January to March 2007
Volume 37, Number 1

Automation Office maintains computer systems

The team of specialists in the NLS Automation Office mandates the electronic technology that keeps systems operating efficiently. These information technology experts not only maintain staff computers, but they also sustain the large computing systems that keep work humming along. They are also developing the complex systems that will assist in the massive transition to digital technology.

"Because we are physically distant from the main Library of Congress campus, we are our own information technology department," explained Michael Martys, NLS automation officer. "We take care of all computing needs, including networking and desktop computing. We acquire and install software and hardware for more than 135 computers and make sure all the computing systems work well."

Martys’s team includes research and development officer Neil Bernstein; information technology specialists Lloyd Lewis, Avi Shapiro, and Joe Casazza; and automation assistant Richard Harrison. They support the multifaceted systems that handle huge volumes of data and perform a myriad of functions including maintaining book data, tracking book production, and facilitating quality assurance testing.

Team commands extensive set of skills

Picture of automation team, from left: Michael Martys, Lloyd Lewis, Joe Casazza, Richard Harrison, Avi Shapiro, and Neil Bernstein.
Automation team, from left: Michael Martys, Lloyd Lewis, Joe Casazza, Richard Harrison, Avi Shapiro, and Neil Bernstein.

Michael Martys was appointed NLS automation officer in January 2006. As the supervisory information technology specialist in the Office of the Director, he directs all automation activities and supports the national network of cooperating libraries. With more than two decades of experience in managing information technology, Martys brings a wealth of knowledge to NLS. He most recently supervised IT operations at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania where, as a special assistant to the president, he developed an information technology strategic plan. Earlier he served as vice provost of the college’s information resources department. Martys holds a BS and an MS in electrical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology and is working on an MS in computer science at Pennsylvania State University.

Neil Bernstein, who joined the team in 2006, directs the research and development of new products and systems to help improve services used by patrons and network libraries. Before joining NLS in 2004 he was a software designer for a start-up interactive television company in California. Prior to that he worked at MCI for five years, where he designed software used by the company’s customer service agents. Bernstein has been involved in software development for more than seventeen years. He holds a BS in electrical engineering from Brown University and an MS in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of California, Berkeley.

Automation specialist Lloyd Lewis, who holds a BA degree from Indiana University, began his career at NLS in 1990, when there were just a few computers to look after. Now Lewis maintains the entire desktop environment for more than 135 computers, along with their hardware and software. He monitors adaptive systems hardware and software for blind staff, including screen readers that translate computer text into a braille display or synthesized speech. Lewis also supports the Reader Enrollment and Delivery System (READS), a circulation method used by some network libraries.

Information technology specialist Avi Shapiro has been supporting the conversion to digital talking books since joining NLS in 2004, when he provided research and development support for digital talking books. Continuing his digital transition support in the Automation Office, he has been writing Digital Asset Management System specification requirements, configuring and managing systems, and writing and testing software. Previously, he worked as a software engineer at several firms, including BancTech, a financial institution in Silver Spring, Maryland, and the Digital Equipment Corporation, where he helped convert a U.S. Census Bureau system from a Unisys mainframe to a Vax minicomputer. Shapiro has a BSE in computer science and a BA in physics from the University of Pennsylvania.

Picture of Automation officer Michael Martys
Automation officer Michael Martys leads the team of specialists.

The team’s newest member, information technology specialist Joe Casazza, joined NLS in March after eleven years in information technology with the Knowledge Services Group in the Congressional Research Service. Casazza recently celebrated his fifteenth anniversary at the Library. He started in the Serial and Government Publications Division, where he developed one of the Library’s first web sites for the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room. He also has taught secondary school Latin and Greek and occasionally assists the Library with questions concerning these languages. At NLS, he helps maintain more than 135 personal computers. Casazza holds an AB degree from Harvard and a Master’s Certificate in information systems security from Villanova.

