NLS implementing advances in its digital talking-book system

Patrons of the NLS talking-book program will have even more options for accessing and reading books in 2012.

The introduction of the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) in 2006 and digital talking-book cartridges in 2009 brought big improvements in service, and more improvements are currently in the works, including the ability to read talking books on iPhones, iPads, and Android-based mobile devices.

“We are trying to improve patron access to our collection by making it available on the everyday devices already available or in use,” explained Michael Katzmann, chief of the NLS Materials Development Division. The next step will be to develop apps that enable patrons to browse the NLS collection and select books directly with their mobile devices.

To conform with the copyright law provision—the Chafee amendment—that allows NLS to produce and distribute books for blind and physically disabled readers, mobile apps must protect talking books from unauthorized use. “The files have to be encrypted so that only phones that have been authorized by us, and are used by registered patrons, can access the books”—which might be the biggest challenge in developing the apps,” Katzmann noted.

Plans also are underway to begin distributing audio magazines, including Talking Book Topics, on digital cartridges. Now, each issue of a magazine is recorded on its own cassette, so a patron who subscribes to three magazines receives them on three separate cassettes. After the switch to digital, the latest issues of all the magazines a patron subscribes to will be placed onto a single cartridge. For example, a patron who reads People, Sports Illustrated, and National Geographic will receive a cartridge each week containing the first two titles. Once a month, that cartridge also will contain National Geographic.

Patrons have been allowed to keep or dispose of audio magazine cassettes as they wish. However, because of the higher cost and the ease of recycling, digital cartridges will be reused, so patrons will have to return them—postage-free, just like talking books—in order to continue receiving magazines.

Coming soon to the NLS digital talking-book system:

  • Web-Braille, the online braille service NLS began in 1999, will merge with BARD, allowing patrons to download braille books, magazines, and music scores from one website.
  • Magazines—including Talking Book Topics—will be available on a digital cartridge.
  • NLS talking books will be readable on iPhones, iPads, and Android-based mobile devices.
  • The NLS collection will include a wider selection of materials through synthetic-speech narration and partnerships with commercial audiobook producers.

Expanding the collection

Also in 2012, NLS will take advantage of new relationships with commercial audiobook producers and improvements in synthetic-speech technology to make a wider—and more timely—selection of books available to patrons.

While the Chafee amendment gives NLS the right to reproduce and distribute copies of published, nondramatic literary works, commercial audiobooks fall into a different category. NLS still has to acquire permission from the rights-holders to use a commercial audiobook.

“For the most part, people are pretty happy with BARD: it is simple, it provides a basic need, and it does that well. [But] it is growing like crazy, and we have to plan for that.”

– Michael Martys, NLS automation officer

In recent years, the agency has had money to purchase no more than 200 commercial audiobook titles per year. Almost all have come from one producer, Brilliance Audio. Now NLS is reaching out to other audiobook publishers.

While it costs around $4,500 to produce a talking book from scratch, it is much less expensive to do so when starting with the master files of a commercial audiobook. Even though NLS still has to add navigational markup and metadata and convert the files into digital talking books, this accelerated process could free up funds to produce more books each year.

Working with commercial audiobook producers will also allow NLS to “get the book out much, much faster,” said Neil Bernstein, NLS research and development officer. And patrons will get to hear a wider variety of narrators—perhaps even discovering some new favorites.

In the months ahead, Katzmann said, NLS will evaluate the quality of various text-to-speech programs and begin to experiment with producing books using that technology—not to take the place of live narration, but “to augment what we have.” For example, it could be used, by patron request, to produce download-only audio versions of books that are not in the collection.

Finally, an eagerly awaited accessory for the digital talking-book machine will be available in early 2012: a remote control unit. The device will be designed to serve the same function as the cassette machine’s breath switch for readers with limited mobility and dexterity.

BARD and Web-Braille

A top priority for NLS this winter has been the merger of BARD and Web-Braille, which will offer patrons one-stop shopping for all their books and magazines, whether in audio or braille. But that’s just one of the changes planned for the popular download service.

“For the most part, people are pretty happy with BARD,” said Michael Martys, NLS automation officer. “It is simple, it provides a basic need, and it does that well.” But that does not mean BARD cannot be improved. “It is growing like crazy, and we have to plan for that,” Martys said.

