Braille Book Review

September-October 2005

In Brief

The following information is reprinted from two issues of NLS Flash, a newsletter created to bring current information on NLS progress in digital technology to patrons, library staff, and other interested individuals.

Flash, June 2005, volume 1, issue 7

Made to order: creating a DTBM suitable for all

Since the program began in the 1930s, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has relied on consumer input and understands its importance. Developing a complete picture of the needs of program users is one of the top challenges for engineers of NLS's digital talking-book (DTB) project, and they have recently completed the first in a series of eight rigorous user-needs tests.

Two objectives guided the user-needs tests. The first was to validate requirements for the digital talking-book machine (DTBM), flash-memory cartridge, and mailing container, and to make adjustments as necessary. The second was to gather patron feedback from hands-on testing to guide the product design.

"User testing will enable us to optimize the experience of operating the machine and get the most out of the system," says Frank Kurt Cylke, NLS director. "Patron comments will help designers to enhance areas that most concern our patrons."

Focus groups were conducted over a three-week period in Baltimore; Los Angeles; Clearwater, Florida; and Madison, Wisconsin. A diverse range of current and potential users with visual and/or physical impairments provided valuable input. The regional and subregional libraries involved identified the users and organized their participation.

Four industry leaders in assistive technology played varying roles in the process. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) developed test procedures and moderated most of the focus groups. HumanWare, formerly VisuAide, managed the tests and identified user needs. The Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin gathered feedback from seniors with multiple disabilities in separate test sessions. Industrial designers from Battelle‡a technology innovation firm contracted to create the DTB system‡were at each location to observe.

Developed by the National Federation of the Blind with NLS support, the agenda ensured constructive and thorough feedback. Group sizes were generally limited to two or three participants, permitting examiners to gain a personal understanding of user needs through interviews and operational tasks performed on the current C-1 cassette player. Additional interviews were conducted with library support-staff members, whose needs will also impact the design.

Participants carried out a series of tasks to test accessibility and performance, including operating the main controls of a C-1, wrapping the power cord for storage, and opening and closing mailing containers. Patrons also reviewed various proposed player shapes and sizes, cartridge shapes, and insertion and removal methods, as well as button shapes and layout.

"Operational tasks are important because they give us an idea of the range of abilities of users, and provide an understanding of the challenges they face and what we must design for," says Michael Moodie, NLS deputy director. "We learn more specifics about the machine's operation by observing how patrons handle the machine."

Lessons learned

Results place patron needs into four main categories: usability, portability, maintenance, and packaging/labeling. Patrons noted the importance of portability and reported moving players around relatively frequently. They preferred a smaller, lighter machine with a built-in handle.

Accessible design remains a key issue. Buttons accessible in shape and layout are essential as are built-in audio prompts to guide users.

According to James Gashel, NFB executive director for strategic initiatives, the findings underscore the importance of user testing. "These results illustrate just how informed consumers are," says Gashel. "Not only do we know exactly what we need from information technology, but we can help engineers design for those needs. We will help them help us."

Library support-staff members were generally interested in how the new technology can help them better serve patrons. They value a simple interface that can be easily explained. Librarians anticipate that the packaging design will make the book-return process more efficient. Repair technicians look forward to a design that facilitates service and cleaning.

The lessons learned affect each component of the DTB system‡player, cartridge, and mailing container‡underscoring the need to integrate and coordinate all parts of the system.

"This decision will impact the entire distribution network‡duplication, circulation systems, data management, and possibly even facilities," says Moodie. "It is important that we consider the economic, operational, and human impact of each model."

Striking a balance

Creating a made-to-order digital talking-book machine is a tough assignment. The sessions uncovered a variety of patron needs. Success hinges on the understanding that some compromise will be necessary in the final DTBM design.

While NLS values user feedback, it will be impossible to incorporate every recommendation. According to Moodie, NLS must review all patron needs and prioritize their integration. Trade-offs will ultimately be made.

"This is an exercise in trade-offs. Incorporating some feedback will unavoidably happen at the expense of other accommodations," says Moodie. "Nevertheless, we will strive towards a design that reflects the highest patron priorities. We are confident that the end result will be a smart, easy-to-use player that provides an enhanced user experience for all."

Flash, July 2005, volume 1, issue 8

Teamwork builds the digital talking-book collection

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, has made steady progress toward converting the analog talking-book collection to a digital format. Four thousand titles have been produced since 2004. The agency will produce nearly two thousand born-digital and three thousand converted talking books annually.

