As the digital transition project progresses toward its 2008 initiation date, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, is pursuing its plan for a successful launch. A formal funding request has been submitted to Congress by the Library of Congress to support a four-year transition plan. NLS has requested $76.4 million to support the production and distribution of digital talking books (DTBs), digital players, flash-memory cartridges, and containers. If approved, funds will be disbursed in four equal increments.

"This funding request is based on the thorough research and analysis of projected costs by NLS experts, our consultants, and contractors working on the digital program. Careful assessment of the upcoming stages of the program led to the conclusion that $76.4 million will be required to support the transition through completion, ensuring little disruption in service to patrons," said Frank Kurt Cylke, NLS director. "We are hopeful that our request will be met so that we may successfully achieve the project’s goals."

The digital project, in progress for more than a decade, will update talking-book technology by replacing cassette books and players with flash-based digital talking books and players. Three main factors spurred the transition to digital—improved patron service, patron expectations, and cassette obsolescence. Digital talking books will greatly enhance the reading experience, offering users crisper, clearer audio; significant navigation capabilities; and greater convenience. The new players are lighter and smaller and, in 95 percent of cases, one cartridge will hold a complete book. Finally, NLS is moving toward digital because analog technology has become outdated, and cassettes and player parts are increasingly expensive and difficult to locate. Unlike the cassette player, the digital player contains no moving parts, making it more reliable and less susceptible to mechanical failure.

Benefits of Digital Technology
Digital technology offers multiple benefits! The player’s smaller and lighter frame makes the machine more portable and provides patrons more options in where they choose to read. The machine is also user-friendly, because of the shape, tactility, and color markings of the player’s buttons; the ease with which cartridges may be inserted and ejected; and optimal audio help features. This last function enables patrons to access audio instructions on machine use at the touch of a button, allowing them to read independently. Equipped with an extended-life battery, the digital player also runs longer—approximately 16 hours—and is more cost efficient for NLS to maintain and repair. The flash platform can be easily adapted for use by basic, advanced, and download users.

Readers are likely to enjoy the digital talking book’s superior audio quality. The system’s improved navigation capabilities will offer patrons greater control over the reading process. The digital talking-book cartridge can sustain a surprising degree of abuse and still continue to function efficiently. Furthermore, once a title is no longer in high demand, cartridges may be reloaded and recirculated with no degradation in sound quality or performance.

To ensure that the digital player meets the needs of its users and to guarantee compliance with intellectual property law, NLS has chosen to provide a player built to its own specifications.

The digital player and flash cartridge are based on open standards developed by the National Information Standards Organization (NISO), so that NLS can obtain products from a number of sources instead of a single provider, ensuring that the devices are always available. While the system complies with open standards, it adheres to a legislated special format to protect its intellectual property.

The digital machine also has the advantage of being significantly more durable than the cassette player, resulting in a longer lifespan. Built to endure rough handling and transit through the mail system, even three-foot drops, the player also features easy-to-clean surfaces so it is easy for patrons to maintain and may be reissued over its long lifespan.

The player’s controls facilitate use by both blind and physically handicapped readers. The buttons are easy to discover and appropriately sized. In most cases the shape denotes their function and they are labeled in both print and braille.

Digital Production and Distribution
Taking the digital player from concept to manufacturing was a team effort. NLS has engaged the expertise of industry leaders in product design and development and in the fields of blindness and physical disability research to ensure the best player for our users. The process has involved extensive user testing of the player’s hardware and software.

As the digital talking-book’s design and development stage draws to a close, NLS is planning for the production and distribution phase. Over the course of four years, NLS will phase out cassette books and players as it phases in digital talking books and digital players.

In 2008, NLS will initiate production of flash-memory machines as well as duplication and distribution of digital talking book cartridges. From 2009 to 2010, NLS will increase production of digital books while continuing to provide some cassette titles. NLS will stop producing cassette books entirely in 2011. NLS plans to produce enough digital titles and players between 2008 and 2011 to sustain the digital program without service disruptions.

Production of Digital Talking Books and Players

The first table details the number of titles and copies of both digital and cassette books that NLS plans to produce from 2008 to 2011. The second table charts production of DTB players during that same time.

Digital and Cassette Books Contracted:

  2008 2009 2010 2011
Total Book Reproduction Titles Copies Titles Copies Titles Copies Titles Copies
Cassette Books 2,000 694 2,000 443 2,000 1999 0 0
DTBs 650 350 1,300 550 1,500 750 1,731 942

Digital Players Contracted:

  2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
DTB Player Production 60,000 124,295 144,590 133,830 129,280

Digitial Talking Book Player.

Weighing only 2 pounds, the new digital talking-book machines are smaller and lighter than current cassette players. The tactile buttons, color-coded and shaped to facilitate user ease, are just one feature that will enhance reading pleasure. The basic model shown here varies only slightly from the advanced version, which includes additional buttons for the advanced navigation functions. The flash cartridge featured on the right will, in 95 percent of cases, hold an entire book, reducing the number of moving parts to keep track of.

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Digital Talking Book (DTB) Milestones


Start 1/12/04
Finish 10/1/08
Milestone Start Date
Distribution system implementation 10/1/2006
Flash cartridge production 3/1/2007
Flash cartridge duplication 5/1/2007
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