Automation assistant Richard Harrison handles computer operational tasks and supports the digital talking-book project. Harrison, who came to NLS as a work-study student eleven years ago, worked in the Inventory Management Section for his first ten years. During this time, he gained knowledge in networking and programming while a student in computer technology at Prince George’s County Community College in Largo, Maryland. He also learned hardware basics, such as how to diagnose computer problems. Harrison’s ongoing interest in computer technology led him to pursue a temporary position in the Automation Office, where his meticulous precision landed him a job as a computer technician and operator in 2006.

"We see ourselves as a fundamental service organization," concluded Martys. "We exist to assist everyone else with productivity and efficiency."

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Digital download project provides patron input

The NLS downloadable digital talking-book project reached the six-month mark in March 2007 with all participants "checking out" an average of 1.4 titles per week—and the majority reporting a positive experience.

"Through this pilot project, patrons are able to read digital talking books (DBs) and magazines and provide NLS with feedback on features such as navigation and audio quality," said NLS director Frank Kurt Cylke. "This information will help us in making necessary refinements before we roll out the digital talking-book program."

When the pilot project was launched on October 13, 2006, participants could download 1,223 titles and 35 issues of 10 magazines. The total number of downloads during the first three months was 1,901: 1,606 books and 295 magazine issues. As of March 19, 2007, participants have access to more than 3,000 titles and 121 issues of 13 magazines, and NLS will continue to add titles to the program throughout 2007.

One hundred patrons from across the country were selected to participate based on their interest in the project and their technical expertise. Using their own high-speed Internet connection, these participants access a special web site with their NLS-designated log-in IDs to download titles. Patrons may search the list of books by author, title, subject, or date and magazines according to title and issue date. The titles are then transferred from their computers onto commercial flash-memory cards, which are then inserted into commercially available talking-book players that have been modified to read NLS books. The cards and players are provided by NLS.

Participants are required to read at least one title per month and complete a survey before downloading another title. Each survey consists of ten questions that focus on title selection; ease, rate, and usefulness of navigation; and ease of downloading and transferring a title for reading. NLS uses this feedback to gauge the functionality of the books and to make necessary refinements prior to the formal launch of the digital program.

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State-of-the-art system to archive NLS books

NLS has determined that the digital technologies developed for the Library of Congress’s new National Audio-Visual Conservation Center (NAVCC) in Culpeper, Virginia, provide the necessary framework for archiving and preserving the digital talking-book collection.

Scheduled for completion in June 2007, the center will house the world’s largest collection of moving images and recorded sounds—and its technology will also preserve NLS digital talking books.

Shortly after the NLS management decision to proceed with in-house development of the Digital Asset Management System (see NLS develops Digital Asset Management System), Michael Martys, automation officer, initiated a collaboration with Tom Youkel, a systems architect involved with the Library’s digital preservation effort. Through conversations with Youkel, Martys arranged for NLS to use the Library’s hierarchical storage-management digital-preservation infrastructure to manage the archiving of the NLS digital collection. NLS will incur the cost for hardware upgrades to the storage system.

"Technically, we aren’t moving our titles to NAVCC. We are actually moving them to the archiving system that it uses," said Martys. "Because NLS is part of the Library of Congress we are able to make use of this world-class archiving system to store and preserve our digital talking-book collection." While NLS has the capability to convert its analog titles to digital, the center’s archive system is virtually unrivaled.

Archive systems of this kind are designed to withstand disasters—fires, hurricanes, city-wide floods, and massive power failures. They usually do so by storing multiple copies of data in geographically separate data centers that are built like bunkers. By using the Library’s archiving system, NLS can recover a book at any time, now or decades from now. This high level of reliability, longevity, and security means that any title in our collection will be preserved forever; books narrated by the legendary narrator Alexander Scourby, for example, will be there for all time.

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Robots assist NLS conversion of audio collection

Since NLS began converting the first wave of recorded books from its collection into digital talking books (DBs) early last year, the Automation Office has completed more than three thousand titles. This process involved unloading master discs from their boxes and hand-feeding them into the computerized Digital Asset Management System (DAMS)—until now. The automation team recently put two robotic handlers into service to help expedite the process. Robotic handlers are also used in such industries as music, software, video, medical, telecommunications, banking and finance, and manufacturing.

