Internet download to deliver reading to patrons
We live in a digital world. Information, products, and services are only a quick surf, click, and download away thanks to the Internet. Download access will soon be available to patrons of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress. In late spring, NLS will launch a pilot program to test the functionality of online download for its books and magazines. Results from the pilot will help shape the program for its official 2007 debut.
"Online download will optimize our service to patrons. It's an alternative way to access the collection," says Frank Kurt Cylke, NLS director. "It offers patrons faster, more flexible access and offers them greater choice in defining their own reading experience. We're excited to be able to offer downloadable books and magazines as part of our program."
NLS staff will use the pilot results to examine various elements of the online option. In addition to reviewing the realities of online download, NLS also seeks clarity on patrons' experience with digital talking-book (DTB) technology. Users will be surveyed regularly throughout the pilot, and their feedback will help NLS tailor the program.
Three NLS staff are steering this test-drive of online technology. NLS research and development officer Neil Bernstein manages the overall project. Michael Martys, automation officer, supervises all technical aspects of the pilot-including the creation and operation of the download web site and the preparation of DTBs. Alice Baker, assistant head, Production Control Section, serves as project coordinator. She oversees the involvement of several NLS sections on various operational elements such as book and magazine production and collection development.
This is NLS's most advanced online download pilot to date, involving one hundred patrons-the largest tester group so far-and a collection of one thousand books and magazines. It is the first time patrons are testing downloadable books. Using a high-speed Internet connection, participants will be able to download their desired title from the NLS web site to their computers. From there, the title must be transferred onto a flash cartridge, which is then read using a digital talking-book player. The books and magazines will be encrypted so that they may only be accessed using NLS-provided players.
"The pilot's success will ultimately be measured by the number and quality of comments we receive from patrons," says Bernstein. "User input is essential to building a program that suits various needs and preferences."
As NLS's digital talking-book machine (DTBM) will not be available until 2008, pilot participants will receive a commercially available player adapted to read DTBs. NLS will also provide each participant with a flash cartridge. To ensure the process is easy, patrons will receive training materials and technical support.
"This project will offer us a sneak preview of how a larger segment of patrons interacts with the technology," noted Bernstein. "Since the player will resemble NLS's final product, we will be able to obtain keen insight into usability."
The advantages of online download are many. Access to titles will be faster—within minutes, instead of days-and new titles will be available online before they reach libraries.
Independence is another hallmark of online download. Participants will have greater control over their reading processes: they will be free to select titles, which they may download and read at their convenience.
Patrons also have the freedom to collect their favorite reading materials. Once downloaded, a title is essentially theirs to keep. There are no return restrictions associated with the book or magazine, so readers may essentially build their own personal libraries.
Countdown to launch
Much must be done before project launch. Getting the job done in time will require expert multitasking. Work is simultaneously focused on three major areas of development: patron selection, collection development, and DTB preparation.
Pilot participants have been selected based on specific criteria. Testers will be skilled in computer use, so that they may readily learn the new technical tasks that will be required for this Internet-based mode. In addition, they must have a high-speed Internet connection as well as proper software and hardware systems.
It is also important that participants be genuinely interested in the project and committed to seeing it through. The more engaged participants are, the better the insights will be. Because the project is research driven, there will be a degree of rigor. Participants must be willing to read regularly and complete a series of surveys on such issues as title collection, usability, program features, and personal preferences.
The NLS Collection Development Section is building a rich and varied pilot collection that patrons will find useful and appealing. It will feature a mix of fiction and nonfiction, bestsellers and classics, and works in specific genres. More complex titles with higher navigation capabilities, such as computer books and cookbooks, will also be added because they offer another level of insight into usability.
"Six months into the program, we expect to add 1,500 more titles to the collection," says Alice Baker.
DTB preparation is perhaps the most labor-intensive task ahead. Digital audio files for each title must be prepared in a format suitable for download. Michael Martys's team must first develop a computer system that will do the work. Once the system is in place, it will take the computers roughly seven weeks, running day and night, to finish the conversion. At this time, security protocol will be added to the DTBs so that the books can only be read using an NLS player.
The project team understands the significance of the pilot and is excited to move forward. "Download is the wave of the future," says Baker. Bernstein, Martys, and Baker are eager to fine tune this service so that patrons can soon enjoy new opportunities in talking-book reading.