There are two types of DTBs: born and converted. Born refers to new books that are recorded digitally, whereas converted DTBs are audiobooks from the current analog collection that have been changed to digital format.

"We've made noticeable strides in the digital conversion project that will transform the way our patrons experience audiobooks," says Frank Kurt Cylke, NLS director. "The advanced navigation capabilities and audio quality made possible through flash technology will enhance the way they read and access information."

Building a digital library is a multistage process that relies on the teamwork of NLS sections, particularly the Collection Development Section, the Production Control Section, and the Quality Assurance Section. "While each office is responsible for a separate part of the process, they all share the same goal of delivering the highest- quality product possible," Cylke says.

Making the cut

The first stop for a digital book on the path to completion is the Collection Development Section, where librarians decide which books will be added to the collection. They spend much of their time scouring book reviews and bestseller lists, monitoring publishing trends, and assessing patron reading tastes before choosing the titles to be added each week. Selected titles must be well reviewed in prominent national sources, have literary merit, and be published in print.

"The challenge is to build a well-rounded reserve of titles that meets the informational and recreational needs of a diverse readership," says Jim Herndon who heads the section. That often means balancing two common philosophies of collection development‡satisfying popular demand for current trends and providing literature that stands the test of time. "Because we have to satisfy many reading tastes; we abide by the same philosophy as any library‡we try to find a happy medium between the two," Herndon says.

After a book is selected, a short description of the book is written to be used in Talking Book Topics and the International Union Catalog. The librarians prioritize the book for production and suggest where digital markers should be placed to help patrons navigate the recording. They also establish an initial catalog record for each book, which is updated as it travels through production.

Books for digital conversion undergo a slightly different process than their born counterparts. "They are chosen using the practices we designed to select books across the literary spectrum," Herndon says. "Since 2001, we have converted 6,500 toward our goal of 10,000."

The book then moves to the Production Control Section where it is assigned to a contractor for conversion into a digital talking book. Each title is assigned to a producer along with a deadline based on the book's word count and complexity. A narrator records the book and the production staff marks key navigation points within the book, such as the start of a new chapter. "The process is more involved than recording cassettes because of the added navigation features," says John Bryant, head of the Production Control Section.

By 2008, the collection will contain twenty thousand titles, evenly split between born and converted titles.

Assuring excellence

All books are reviewed by the Quality Assurance Section to verify that they adhere to NLS's high technical, artistic, and structural standards. They are inspected for audio flaws such as background noise and improper audio volume; and navigation flaws such as incorrect announcements and markers.

Narration and pronunciation are monitored to ensure that the content is well represented. The cartridge and packaging, when determined, will be tested for size and sturdiness and other physical characteristics. These quality-assurance assessments take three to five days, depending on the complexity of the book.

Books that fail to pass the two rounds of inspection are returned to producers for correction. "Mediocrity is never acceptable," says Robert Fistick, acting chief, Materials Development Division. "NLS is committed to providing patrons with only the highest quality product. The checks are quite elaborate," he says. "It's much more complicated to quality-check DTBs because digital technology enables more navigation and accessibility features than does analog, and every feature of the recording must be evaluated."

Digital talking-book (DTB) milestones


Start 1/12/04‡Finish 10/1/08

The following ongoing projects, set to conclude by 2008, are shown with start dates in parentheses.

For information on the NLS digital project contact:
Jean M. Moss
Digital Projects Coordinator
Fax: (202) 707-1690

To view the Strategic Business Plan on the web visit:


The following announcements may be of interest to readers. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped reserves the right to publish announcements selectively, as space permits. Items mentioned, however, are not part of the NLS program, and their listing does not imply endorsement.

Magazines in alternative formats

Free subscriptions to Reader's Digest in braille, Reader's Digest on cassette, and Newsweek on cassette are available from the American Printing House for the Blind. Call 1-800- 223-1839.

Jewish Museum offers specialized tours

The Jewish Museum in New York City offers specialized tours of its exhibitions for visitors who are blind or visually handicapped. Museum docents are trained to provide verbal imaging tours of any exhibition, and touch tours of the permanent exhibition, Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey. Touch tours feature handling objects, reproductions, tactile images, and fabrics. They focus on "Art in the Ancient World" and "The Modern Jewish Experience." Tours are available by appointment for individuals, adult groups, and school groups. Large-print labels are also available at the start of each temporary exhibition. The Jewish Museum is located at 1109 Fifth Avenue, on the corner of 92nd Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City.

For more information or to be placed on a mailing list for programs and services for blind or partially sighted visitors, please call (212) 423-3289 or e-mail

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