NLS’s goal is to convert ten thousand existing titles into digital recordings by 2008. "If we stacked all the discs we are going to process one on top of the other, the pile would tower nearly three hundred feet over the Washington Monument," said automation officer Michael Martys, who is overseeing the project with research and development officer Neil Bernstein. In the five months since the robotic handlers were introduced, they have moved through this towering stack much faster than their human coworkers could have.

The titles that are being converted were "born digital"—recorded in WAV format on discs. Each book title is stored on an average of eight digital narration master discs. These discs are fed into the DAMS, which reads, manages, stores, and converts the titles into the digital format known as Adaptive Multi-Rate Wideband Plus (AMR–WB+)—an audio-compression algorithm that condenses the files to one-thirtieth of their original size without appreciable loss of sound quality—the form that patrons will use.

Picture of Xpress robot
Xpress robots help convert sixty books a day into digital format.

During the first round of converting several thousand existing books, which began last year, automation assistant Richard Harrison spent eight hours a day manually loading book titles into the initial DAMS server of ten connected computers. Now two blue and gray Xpress robotic handlers load more than ten books an hour each and process several dozen titles in a run that lasts six hours. With the robots, the automation team is converting about sixty books a day into digital format and completing two hundred books a week.

"We’ve been producing digital books a lot faster than we expected and the process is smoother," said Bernstein. "We are even ahead of schedule."

Although the robotic handlers have the capacity to read and encode dozens of books a day, the automation team is deliberately controlling the process. "We do smaller runs because the books need to be checked by specialists in the Quality Assurance Section (QAS). The limiting factor is the time required to review and process the books," said Martys.

How the robots work

Picture of sign with the robots' nicknames Spinderella and Sisyphus.
Staff members of the Quality Assurance Section nicknamed the robots Spinderella and Sisyphus.

The robotic handlers—nicknamed Sisyphus and Spinderella—read the book information and store it on a local hard drive or post it over a network onto the NLS five-terabyte server. QAS then puts the books in raw data form through several levels of quality checks for narration and navigation. The DAMS then converts the book to AMR–WB+ and QAS does a final quality check.

The robots have four main spindles—three feeder spindles, which hold two hundred discs each, and one empty take-up rod, where the robot places discs that have been read. A fifth, shorter spindle holds rejects—discs that are unreadable.

To read a disc, the robotic arm swings over to the first stack, picks up a disc, and loads it into one of its four drives. The system reads the data, then the robot arm removes the disc from the drive and places it on an empty spindle. When the robot has read all the data on the first spindle, the arm moves over to the next full spindle and repeats the process. The machine’s computer monitors the robot’s actions, detects the state of the drives, and creates a work log.

"Most robots are used for reading information and then copying it onto blanks. We are using robots in reverse. We are reading the titles and then writing the data," noted information technology specialist Avi Shapiro, who wrote the robots’ specifications and statement of work and performed acceptance testing on them. Shapiro now troubleshoots and helps manage the robots.

The robots also are designed to continue running despite encountering a bad disc or corrupted CD-ROM drive. If the disc is unreadable, the robot will relegate it to the reject spindle. "If the drive cannot read the disc, it could be because it is scratched or smudged," said Harrison. "Sometimes it’s just a matter of wiping off the disc, then the machine can read it."

"We have a low error ratio. The robots are very reliable and productive," said Martys.

How books are converted

Picture of the revolving stacks located in the lower level of NLS.
NLS houses the books converted by the robots on the lower level revolving stacks.

Once the robot loads the master discs onto its drive, the DAMS leads the book along the multiple steps in the conversion process to final form. Books need to be encoded, encrypted, compressed, zipped, and then uploaded and stored on the server. Along the way, QAS staff can manipulate raw data to ensure that navigation is working properly and verify narration, announcements, and audio quality.

To channel the book through the conversion process, NLS computer systems analyst Phil Maggio, from the Production Control Section, designed special software to link the steps. "The system reads the master discs containing the book, then imprints the book with system announcements and extensible markup language (XML) code," said Maggio, who holds a BA degree from Hiram College. Finally the system encodes the book with the code-decode (codec) scheme AMR–WB+. If there is an error along the way the software will kick the book out of the process. The system applies content protection and then converts the book into ZIP format for easy downloading.

