Paving A Distribution Highway For Talking Books

Just as cars need highways, books need distribution systems to facilitate the journey from libraries to patrons. That is why a distribution system study is a necessary step for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, on the road toward digital transformation. A study has been contracted to ensure that the digital book distribution process evolves in tandem with the creation of the books, giving patrons high-quality service.

"The digital transformation is an opportunity to enhance talking-book technology and the reading experience," says Frank Kurt Cylke, director of NLS. "The distribution study will help us maximize the potential of the digital talking book (DTB) to better serve patrons."

For this project, NLS has contracted with experts in new technology solutions. ManTech Advanced Systems International will lead the effort, supported by two subcontractors: Jerome Ducrest, an independent contractor, and Daniel Kind of Wesley-Kind Associates. Having worked with NLS in the past, the two are uniquely familiar with library operations.

Maximizing Potential

Driven by thorough research, the two-phase study will take roughly sixteen months to complete. The first phase will involve evaluating three possible DTB distribution models followed by the selection of the best overall choice. Once NLS approves the recommended model, phase two will gear up. The design of the new system and a multiyear transition plan will be the focus of the second phase, expected to run through the summer of 2006.

"Our goal is to implement a system that maintains high-quality service and is mutually beneficial to NLS, libraries, and patrons," says Michael Moodie, NLS deputy director. "An ideal solution would provide patrons with personal service, localized librarian knowledge, and timely book delivery. It would also ensure sufficient inventory to meet patron requests and would save libraries and NLS money."

The three models under consideration include the current system, which duplicates mass quantities of book titles and stores them locally for easy access by librarians as they fill loan requests; on-demand duplication, where a central facility would copy DTBs as patrons request them; and a hybrid model which combines mass circulation and on-demand duplication. To make the right choice, NLS will use evaluation criteria developed with input from the contractors and the Digital Long-Term Planning Group, an NLS committee that includes state, regional, and subregional librarians as well as patrons.

"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."

Seamless Transition

Librarians and patrons will aid the process as part of the Digital Long-Term Planning Group. At the end of the initial phase, contractors will meet with the group, which includes members of the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind, to review the recommended scenario and to collect comments on system design.

"Depending on the distribution model selected, contractors may also visit certain libraries to gather information to assist the design process," says Jean M. Moss, NLS digital projects coordinator. "Libraries that employ special shelving schemes will be of special interest."

Development of the new design will underscore cooperation and integration. The design must consider all aspects of DTB distribution, including duplication, packaging, shipping/receiving, shelving, and automated circulation systems.

If significant changes from the current system are recommended, the contractor will develop a comprehensive transition plan. Some key topics might be establishing telecommunications systems, phasing out cassette book circulation, and phasing in DTB systems. Another area to be examined is the method for educating library patrons and staff about the new distribution model.

"A detailed transition plan is being developed to provide a roadmap to the future," says Moss. "The plan will be implemented over a period of years to give libraries time to adapt to any necessary changes."

Spotlight on DTB Distribution System

Mass Duplication Book titles are copied in large batches (approximately 1,000 copies) at NLS audiobook production facilities before being sent to network libraries for storage and circulation. An allotment system permits the libraries to determine the number of copies received for a new title. Each library receives at least one copy of each new title but may request more to meet reader demand.

Duplication-On-Demand When needed, DTBs would be produced at a central duplication center operated by NLS contractors. Librarians would receive patron requests and submit them to the centers. Rather than storing physical copies of DTBs on shelves, titles would be stored on digital servers and then loaded onto flash memory cartridges and mailed to patrons.

Hybrid This system combines mass duplication and duplication-on-demand to meet reader demand. High-circulation titles--which account for about 20 percent of the collection but perhaps 80 percent of total circulation--would be mass produced and distributed to libraries for loan to patrons. Low-circulation titles--comprising the balance of the collection yet only a small percentage of circulation--would be duplicated on demand at distribution centers. The hybrid system is predicated on Pareto's Law which indicates that for a given population of entities associated with a given activity, a distinct minority of the population accounts for a distinct majority of the activity.

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Digital Talking Book (DTB) Milestones


Start 6/20/03 - Finish 10/1/08
Milestone Date
Web-Magazine Pilot 1/12/2004
Digital data management system development 11/1/2004
Player and medium development 3/1/2005
Distribution system design and transition planning 3/15/2005
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
[email protected]  Fax: (202) 707-1690

To view the strategic business plan on the Web visit