Curl up with a good book, drift off to sleep worry-free—the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, has you covered. Sleep mode—a new feature available on the digital talking-book machine (DTBM)—will enable patrons to set a timer that automatically turns off the player after a specified period. This feature is one of many innovative improvements to the player that were discussed at an NLS conference in Portland, Maine, earlier this month.

"As we approach 2008, the player is drawing nearer to its final form and it’s important that we update patrons and librarians on the progress of its design," says Frank Kurt Cylke, NLS director. "The conference offered a great opportunity to discuss key features of the player and collect librarian feedback. We’re very pleased by the machine’s positive reception."

Several player issues were discussed, including usability, portability, and durability. Users can look forward to a machine designed to meet their needs in all those areas. But can a player this versatile still be user-friendly? NLS wouldn't have it any other way.

"Our goal in designing the new players—and in conducting usability tests—has been not only to enhance the machine’s performance but also to determine which features can best simplify its use," says Michael Moodie, NLS deputy director. "Without question, our patrons’ input has been absolutely essential to this process."


The digital talking-book system affords numerous advantages to users. Chief among these are enhanced audio quality and navigation features. Users will experience crisper, clearer sound when reading their favorite books.

The easy-to-use players offer various navigation features to meet different user requirements and reading styles. Thanks to the automatic bookmark function, patrons need not be concerned with losing their place when they stop reading. The bookmark remembers where users left off in the book even if the machine is turned off. Not even removing the flash cartridge from the player will disrupt this function.

Instructions and audio prompts, available in English or Spanish, are embedded in all machines. The network librarian will select the correct language before sending the players to the users. Users can access instructions any time they need assistance. Machine buttons are very easy to press and will identify themselves and their functions when patrons enable the key-identifier function.

Each time users turn on the power or load new cartridges, the player will announce the book’s title. Patrons can also check the machine to determine approximately how much of the book they’ve read and how much remains. Should readers wish to skip ahead or review what they’ve read, they can fast-forward or rewind through text quickly. The player announces these actions when they occur. In addition, advanced readers can move instantly from chapter to chapter.

To facilitate usability, cartridge labels will include key information in braille and very large print. Users will also say goodbye to lugging around numerous cassettes containing their reading materials. Almost any title in the NLS collection will fit on a single flash cartridge.

The player’s new look will also accommodate readers who are on the go. The streamlined dark charcoal gray machine is smaller and lighter—one-third the size and less than half the weight of the current player—and includes a built-in handle designed to be easily grasped. This portability will make enjoying books in different locations more convenient.

Players will also operate on rechargeable batteries that support fifteen hours of play time. The machine will verbally warn readers to charge the batteries when they are low to avoid an unexpected loss of power. Patrons can also check the device at any time to determine how much battery time remains.


Refinements to the digital talking-book machine are guided by an understanding of patrons’ diverse preferences. "The improved design and features," notes Moodie, "will enable DTBMs to better respond to the needs of all patrons and greatly enhance their reading pleasure."

Furthermore, patrons can read as quickly or slowly as they wish by adjusting the machine’s speed control. Narration pitch will not change regardless of speed selected.

Color-coding makes the new players more user-friendly to those with low vision. High-contrast color will be applied to frequently used controls, such as volume, play, stop, rewind, and fast-forward, and to a standard-sized stereo headphone jack. Tactile markings and braille labels will also make buttons easily distinguishable.

Color-coding extends to flash cartridges, which are white to contrast with the charcoal gray machines. The cartridges will be slightly smaller than cassettes and easy to load into the player.

NLS additionally requires that the new players be compatible with remote control devices so that physically handicapped users may read with more ease. Devices to make remote control possible can be attached through a special USB port.


Patrons wouldn't benefit much if the new players required frequent repairs. Durability is therefore an absolute must. Built to survive ten years of daily use without repair, the players will not disappoint. Sealed controls prevent liquids from entering, making players spill-resistant. The dark materials and smooth construction of the players provide the added benefit of not easily trapping or showing dirt.

Machines will even withstand a three-foot drop on all sides and edges onto a concrete floor—not to be tried at home. Durability extends to the flash cartridges, which also resist breaking and survive temperature extremes they’re subjected to when delivered by mail in hot and cold climates.

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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—Phase II 9/19/2005
Design DTB containers and labels 6/1/2005
Web-Book pilot 6/1/2005
Prepare DTBs for distribution 10/1/2005
Manufacture initial lot of DTB containers and labels 9/1/2006
Distribution system implementation 10/1/2006
Circulation systems implementation 10/1/2006
Flash cartridge production 3/1/2007
Flash cartridge 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