BARD began with 100 pilot participants on October 13, 2006. It now has more than 41,000 users, who have downloaded more than 2.1 million books in the fiscal year that ended September 30, 2011.

Most of Web-Braille’s 6,000 users—a number that includes institutional accounts—are also signed up for BARD; only about 1,000 will need to create BARD accounts after the merger.

The merger with Web-Braille will add about 12,000 braille titles to the 24,000 audio titles already on BARD. NLS expects to further expand BARD by adding music materials, more foreign-language books from commercial sources, and books produced by network libraries. Is there room for all these new offerings? “Don’t worry about the size of the BARD library,” Bernstein said. “We have more than enough storage, and the cost of additional storage is coming down so rapidly this will not be a problem at all.”

Database merger

In addition to the BARD/Web-Braille merger, another large technology merger is about to take place: the NLS Comprehensive Mailing List System (CMLS), which handles magazine subscriptions, BARD registration, and tracking of DTBM assignment to patrons, will be combined into one database with the Blind and Physically Handicapped Inventory Control System (BPHICS), which keeps track of machine inventory.

“Both systems are fairly old,” explained Martys. “They predate the NLS transition to digital—and the Internet—so they are not meeting the needs of NLS in the digital age. Both need to be faster, more accurate, and require less staff time to operate.”

Planned advances for BARD:

  • Making the site easier to use for patrons with low vision.
  • Improving BARD’s search functions.
  • Uploading new books Monday through Friday instead of just once a week.
  • Using Twitter or an RSS feed to tell patrons about new books.
  • Adding features to help patrons keep track of books they have already read or want to read.

A high-level review of CMLS and BPHICS conducted last summer led to a recommendation that NLS merge the two databases, optimize them for the digital program, make greater use of the Internet for data exchange, and design the system so that it minimizes staff time. “We have been working on requirements, a migration plan, and a risk-management plan,” said Martys. “We hope to issue a request for proposals in mid-2012.”

“We hope they will encourage their eligible residents to become NLS patrons, either individually or through an institutional BARD account.”

– Alice O’Reilly, assistant to the chief, Materials Development Division

Institutional outreach

NLS began offering institutional BARD accounts in spring 2011. In November, postcards were mailed to some 18,000 retirement communities and assisted-living facilities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, inviting them to contact their network library for more information about NLS.

“We hope they will encourage their eligible residents to become NLS patrons, either individually or through an institutional BARD account,” said Alice O’Reilly, assistant to the chief of the Materials Development Division, who is coordinating the institutional outreach effort. “We are closely watching the results and plan to use this approach with other types of institutions as well, such as military hospitals.”

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Interview with Jennifer Sutton, former BARD consultant

The enormous success of the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) can, in part, be attributed to the hard work of Jennifer Sutton, a consultant who began working with NLS in the spring of 2008 and completed her contract in 2011.

photo of Jennifer Sutton

Sutton helped patrons who were testing the download site and she created much of the BARD training material for network libraries. A longtime NLS patron and user of Web-Braille, the first NLS online download site, Sutton also helped test the digital talking-book machine. As an employee of the DAISY Consortium, she was involved in the effort to standardize the file structure for digital talking books.

“Jennifer set the standard for the excellent service still delivered by the BARD technical support staff,” said NLS research and development officer Neil Bernstein. “Her superb grasp of the system’s intricacies allowed her to pinpoint the source of patron problems quickly, and her terrific communications skills helped get those problems solved just as fast.”

NLS: BARD currently has more than 41,000 users, who have downloaded more than 2.1 million books in the past fiscal year. Did you imagine when you began working with BARD that it would grow this quickly?

Jennifer Sutton: I did not initially imagine that the growth during the first year would be as explosive as it was. But with the launch of a few portable players, such as the HumanWare Victor Reader Stream, during the first year I was working for NLS, it became apparent that there was a pent-up demand for the digital download service. Patrons were very excited to be able to select and download a book whenever they wanted one. I remember responding to e-mail messages from patrons who were returning to the NLS service specifically because they were going to be able to download books and magazines. I believe many patrons found it intoxicating once they experienced the independence that downloading content made possible.

NLS: You helped field test the NLS digital talking-book machine (DTBM). As BARD grows in popularity, and NLS develops apps for mobile devices like iPhones, do you think there will still be a role for, and a demand for, an NLS player five or ten years from now?