"The process is like we are moving carts of discs from office to office around the building," said Martys. "But it is all done digitally. A digital talking book is maybe two to four gigabytes, typically the size of a downloadable movie, so the computer systems have to be large."

With the automated robotic handlers, NLS is achieving its goal of successfully converting its recorded books into a high-quality, robust digital format that will be read by patrons for many years.

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New committee guides the digital transition

Digital Transition Advisory Group meets at NLS for the first time

On With the design and development of digital talking books and players nearly complete, NLS is approaching the next phase of the transition. To facilitate the transition, NLS has formed the Digital Transition Advisory Committee—a fourteen-member group composed of consumer representatives, regional librarians from each of the four conferences and the Consortium of User Libraries, and state librarians. The committee, which succeeds the Digital Long-Term Planning Group, met for the first time in Washington, D.C., on January 30 and 31, 2007, to discuss transition plans and consider methods of informing stakeholders.

Following an introduction and update on the digital transition budget and time line from NLS director Frank Kurt Cylke, Network Division chief and committee chairperson Carolyn Sung explained that the mission of the group is to keep all stakeholders updated on the progress of the transition. She asked that the committee formulate ways to communicate changes to the network libraries. She highlighted the limited supply of players, the complexity of working simultaneously with two technologies, and the need for library staff to perform new technical tasks as the major concerns requiring input from the new committee.

The group concluded that the best way to announce digital talking books (DBs) in the bimonthly publication Talking Book Topics would be to add a section for books in both DB and RC format. They also discussed DB availability in the first year, the estimated time cassettes will be needed, and sharing the transition time line, which outlines quarterly tasks for each fiscal year from 2007 to 2012, with the network.

After reviewing the time line, Steve Prine, assistant chief for the Network Division, explained that beyond the veteran preference mandated by Public Law 89-522 and the priority status given to members of the 102 Talking-Book Club, each regional library is responsible for developing its own policy for distributing the new players.

Jim Miller, NLS equipment control officer, explained that player allotments would be based on the percentage of national readership each library served. The first character of their serial numbers will distinguish basic and advanced players.

Prine presented the 2008–2010 NLS/Network Transition Implementation Issues: Moving from an Analog to a Digital Technology, which describes a number of transition-related factors including its expected duration; changes that will affect network libraries, such as the phase out of analog books, DB cartridge and packaging characteristics, and shelving issues; and aspects of the program that will remain constant with few modifications, such as maintaining the magazine collection on cassettes. The document spawned discussion about alternative shelving systems and ways to utilize the improved navigation features in audio magazine delivery.

All documents reviewed at the meeting were distributed on March 16, 2007, in Network Bulletin 07-13. Minutes from the meeting were distributed on April 6, 2007, in Network Bulletin 07-20, and a full report on the issues identified by the committee along with NLS responses was circulated on April 27, 2007, in Network Bulletin 07-24.

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NLS submits funding request for digital transition

With the 2008 launch date for digital talking books and players fast approaching, the Library of Congress submitted a formal funding request on behalf of NLS to support a four-year transition. The request—$76.4 million to be disbursed in four equal increments—will facilitate the production and distribution of digital talking books, digital players, flash-memory cartridges, and mailing containers.

This funding request is based on the thorough research and analysis of projected costs by NLS experts, 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 would support the transition through completion with little disruption in service to patrons.

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

The digital project has been in process for more than a decade. The transition was spurred by the need to improve patron service, by patron expectations for new technology, and by the obsolescence of cassettes. Digital talking books will improve patrons’ reading experience with clearer audio, significant navigation capabilities, and greater convenience. The new players are smaller and lighter than the C-1 machine currently in use and, in most cases, one cartridge will hold an entire book. Additionally, the new player is equipped with audible instructions, tactile buttons, and braille labels. As cassettes and cassette player parts are becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to locate, NLS decided to convert the program to an adaptable system with a player that contains no moving parts, making it more reliable and less susceptible to mechanical failure.

