Flash Technology: The Perfect Fit for NLS

What has been dipped in cola, put through a washing machine, dunked in coffee, trampled by a skateboard, run over by a child's toy car and given to a six-year-old boy to destroy? Answer: A flash cartridge-an extremely durable device.

Five cartridges were tested. Five survived. For this reason, among others, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) settled on flash memory as the new distribution technology for its digital talking books (DTB).

Flash memory—a term coined for the system’s ability to rewrite content "in a flash"—is the industry standard for handheld devices such as cell phones, digital cameras and palmtop computers. It combines rewritability and portability with ease of operation and decreasing costs—all features that make it attractive to both the users of DTBs and librarians.

In addition, the flash cartridges will be about the size of a credit card, or approximately 2 x 3-1/2 inches.  This will permit NLS to label book titles in braille as well as large print.

"Flash technology will provide readers with a DTB that is easy to use, portable, and virtually indestructible with the high-quality sound one expects from a digital product.  It will allow users the reading experience of their choice," says Frank Kurt Cylke, the director of NLS. Flash was not a rash decision. NLS examined the range of other memory storage devices, such as the CD-ROM and magnetic drives. Until recently, flash memory was priced too high. But now costs are reasonable. "NLS has been tracking this technology for a number of years.  Now it is clear from the continued drop in prices and from projections by industry analysts that it will be feasible by 2008," says Michael Moodie, deputy director of NLS.

Consider the Alternatives

Why flash cartridges instead of the more familiar CD-ROM? CDs are low-cost and can store a book; however, they are difficult to handle especially for people with limited dexterity. The discs are easily damaged and must be inspected each time they are sent out, or a new copy produced for each circulation.  In addition, CD players are fragile and repairs are expensive.

A magnetic hard drive system was also considered. This medium could store as many as 300 book titles on a single machine. However, the drives have sensitive electromechanical parts that damage easily and are expensive to repair.

Based on careful evaluation of all available options, a flash-memory-based system was adopted for implementation in 2008.

Technology for Tomorrow

It was necessary for NLS to update the current system. "The current analog cassette system is based on a technology that is disappearing. In the future, parts for players will be difficult or impossible to obtain, and the cost of cassette tape is likely to increase significantly.  In addition, digital technology offers many features that will benefit talking book users," says Jean M. Moss, NLS digital projects coordinator.

"Flash memory is more durable, easier to handle, and simpler to use than other digital media.  It will also mean more reliable players because no moving parts are required," says Moss.

Flash technology will most appeal to patrons because of its ease of use. "Patrons will like the fact that the great majority of books will each be on a single flash cartridge, so there will be fewer objects to keep track of," says Moodie. "An entire cartridge can be played from beginning to end without having to change any switches or turn the cartridge over. And the player will always keep track of where the reader left off."

"Because flash memory cartridges can have new books quickly copied onto them and can be reused thousands of times, new distribution models are possible.  For example, some books do not circulate very often but are still important to have in the program.  Rather than having such books taking up shelf space in libraries across the country, copies can be quickly made when needed," says Moodie.

"Flash was chosen because it fits so well with our many requirements for a talking book medium," says Moodie.


Flash technology selected as medium for the future
  Tale of a Talking Book
1934 Talking books on 33-1/3 rpm discs introduced
1958 Prototype books produced on 16-2/3 rpm discs
1965 AE-1 talking book machine with three-speed motor
1968 First transistorized, light-weight talking book machine
1969 Standard cassettes distributed
1971 Issued first 1-7/8 and 15/16 ips cassette machines
1973 All discs recorded at 8-1/3 rpm
Proprietary cassette machine prototpype developed and modified for distribution
1983 Produced first C-1 cassette player, 15/16 ips, four-track format
1986 Simplified cassette machine distributed
2004 Flash technology selected as medium for the future

Flash Archive

Other Newsletters

Digital Talking Book (DTB) Milestones


Start 6/20/03 - Finish 10/1/08

Start 6/20/03 - Finish 10/1/08
Milestone Date
Web Magazine Pilot 1/12/2004
Digital Data Management System Study 11/1/2004
Player and Medium Design 11/1/2004
Distribution System Design and Transition Planning 12/1/2004
Design DTB Containers and Labels 6/1/2005
Web Book Pilot 6/1/2005
DTB Prep for 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
jemo@loc.gov  Fax: (202) 707-1690

To view the strategic business plan on the Web visit www.loc.gov/nls/businessplan/2003.html