JS: I suspect there will be a demand for the DTBM in five years, but perhaps not so much in ten. I believe that older patrons will need access to a relatively simple machine with controls that are easy to operate, especially if their capabilities become limited. Also, although smartphones are great for many, I am not sure they will be the best choice for some until it becomes easy to play the content wirelessly through a stereo or other device with a decent speaker. To use a smartphone effectively, one has to have good fine-motor control or have another method for operating the device.

NLS: Your consulting work now focuses on web accessibility. Do you find that most corporations “get it” and are doing a good job of making their websites accessible? What are common problems you encounter?

JS: I tend to work with organizations that want to do the right thing, but often they simply do not know where to begin. Two of the main issues I see are a lack of descriptions of images and a lack of semantic markup (such as headings) that can make it easier for people to navigate through a website.

I believe that website visitors with disabilities can play an important role in increasing awareness of accessibility issues. I have worked with the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative on a document called Contacting Organizations about Inaccessible Websites (available at inaccessible.html Link outside of Library of Congress ).

NLS: What is just around the corner in accessibility technology that excites you?

JS: I am pleased to see accessibility features being incorporated into mainstream products. I hope that companies will increasingly realize that there is a business case for incorporating accessibility into products from the start, instead of trying to build it in as an afterthought.

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American Humane Association honors 9/11 hero dog

Roselle, a Labrador retriever owned by longtime NLS patron Michael Hingson, was given top honors at the American Humane Association (AHA) first annual Hero Dog Awards on October 1, 2011, at the Beverly Hills Hilton in Los Angeles.

photo of Hingson at lectern
Hingson speaks at the NLS 80th Anniversary Event in March 2011

“Roselle and I were working in the World Trade Center on the 78th floor of Tower One when the airplane crashed into our building. From the outset, Roselle did her job perfectly, as we went to the stairwell and traveled down 1,463 stairs,” Hingson wrote in Roselle’s nomination. “We were across the street from Tower Two when it collapsed. Roselle remained calm and totally focused on her job, as debris fell around us and even hit us. All that day, Roselle worked flawlessly. She saved my life and truly is the greatest dog hero of all.”

Though she passed away in June 2011, Roselle was lauded for her heroic deed, which Hingson had recounted during his keynote address at the 2010 National Conference of Librarians Serving Blind and Physically Handicapped Readers. “Roselle helped me help seven other employees escape and then led me down the stairwell,” Hingson told conference attendees. When they got to the subway station, he said, a woman was crying because she could not see through the thick dust. He told her to grab his arm and Roselle then led them both to safety. Hingson chronicles the experience in his book Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero.

AHA created the Hero Dog Awards in 2010 to celebrate the powerful relationships between dogs and people and to advance society’s understanding of the human-animal bond. Some 400,000 public votes were cast to narrow down the 453 contestants to eight finalists, each of which was chosen as a winner in one of the selected categories: law enforcement/arson, service, therapy, military, guides, search and rescue, hearing, and emerging hero dogs, a category reserved for ordinary pets that do extraordinary things.

photo of Hingson and Roselle
Michael Hingson with his guide dog Roselle. Photo credit: American Humane Society
Finalists in addition to Roselle were:

Celebrities Betty White, Carson Kressley, Julianne Hough, Peter Fonda, and others helped kick off the inaugural awards show, which the Hallmark Channel broadcast on November 11, 2011.

Each of the eight finalists received a $5,000 donation to one of AHA’s charity partners, including Guide Dogs for the Blind, Dogs for the Deaf, and Paws & Effect. Roselle won an additional $10,000 for Guide Dogs for the Blind.

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NLS 2012 exhibit schedule

January 20–24
American Library Association
Dallas, Texas

February 8–11
Texas Music Educators Association
San Antonio, Texas

March 29–31
American Society on Aging
Washington, D.C.

