More than fifteen years ago the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, along with other talking-book programs worldwide faced the realization that analog cassettes would eventually become an outdated and ineffective technology for audio reading materials. In a meeting organized by NLS director Frank Kurt Cylke, world figures in the field of library services for the blind gathered to discuss the future of talking books. It was time they considered what form the next-generation talking book would take.

In early April 1990, librarians and talking-book experts converged at the P.V. Doyle House in Dublin, Ireland to formulate an action plan to guide development of future talking-book technology. The group included Ian Bruce, director general of the United Kingdom's Royal National Institute for the Blind; Cylke; Euclid Herie, managing director of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind; and Desmond Kenny, chief executive officer of Ireland's National Council for the Blind. These leaders and their policy and technical staff exchanged information on existing and emerging audiobook technology as well as thoughts on improving the library experience for blind and physically handicapped readers.

"This conference was a defining moment in the history of talking books," says Cylke. "We concluded that it was beneficial to work together to improve our programs and to explore technological advances that could provide patrons with better audiobooks in the future."

The group discussed such issues as cassette utilization, playback machine inventory, book and machine production data, and research and development surrounding future talking-book technology. User needs were addressed as were means of involving appropriate consumers, libraries, associations, and other stakeholders in planning next-generation talking-book systems. One thing was clear-any future system would need to be designed with users in mind. Chief among user priorities was equipment that would be easy-to-use, reliable, flexible, and portable and the audiobook system would need to meet the full range of needs both of blind and of physically handicapped readers.


NLS has a long history of incorporating technological innovations in the development of its products and services. (NLS pioneered the use of the 33-1/3 rpm long-playing phonograph record.) After considerable research, NLS determined in 1996 that flash-memory was the optimal technology to replace analog cassettes. A digital solution would offer substantial improvements in the patron reading experience, including enhanced audio quality, portability, and book navigation features. Further, with their large memory capacity, flash cartridges would enable most audiobooks to be housed on a single cartridge—a vast improvement over the multiple cassettes that one book requires.

NLS has long sought to provide its patrons with the best service possible and this often involves staying abreast of new technologies. From the records used in the 1930s, to analog cassettes, and the digital flash cartridges of the future, NLS remains dedicated to providing all talking-book patrons with a user-friendly system that enhances their reading pleasure while keeping up with the pace of change.


Given its advantages, flash-memory technology was identified as the NLS system of choice; but implementing the conversion process required more planning. Based on thorough research, NLS set out to develop a comprehensive strategy for digital conversion. The mission would be guided by user needs and the goal of optimizing the talking-book reading experience.

The project has worked toward a 2008 deadline, with key implementation milestones along the way. In 1997, NLS's Digital Talking Book Standards committee and the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) began creating a technical standard to define features of the digital talking book and its player as well as file specifications, production issues, and copyright protection schemes. In 2002, NLS began producing all recorded book masters exclusively in a digital format. In 2004, NLS started converting analog files to a digital format. By 2008, NLS plans to have 50,000 digital talking-book machines ready for distribution to patrons. In addition, NLS will have 10,000 new titles in digital format and another 10,000 existing analog titles converted to digital by that date.

Throughout the planning stages of the digital talking-book system, NLS has sought the expertise of accessible-technology engineers, such as HumanWare and Battelle, as well as input from patrons and librarians. What better way to ensure a successful digital transition than to involve the very people most affected by the change?

The Digital Audio Development (DAD) committee, created in September 1998, has been very influential in planning and guiding the transition. It initiated the project by outlining 20 steps that are essential to designing and implementing the digital talking-book system. Design activities included prioritizing digital talking-book features, simulating a digital talking book using a personal computer, development of multiple player prototypes, and building digital talking-book computer software. Implementation activities included narrowing the player media choices, beginning full-scale production and deployment of digital equipment, and establishing methods for continuous patron evaluation of the digital system.

To ensure that digital-talking book machines are designed with users in mind, NLS conducted a series of eight user-needs and usability tests. Participants were asked to assess such issues as the layout of the player's controls and their size, shape, and tactility. The participants also responded to the player's navigation features. Feedback during these sessions was essential, and influenced refinements to the final design of the machine.

NLS also sought input from the Digital Long-Term Planning Group. Consisting of consumer representatives and state and regional librarians, the group was established in 2001 to provide feedback and guidance throughout the transition process. The members offered insight on such issues as player design and digital talking-book distribution systems.


This August, NLS will pass a long-anticipated milestone. This is when a functional prototype will be introduced. Based on the usability test results, approval was granted to proceed with a working prototype. While the machine will require further testing before it is mass-produced, the prototype is an exciting step toward the digital future.

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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 www.loc.gov/nls/businessplan/2003.html