Braille Book Review

November-December 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, August 2005, volume 1, issue 9

The digital transition: a progress report

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, is making significant progress with the audio-to-digital conversion project. Early sketches and models of the player and flash cartridge have been developed; many electronic components have been investigated and identified; a quality-assurance plan to guide the development of the player's software has been created; and more than four thousand books have been digitized.

It has not been easy. "In this transition, much of the talking-book program is changing, which means that many complex projects are under way simultaneously," says Frank Kurt Cylke, NLS director. "Designing players, developing digital talking-book cartridges, and building evaluation tools are each huge tasks, involving complicated processes."

To keep the project moving forward, NLS has hired a variety of outside contractors. Battelle and HumanWare are designing the best exterior shell for the player, a critical decision that affects the layout of controls. Two other contractors, the Trace Center and the National Federation of the Blind, are set to run a second round of usability tests on the controls this month. David Andrews of the Minnesota State Services for the Blind has provided a consumer perspective to the project. "Design engineers are tackling tough issues such as storing the power cord, housing the speaker for maximum audio quality, integrating the handle, and inserting and removing cartridges," states Michael Moodie, NLS deputy director.

Another contractor, ManTech, has created a comparative analysis of the costs for distribution models for digital talking books, especially mass duplication and a hybrid version. ManTech also created a decision-making matrix that will help NLS staff select the right distribution system using four overarching criteria: impact on patrons, cost, complexity of implementation, and risk or vulnerability.

Protecting content

The Chafee Amendment relaxes copyright infringement laws for not-for-profit organizations who reproduce and distribute books for blind and physically handicapped readers, as long as special formats are used. For the current project, this required protection is called digital rights management (DRM).

According to Neil Bernstein, NLS research and development officer, "DRM utilizes encryption to allow access to digital book files by eligible readers only. In our system, all NLS patrons get the keys to unlock the book. The general public will not be able to read it."

NLS is developing an improved DRM system that is compatible with international systems. The standard, when universally accepted, will dramatically streamline international interlibrary loan procedures.

Development of the DRM is an international effort

involving the world's top experts on digital talking books. "Many of these people were instrumental in creating the original standards for digital talking books," Bernstein notes. Bernstein works with software engineers, hardware and software manufacturers, and consultants. A DRM expert is providing design and technical consultation. The committee has solicited feedback and recommendations from consumer groups and publishers. Specifications will be completed in December 2005 and sent to Retrieval Systems, an NLS contractor, to build the latest DRM tool.

Retrieval Systems has already designed three tools for NLS. These include the Quality Assurance Player, a PC-based player that allows a quality assurance expert to review a book and verify that it will play and navigate properly; NLS VAL, a software tool that runs dozens of automated tests on a book to check it against specifications and report problems; and DTB Prep, which compresses raw audio and applies an earlier form of DRM protection. The new DRM software will be more flexible and have a stronger encryption system than the current DTB Prep tool.

Book production

NLS started creating digital audio files in 2002. By 2004, all new titles were digitally recorded for production of NLS cassette books. NLS had some experience with digital audio, but it's been a learning process.

Talking books were once recorded on open-reel analog tape for duplication onto cassettes for circulation. Now master copies are recorded as audio files using a variety of digital recording systems. These digital files are then marked to highlight navigation points.

Creating solutions

In constructing the digital talking book, NLS strives to ensure that the capabilities of ANSI/NISO Z39.86-2002, the national DTB standard, are applied in a useful manner. This is not a simple task. Print books are simply too varied in the way they are laid out. NLS and its producers must therefore assess each book and decide how best to mark it for ease of use by the reader. A novel only needs to have each chapter marked, but a cookbook will require much more markup to allow easy access to recipes and the ability to step through a list of ingredients one by one.

Once a digital talking book is finished, a software check is conducted to confirm that the file meets the standard requirements.

Flash, September 2005, volume 1, issue 10

DTB audio player refined in second round of user tests

Practice makes perfect. To the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, this makes perfect sense. That is why meticulous, ongoing evaluation is key to developing the digital talking- book machine (DTBM). NLS recently completed the second in a series of eight usability tests on the latest player model, an essential step toward finalizing requirements and design.