April 25–28
National Association of Activity Professionals
Murfreesboro, Tennessee

June 21–26
American Library Association
Anaheim, California

July 3–8
National Federation of the Blind
Dallas, Texas

July 6–15
American Council of the Blind
Louisville, Kentucky

July 17–21
Association on Higher Education and Disability
New Orleans, Louisiana

August 21–23
Blinded Veterans Association Galveston, Texas

August 24–28
American Legion
Indianapolis, Indiana

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American Library Association releases revised Standards

Revised Standards and Guidelines of Service for the Library of Congress Network of Libraries for the Blind and Physically Handicapped has been published by the Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies of the American Library Association and is available for purchase at Link outside of Library of Congress

“This 2011 version is the fourth iteration of American Library Association (ALA) standards for libraries serving blind and physically handicapped individuals,” said NLS assistant chief, Network Division, Steve Prine, who orchestrated the effort. “It was developed by consumers, network librarians, and their administering agencies to provide a benchmark for service by which the libraries can judge their accomplishments. NLS uses these standards as the basis for network consultant reviews and evaluations of library operations. We anticipate implementing them in 2012.”

NLS has reviewed cooperating network libraries against the original standards and updates since 1980 with the goal of providing equitable service for eligible individuals wherever they reside in the United States or its possessions and territories.

Among other topics, the text provides appropriate standards of service for day-to-day library operations, resource development and management, public education and outreach, budget and funding, planning and evaluation, personnel, and BARD; guidelines for personnel and space; and several appendices on critical information such as Library of Congress/National Library Service Eligibility Criteria, the ALA Library Bill of Rights and Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records, and the ALA Policy on Services for People with Disabilities.

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Pioneers honored for 100 years of “answering the call”

During a November 2011 celebration in Boston of the Pioneers’ 100th anniversary as a volunteer organization, John Brown, NLS Engineering Section head, presented a proclamation to John Schmit, chairman of the board, recognizing the group’s role in serving blind and disabled readers.

NLS engineering head shakes hand and gives plaque to Pioneers chairman
NLS head of Engineering John Brown (left) presents Pioneers chairman of the board John Schmit a proclamation recognizing the group for service to blind and physically handicapped readers during its 100 years of volunteer work.

“Talented and dedicated Pioneers volunteers have repaired more than 3.6 million audiobook machines for NLS since 1960, keeping books talking for blind and physically handicapped people. . . . Pioneers have saved United States taxpayers an estimated $216 million,” noted the proclamation, which was signed by Ruth Scovill, NLS acting director, and by Robert Fistick, deputy director.

“NLS is very appreciative of the time and effort these employees and retirees from the telecommunications industry have committed to the talking-book repair program,” Scovill said. “They have helped people with visual impairment and the inability to handle regular printed materials continue to experience the joy of reading.”

The Pioneers organization, originally the Telephone Pioneers of America, was founded on November 2, 1911, at a meeting in Boston attended by Alexander Graham Bell. Under the slogan “Answering the call of those in need,” its members started repairing NLS phonographs in the 1960s, then cassette players in the 1970s and 1980s. Now Pioneers are being trained to troubleshoot the new NLS digital talking-book machines. About 1,000 Pioneers currently volunteer in the program, serving the NLS network of cooperating libraries and their patrons across the country.

NLS works with hospitals serving veterans

In honor of Veterans Day on November 11, NLS announced its program with military hospitals and rehabilitation centers to distribute digital talking-book players to service members who can no longer read or handle printed materials.

According to Ruth Scovill, NLS acting director, the hospital and rehabilitation-center program is the best way to ensure that military personnel who need the service will have it.

“NLS has begun a campaign to build personal relationships with the professional staff at military hospitals—assistive technology specialists, physical therapists, and occupational therapists—who work directly with eligible veterans and active-duty service members,” said Scovill. “These facilities will be provided with new digital playback equipment to distribute to their patients. Service members can use the players to read books on cartridges supplied by their local talking-book libraries.”

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Katzmann receives Madisonian Award from the Library of Congress

Headshot of Michael Katzmann
Michael Katzmann

NLS Materials Development Division chief Michael Katzmann was presented the Madisonian Award by the Library of Congress (LC) private-sector advisory group, the Madison Council, on October 19, 2011.

Katzmann was recognized for his work in developing and refining NLS digital talking-book players; creating an open-source duplication system that allows the NLS network of cooperating libraries to copy books to cartridges as well as software that enables libraries to create custom braille labels; and launching an NLS channel on YouTube ( Link outside of Library of Congress ). He is currently working on the development of a smartphone app capable of reading digital talking books.

“These awards are given in recognition of the extraordinary contributions employees made to the institution and their work in building, sustaining, and providing access to the Library’s collections,” said Sue Siegel, director of the LC Development Office.

Katzmann, along with two other Library employees, received a cash award and a certificate.

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