Users confirm that DTB design is on target

The pilot for downloadable digital talking books (DTBs) officially launched October 13. ln fact, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, recently received its first set of patron surveys from the pilot, and initial feedback was positive.

"Until now, our usability tests have primarily focused on the digital player. The current pilot is different in that its emphasis is on testing actual digital books. For the first time, patrons are experiencing the books for themselves and we are excited to see the critical comments they've provided, most of which have been positive," said Frank Kurt Cylke, NLS director.

This is good news as NLS seeks to gauge the functionality of the books and make necessary refinements prior to formal launch of the digital program in 2008. The download pilot is the first opportunity patrons have had to assess DTBs at home. Their comments on usability will impact the presentation of digital materials in the future. The pilot will run until the full-scale download program begins in 2007.

The pilot's primary goal is to assess such aspects of the usability of digital talking books as the number and placement of navigational markers, audio quality, and the overall reading experience. NLS staff has used their best judgment in making decisions regarding the number and placement of navigational markers, and used scientific analysis in deciding the type of compressed audio used. NLS is now looking to patrons to validate the results. The largest pilot test to date, it includes one hundred patrons from across the country. They were selected based on their interest in the project and their technical expertise.

Patrons are currently reviewing a collection of 1,800 books and 12 magazine titles. Download offerings reflect the full NLS collection, comprising approximately 55 percent fiction and 45 percent nonfiction titles. Only titles that were originally recorded in digital audio are included in order to maximize the usefulness of test data. Books initially distributed on cassettes in analog format and converted to digital will eventually be part of the full collection, but they were excluded from the pilot because they do not take full advantage of the DTB navigational potentialities.

The collection has been expanded to include additional titles, such as foreign-language and children's books. Participants may also make suggestions as to which titles are added. If the book already exists in digital format, it will be considered for immediate inclusion. If the title is not currently digital, it will be forwarded to the Collection Development Section
for consideration.


In designing the download system, NLS wanted to ensure that the technology would not interfere with the reading experience itself, so the download process is fairly straightforward and user-friendly. Using their own high-speed Internet connections, participants download their desired titles from a special web site to their computers. From there, the titles are transferred onto commercial flash cards provided by NLS, which are then inserted into the digital talking-book players and read. As NLS's digital talking-book machine will not be ready until 2008, pilot participants are using a commercially available player, on loan for the purpose of the pilot, that has been modified to read NLS digital books.

The web site's main page contains a list of links to the books, magazines, and surveys. Patrons may search books by author, title, subject, or date with recently added books noted at the top. Magazines may be searched according to title and issue date.

According to research and development officer Neil Bernstein, who is overseeing the download pilot with automation officer Michael Martys, digital contracts coordinator Alice Baker, and chief engineer Michael Katzmann, the web site has been getting great reviews from patrons. Participants appreciate the accessibility and efficiency it brings
their reading.


The pilot's success hinges on patron comments. In order to capture as many comments as possible, it is necessary that patrons submit surveys for each book and magazine they read. Surveys contain about ten questions each and exist in different versions for books and magazines. Survey questions focus on title selection; ease, rate, and usefulness of navigation; and ease of downloading and transferring the title to flash cards.

Participating patrons are required to read at least one title per month. They must complete one survey before downloading another title.

The first batch of patron surveys reveals positive impressions. Most readers reported selecting books based on subjects of interest. Seventy percent reported no problems downloading the book or transferring it to the player. As for the DTB's navigation features, 72 percent of participants favored the number of navigation points, and 77 percent were satisfied they could navigate easily everywhere they pleased. More than 86 percent of users found the ability to navigate useful.

Magazine readers expressed similar sentiments. The majority of magazine-reading patrons (83 percent) had no problem downloading or transferring their selection to a card and 43 percent chose the magazine because they liked its topic. Additionally, 62 percent thought the magazine offered the right number of navigation points, and 73 percent considered navigation easy.

The increased navigation features offered by magazines are a big draw for patrons. One patron commented, "I've only read one magazine so far —October issue of Money— and its navigation offerings are fantastic! . . . If all the magazines are like this, I am going to become even more of a magazine junkie than I've always been!"

"These results appear to confirm that we are approaching the download in an appropriate manner, that development is on the right path," notes Bernstein. "Only when you put this technology into patrons' hands do you really understand how well or poorly it functions."


In addition to surveys, patrons also share their comments on a specially created message board. The board offers participants an open forum for sharing with each other feedback, questions, criticisms and suggestions about the DTBs and the download experience. It is also NLS's primary vehicle for communicating with participants.

The message board has proved quite popular among participants. Patrons posted more than 900 messages in the first two months of the project. Postings have covered a range of topics, including audio quality, the flash card, navigation features, web site design, player functionality, bookmarks, and book requests.

Pilot participants have been impressed with the audio quality. One hearing-impaired patron praised the crisp, clear audio quality, commenting that it is a true gift to users.

Patrons are finding that navigation makes digital talking books much more useful and enjoyable to read; the ability to jump between book sections facilitates preferred reading styles. "The last nonfiction book I read from this pilot worked great with skipping. It really let me skip forward and back and finish a book, learning what I needed to know, in a fraction of its real time," commented a user. "Looking forward to accessing more and more books with good navigation."

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Digital Talking Book (DTB) Milestones


Start 1/12/04
Finish 10/1/08
Milestone Start Date
Digital data management system development 11/1/2004
Distribution system implementation 10/1/2006
Flash cartridge production 3/1/2007
Flash cartridge duplication 2/1/2007
Manufacture initial lot of DTB containers and labels 8/1/2007
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