Four main goals guided these tests: validating user- interface design and defining priorities for basic and advanced players; defining patron understanding and use of primary DTBM features; gathering feedback on player design and specific physical features; and lastly, improving the design and development of the models to be tested in round three.

"With each round of testing, NLS gains a deeper understanding of user and librarian needs, which helps us further refine player capabilities and design," says Frank Kurt Cylke, NLS director. "Patron and librarian feedback is essential to building the best machine possible."

Sixty-nine current and potential patrons with varied visual, physical, and cognitive impairments participated in the study. Users ranged from children to seniors and were grouped by gender, age, and skill. Testing was facilitated by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in Baltimore and Cleveland and by the Trace Research and Development Center of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Interviews with library staff also yielded valuable insight into the system's functionality.

"This series of usability tests was intended to see if engineers are getting the design right from the perspective of librarians and patrons," notes Michael Moodie, NLS deputy director. "From the results of these tests, we will be able to validate and refine some requirements and turn them into specifications for the machine."

For the first time, users conducted operational tasks on models of digital talking-book cartridges and players. The models incorporated ideas from initial user tests. While constructed of a special modeling foam, these models had functional buttons that were connected to actual digital talking-book recordings to simulate reading.

Operational tasks conducted on the player reflected typical usage scenarios. Testers examined the accessibility of basic functions, including primary and secondary controls and player features. All features needed to be obvious to patrons with varied capabilities and player experience.

The users appraised the shape, placement, tactile appeal, and ease of use of control buttons and the logic and clarity of navigation features. They assessed player size and appearance, cartridge insertion, power cord storage, and the use of the retractable handle and headphone jack.

NLS's top priority is producing a player that is both easy to use and navigation-friendly. "You can put in all the bells and whistles in the world, but if the user doesn't understand how to operate the machine, it's worthless," emphasizes Michael Katzmann, head of the NLS Engineering Section. "Player features must be obvious to users."

Librarians were interested primarily in maintenance

issues such as cleaning players, re-labeling cartridges, stacking DTBMs for storage, and mailing-container handling. Librarians also desired a method for patrons to notify them of cartridge problems on return.

Testing does not stop with users. Engineers conduct their own field tests to ensure that the player meets NLS's high standards. The player must survive tough endurance exercises and still be functional. It must withstand a series of drops on all sides from as high as three feet, and resist scratches, spills, vermin, and extreme temperatures. Additional software-based testing evaluates its technical specifications.

Patron priorities

According to Robert Fistick, acting chief, Materials Development Division, usability testing helps NLS pinpoint patron priorities so that the player is designed to meet their top needs. The findings reveal that patrons continue to value accessibility, usability, portability, and that easy maintenance continues to be the highest priority for librarians and repair personnel.

Users suggested improvements to audio instructions

housed in the player. They also expressed preferences on handle positioning, cord storage compartment, and the cartridge mailing container.

Moodie stated that "All of these findings are significant because they will be evaluated and incorporated into the ongoing design and development process for the cartridge and player."

Based on the findings, engineers will explore several recommendations for improvement including changes to control layout, behavior, and complexity; cartridge insertion; and cord storage methods.

Survival of the fittest

Creating an optimal player is difficult. Engineers must negotiate many competing requirements before finalizing the design.

Conflicts often relate to portability and accessibility. For example, deciding between long-running batteries and portability is a big issue. Higher battery capacity involves increasing the size and weight of the player, which ultimately inhibits portability and increases cost. A sleek yet stackable player design is another challenge. A rounded top may be stylish but it is impractical for storage and handling. In this case, form should follow function.

NLS strives for a happy medium and makes trade-offs based on the best interests of patrons and librarians.

Digital talking-book (DTB) milestones

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.

Mail-order catalogs on cassette

Home Readers, a not-for-profit organization, is now offering more than twenty-five popular mail-order catalogs on four- track cassette free of charge, to make shopping more convenient. There are a wide variety of catalogs to choose from including clothing, music, old time radio, food, gifts, pet products, health and beauty, practical solutions, house wares and home decor. The cassettes cover all text and product descriptions available in the print catalogs. For a free copy of the fall/winter 2005 Home Readers catalog call toll-free 1-877-814-7323 or visit the web site at

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