LIBRARY OF CONGRESS EXPANDS DIGITAL DOWNLOAD PILOT
The digital download project, launched in October 2006, has evolved well beyond the hopes of its architects. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, recently expanded the download project’s scope, allowing more patrons to participate in downloading and reading digital talking books and offering those patrons improved services. The project has also shifted its focus from testing the usability of digital audiobooks to now concentrating on optimizing the functionality of the download web site. As the download project improves, so too will the capabilities offered by the download project when it officially launches in late 2008.
This effort is the second stage in a three phase process to implement a digital system. The first stage involves replicating the current program with mail order digital books. This is followed by finalizing the digital download project, which is a new feature of the NLS program. The third stage is focused on duplication-on-demand, whereby digital titles are produced when requested by users. Cartridges are recycled during this process, making it a very cost efficient mode.
"More patrons now have a voice in shaping the digital download program. We will utilize patron comments and the lessons learned during this experimental effort to build a robust download program," said NLS research and development officer Neil Bernstein.
Patron comments are essential to improving the download program, which is why NLS recently relaxed the pilot’s enrollment requirements. To date six hundred patrons participate. Patrons enrolling in the program must be active readers in good standing; have access to a commercially available digital player compatible with NLS materials; have an e-mail address; and have access to a high-speed Internet connection.
Interested eligible patrons must fill out an online application at www.nlstalkingbooks.org/dtb. Once NLS confirms their eligibility, patrons may set up a username and password and learn how to download digital books. The player’s manufacturer will also be notified to provide the patrons with the authorization key to activate their players. When these steps are completed, patrons will be able to download a title from NLS’s download site to their computers, and from their computers to commercial flash cards, which can then be inserted into the players for reading.
The download program offers patrons instant access to more titles than ever before. The download collection has grown to more than seven thousand books and thirteen magazines and includes children’s titles and Spanish-language books. NLS recently added books converted from analog tape masters, whereas before the site only featured materials originally recorded in digital format.
On August 31 NLS revamped the existing download web site. The robust new venue offers patrons more features to improve their digital download experience. Users can set their preferences, such as e-mail addresses or passwords, password recovery features, and the number of search results displayed. An intelligent web site, it automatically recognizes newly posted materials and makes these available to patrons. It also offers technical support.
The web site embodies various administrative functions used by NLS staff who manage the project. These functions are not accessible to patrons. For example, the web site will generate and e-mail circulation statistics to libraries on a monthly basis. The statistics, specific to each library, will include the monthly total of patrons who are using the download program as well as a breakdown of the numbers of downloaded books and magazines. Libraries may also access download program-wide circulation figures.
The site shares information among libraries, NLS, and third-party hardware vendors. NLS employees, with the help of this interactive web site, process applications, send authorization e-mails to new enrollees, and notify the network when they are approved to participate. NLS also notifies the digital player distributor to activate the patron’s player.
While the web site has improved, it is still a work in progress. It will be enhanced continually until the final web site is launched in late 2008. Patron input is crucial at this stage. The first improvement will be to add page numbers to each page of search listings. Rather than listing search results in one continuous page, patrons will jump from page to page. Users will also have the option of receiving automatic daily or weekly notifications of new titles added to the site. Eventually the site will offer access to all NLS digital resources, such as Web-Braille.
PATRONS ENJOY INDEPENDENCE
A Participant input on the digital download project is overwhelmingly positive. Though patrons are no longer required to complete a survey for each title they read, they continue to be very vocal on the web-site’s message board and in e-mails to NLS. Because the digital project is no longer focused on evaluating the usability of digital books and players, input now relates to the operation and content of the download web site.
Patrons praise both the download concept as well as its web site. They enjoy the instant access to titles, and find downloading titles more convenient than mail order. The scope and range of choice is also significant: one participant remarked, "I feel as though I am in a library for the first time in my life."
Other participants praised the detail and care that went into developing an accessible web site: "My compliments to all of you involved in this project. The site is well organized and easy to use. Obviously thought has been given to the bandwidth required for a site of this nature. This project will be a great boon to many of us."
Patrons also value the sense of independence and connection afforded by downloadable reading. One participant considers the downloadable book to be "a revolutionary opportunity… to those of us wanting to be current on the news, needing the same extensive level of information to live life independently and successfully as sighted folks do."
According to Bernstein, one of the greatest benefits of the talking-book program, and especially the download initiative, is empowerment. "That’s what we do at NLS, we promote patrons’ ability to serve themselves," said Bernstein.