To meet the needs of patrons and to guarantee compliance with intellectual property law, NLS will provide a player built to Library of Congress specifications. The player and flash cartridge are based on open standards developed by the National Information Standards Organization, ensuring that NLS can obtain products from a number of sources as opposed to a single provider. The player also has the advantage of being significantly more durable than the cassette player, resulting in a longer lifespan.

NLS engaged the expertise of industry leaders in design and development and in the fields of blindness and physical handicaps to develop the system. The process has involved extensive user testing of the player’s hardware and software.

As the design and development stage draws to a close, NLS is planning for the production and distribution phase of the project. In 2008, approximately 60,000 digital players and 650 titles on flash cartridges will be produced and distributed in addition to the usual 2,000 cassette titles. From 2009 to 2011, the number of analog cassette titles will remain constant, but the number of copies of each title will be reduced in order to allow for an increase in titles and copies available on flash-memory cartridges. Cassette book production will cease entirely in 2011. The plan for phasing in digital talking books and players will sustain the program with minimal disruption to patron service.

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NLS develops Digital Asset Management System

From print to digital flowchart.

Since his appointment as NLS automation officer, Michael Martys has spearheaded the search for a Digital Asset Management System (DAMS) that would organize and archive the digital talking-book collection and meet the needs of the NLS network. NLS requires a system that will interface with the Production and Information Control System (PICS), support the production and distribution of digital talking books (DBs), and integrate with the download project.

Martys launched a two-pronged approach toward finding the right DAMS: He looked at vendors for both customized and commercial off-the-shelf products and investigated an inexpensive in-house system. He first developed a thorough set of requirements that would document the system’s interaction with PICS, NLS web sites and download projects, and the Library of Congress Information Technology System (ITS) security protocols. Examination of patron and library usage of NLS web servers showed that the DAMS would require a simplified web interface.

In his search for a product that would help NLS build its web site, archive digital data, manage workflow, and run statistical reports, Martys tested multiple off-the-shelf DAMS solutions to gauge whether they could be applied or modified to suit NLS. The products fell into three categories: web-oriented content management systems, media-oriented digital asset management systems, and document-oriented digital asset management systems.

Evaluation of the possible solutions showed that, while they provided sophisticated web capabilities that are well-suited for sighted users, they present navigational challenges to blind users. Martys researched the possibility of modifying an off-the-shelf solution. He was deterred from using a commercial product because a customized solution would require costly changes to PICS and expensive web site modifications and reporting work, over and above the actual costs of the customized product.

Simultaneously Martys worked with Neil Bernstein, research and development officer, and Michael Katzmann, Materials Development Division chief, to explore building an in-house DAMS. "Our goal is to implement a system that will facilitate the digital environment—from production to quality assurance checks and archiving," said Martys.

Martys carefully documented the workflow of PICS and its role in digital talking-book production. He learned that PICS was the main information and workflow engine for book production and gleaned that it would be possible to modify the information stored in PICS and use it as a foundation for a digital asset management system.

Martys presented his proposal for a system built in-house to NLS senior staff and they agreed. "After careful analysis of the requirements, a solution based on our in-house PICS system seemed to be the best fit for the lowest cost," said Martys. Currently the plan for implementing the NLS DAMS is on schedule and within budget.

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In Kids Zone: Youth-centered content on the NLS web site

Kids Zone page: Youth-centered content on the NLS web site.

Because access to the Internet has changed the way the next generation of readers search for books and conduct research, NLS has introduced Kids Zone, a central hub for retrieving NLS materials for younger readers who are blind or physically handicapped.

"Our goal was to give our young patrons direct access to as much children’s content as possible," said Patricia Steelman, NLS children’s librarian. Though children’s materials have always been available through the online catalog, getting to the material was sometimes a multistep process, Steelman noted. To find books just for young readers, patrons had to run a search in the NLS catalog, retrieve the search results, and review the full record of each title, looking for descriptive tags such as "For grades K-3." Now children have their own catalog on NLS Kids Zone at "The kids’ catalog offers an embedded filter variant on the interface. Every search returns only children’s materials available from the NLS collection," explained Robert Axtell, head of the Bibliographic Control Section.

