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.


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.


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.


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.

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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
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  Fax: (202) 707-1690

To view the strategic business plan on the Web visit