An Update on Digital Talking-book Features

Expectations are high for the proposed digital talking-book system soon to be introduced by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress. Librarians and patrons alike have shared their wish lists with NLS, and now the challenging task of implementing a system that balances expectations with the actualities of design and function is under way.

"NLS is making every effort to provide a program that works for all," says Frank Kurt Cylke, NLS director. "In order to create this system, we must carefully weigh each desired feature against the basic needs of librarians and patrons, taking into account other factors such as cost and complexity as well."

The NLS Digital Long-Term Planning Group-made up of patrons, librarians, and engineers-has considered a range of expectations and assumptions. One of the highest patron expectations is that the digital player will be smaller and lighter than the current analog cassette machine. The new machine won't be small enough to fit in a pocket or an average-sized purse, but NLS patrons will find the compact, lightweight machine a pleasant change from the current playback equipment.

"Most patrons are realistic," observes Planning Group member Kim Charlson, librarian at the Braille and Talking Book Library, Perkins School for the Blind. "They wish for a player that's small and lightweight, but they also understand it must be large enough to incorporate conveniently-spaced control buttons, a speaker, and other accessible features that make it easy to use. Patrons will also find the cartridge to be easier to insert and remove from the player than a cassette and librarians will have a sturdy, robust medium that will play even after years of use. Users correctly assume that the digital talking-book cartridge will have enough surface area for braille and large-print labels."

Balancing Act

In many ways, digital talking books will be preferable to cassette books, providing high-quality sound and navigation options. Most titles will fit on a single cartridge, and cartridges can play through to the end without being turned over like cassettes. The player will also mark a reader's place and start up in that spot when played again, even when readers switch from one book to another and back again. But there are some caveats. While 95 percent of books will fit on one cartridge, extremely large ones such as War and Peace will require multiple cartridges.

Librarians and patrons anticipate correctly that the human aspect of service will not change. "Patrons want someone they may call to connect them with what they need," says Charlson. "Librarians are excited about the new technology and wish to continue to provide a human touch in their service delivery." Librarians will be provided training to field calls, help patrons download books, and solve technical issues as they arise.

Patrons will see the first digital talking books and players in 2008. According to Michael Moodie, NLS deputy director, "Approximately 10 to 15 percent of patrons will receive players in the first year and NLS will provide guidelines for distribution. We need to manufacture a small number of machines initially and continue to test them. Once we are sure that everything is fine, we can accelerate production. In the meantime, the cassette system will still be supported and available."

Twenty thousand digital titles will be available in 2008. Some will be on flash cartridges and all will be available for Internet download. For those who wish to have access to the collection before 2008, a significant number of the books will be available for download a year earlier. But the first digital talking books will not be on library shelves until near the time the machines are ready. This group will be only a small portion of the twenty thousand titles. After the hybrid distribution system that combines mass and on-demand production is phased in-two to three years after the initial launch-all digital talking book titles will be available on flash-memory cartridges, some from libraries, and others from the on-demand centers.

Digital Long-Term Planning Group.

Photo Caption: NLS's Digital Long-Term Planning Group—comprising patrons, librarians, and engineers—advises the digital transition process, particularly the development of digital talking books and players.

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Digital Talking Book (DTB) Milestones


Start 1/12/04
Finish 10/1/08
Milestone Start Date
Web-Magazine Pilot 1/12/2004
Digital data management system development 11/1/2004
Distribution system design and transition planning 12/1/2004
Player and medium development 3/1/2005
Design DTB containers and labels 6/1/2005
Web-Book pilot 6/1/2005
Prepare for DTB distribution 10/1/2005
Circulation systems design 12/1/2005
Manufacture initial lot of DTB containers and labels 9/1/2006
Distribution system implementation 10/1/2006
Circulation systems implementation 10/1/2006
Media production 3/1/2007
Media duplication 5/1/2007
Full player production 9/1/2007


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