If children need suggestions for finding good reading materials, Kids Zone also presents listings of award-winning books, information on popular series, descriptions of magazines for children, and a link to the Library of Congress Kids and Families web site. The lists of award-winning books, series, and classics also provides the added convenience of direct links to Web-Braille for subscribers and the most recent RC numbers for ordering books from network libraries. Kids Zone features reading lists for three prestigious children’s book awards: The John Newbery medal, the Coretta Scott King award, and the Schneider Family Book award.

Patrons may also want to peruse the Kids Zone information on favorite children’s book series, including the Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter series, the Redwall Abbey series, and the Swallows and Amazons series. Readers who wish to learn more about periodicals such as Boys’ Life or National Geographic Kids will find descriptions and instructions for subscribing to NLS-produced and network-produced magazines on Kids Zone. Finally, web visitors can link to the Library of Congress Kids and Families web site, which offers a cornucopia of multimedia resources, games, and reference services for children and adults, such as the Everyday Mysteries site that provides answers to questions like "What’s the difference between sweet potatoes and yams?"

Visitors to may receive a guided tour of Kids Zone, which was a part of the September 20, 2006, presentation of "Ready-Set-READ! Literary Resources at the Library of Congress," an interactive online webcast.

"We hope that children and families will use NLS Kids Zone to help themselves enjoy more of the many NLS and network materials produced just for kids," said Steelman.

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Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped names Postal Carrier of the Year

Picture of Kevin Zaken, postal carrier for the Carnegie Library.
Kevin Zaken earned the 2007 Carnegie Library Postal Carrier of the Year award.

Neither rain nor snow can stop McKeesport, Pennsylvania, postal carrier Kevin Zaken from delivering talking books from the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped to its patrons. At 9 a.m. on Wednesday, March 14, however, it was director Kathleen Kappel who made a delivery to the Walnut Street post office for Zaken—the 2007 Postal Carrier of the Year award. The award was presented to Zaken for outstanding service in delivering LBPH materials to customers.

Zaken was nominated for his exceptional consideration when delivering talking books by patron Mary Cole. Cole explained that rather than leaving the books "crammed into the mailbox located at street level," Zaken bands them together in packets of four, places the bundles in a mail basket, carries them up the steps to her house, and presents them in person. These simple, thoughtful acts are greatly appreciated by Cole and her husband, who concluded, "Kevin is courteous and a gentleman."

Zaken received a framed document of recognition from the library, along with certificates of appreciation from the U.S. Postal Service and McKeesport postmaster Bill Mueller and state representative Mark Gergely. LBPH shipped 623,000 items to western Pennsylvanians in 2006.

The Program

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress publishes books and magazines in braille and in recorded form on discs and cassettes for readers who cannot hold, handle, or see well enough to read conventional print because of a temporary or permanent visual or physical handicap.

Through a national network of state and local libraries, the materials are loaned free to eligible readers in the United States and to U.S. citizens living abroad. Materials are sent to readers and returned by postage-free mail.

Books and Magazines

Readers may borrow all types of popular-interest books including bestsellers, classics, mysteries, westerns, poetry, history, biographies, religious literature, children's books, and foreign-language materials. Readers may also subscribe to more than seventy popular magazines in braille and recorded formats.

Special Equipment

Special equipment needed to play the discs and cassettes, which are recorded at slower than conventional speeds, is loaned indefinitely to readers. An amplifier with headphone is available for blind and physically handicapped readers who are also certified as hearing impaired. Other devices are provided to aid readers with mobility impairments in using playback machines.


You are eligible for the Library of Congress program if:

How to Apply

You may request an application by writing NLS or calling toll-free 1-800-424-9100, and your name will be referred to your cooperating library.

News is published quarterly by:

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Library of Congress
Washington, DC 20542

All correspondence should be addressed to the attention of Publications and Media Section.

Editor: Paula Higgins

Writers: Ingrid Davitt, Lina Dutky, Casandra Middleton, Joel Phillips, and Cynthia Young.

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Issues in 2006

January to March