cylke said. "This technology has enjoyed the acceptance and economy found in the consumer entertainment market for more than two decades. However, as digital technology gains favor in the marketplace, analog cassettes are likely to become less attractive from both the financial and consumer-preference standpoints. These two forces, economic and preferential, will ultimately converge to motivate change. This NISO standard-development program will allow the change from analog to digital to be controlled and consistent with the interests of all concerned."
In announcing the project, NLS research and development officer Michael Moodie, who will direct project activities, outlined the scope and application of the digital talking-book standard.
According to Mr. Moodie, "The standard will define minimum performance requirements for next-generation patron-access equipment and will also describe optional features. The standard will be written in a digital context, but it will not define the software or hardware internals of a particular implementation or type of equipment. Emphasis will be on performance characteristics and control. Potential implementers would include manufacturers of digital and analog hardware, developers of multimedia authoring and presentation software, and media producers."
Patricia Harris, executive director of NISO, announced that NLS, as the sponsoring organization, will chair the standards development committee. Representatives will be invited from the American Council of the Blind, Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, American Foundation for the Blind, American Printing House for the Blind, Blinded Veterans Association, National Federation of the Blind, and Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. Other organizations from both the public and private sectors will be included, along with representatives of engineering and library interests.
Commenting on the complexity of the undertaking, John Cookson, head of the NLS Engineering Section, said, "The impact on users moving from existing practices to the new digital standard must range from 'virtually transparent' (products seemingly the same to the user but with technical improvements) to 'profound' (products with a range of options for the more technologically sophisticated patron).
"The foregoing impact statement focuses on the blind and physically handicapped patron. However, there is an infrastructure of 'users' who support and implement the library system. This wider community includes librarians, producers of talking books and magazines, both commercial and volunteer, equipment manufacturers and software developers. The new standard will, again, range from transparent to profound in impact on this community. For example, audio studios may continue to narrate into conventional analog equipment while their product would become usable only by processing through digital encoding software that is not found in today's production stream," Mr. Cookson concluded.
Wells B. Kormann, chief of staff of the NLS Materials Development Division, said, "The entire user community will be motivated to use this standard. The existing system is analog cassette tape, while the standard will define a system that will be digitally based but not restricted to any particular distribution media or implementation. Because of this fundamental incompatibility, change from the existing system will require a transition where use of both systems overlap. Time frames for introduction of new equipment are dependent on the commercial development and availability of adaptable consumer electronic hardware and software products."
According to Mr. Kormann, "Anticipating an additional 10 years of acceptable and economical use for cassette tape means that the standard must be finished within five years to allow for a five-year transition period."
In closely related activities, NLS has also researched other standards, including MPEG-4, which is an ISO/IEC standard in development under JTC1/SC29/WG11. Also related are HyTime, the Information technology-Hypermedia/Time-based Structuring Language ISO/IEC 10744, and the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), ISO 8879.