January–March 2013
Vol. 45, No. 1

BARD expands download offerings with braille, music, and foreign-language items

BARD, the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download service, has been popular with NLS patrons since its launch on April 30, 2009, with an average of 8,529  audiobooks and magazines being downloaded each day as of January 2013. Thanks to BARD’s November 2012 update, many more readers now are able to use the service and enjoy a greater selection of materials.

“We added Web-Braille, music and foreign-language materials, and substantially more information about each title, such as series information; rewrote more than half of BARD in a high-performance language; changed the database engine; and moved the system to more powerful servers,” explained NLS automation officer Mike Martys. “This upgrade was well-received by our patrons.”

New materials

More than 12,000 braille books and magazines that were previously available through NLS Web-Braille have been moved to BARD, with plans to phase out Web-Braille by this May. (Patrons may continue to access braille titles through active links in the NLS catalog and through the web version of Braille Book Review.)

Also moved from Web-Braille to BARD were more than 2,000 braille music items, specifically sheet music for various instruments, including voice; standard music textbooks; and method books. BARD also has more than 2,000 braille materials produced and submitted by NLS cooperating libraries and external agencies. Music materials in audio format available on BARD are instructional guides and music-appreciation presentations.

Additional features improve users’ online experience

In addition to new materials, there are new features to help BARD users find the titles and authors they want and keep track of the materials they have read and would like to read.

Each title in the summary listing (title, author, reading time or number of braille volumes, production note, subjects, etc.) now links to the title’s Details page, which features all of the information from the summary entry along with additional bulleted notes such as navigation information for audiobooks, the transcribing agency for braille books, and the producer (for both braille and audio titles), as well as other information from the NLS International Union Catalog. A link to download the title and a link that allows users to add the title to their wish list also display on the Details page.

New features on BARD, details page

The My Wish List page was created to provide a place where users can store and access titles that they want to download later. Once added, the titles are listed in reverse chronological order, with the most recently added title displaying first. Each title is presented with its summary information and two links: one to download the title, the other to delete the title from the wish list. Titles are automatically deleted once they have been downloaded. Titles that are already on a reader’s wish list will not display the Add to Wish List link on the Details page.

The My Previous Downloads page displays a list of all the titles—in reverse chronological order, starting with the most recent—that a reader has downloaded. Each title has all of its summary information as well as the date it was downloaded and a link to download the title again.

Readers can access a list of downloadable books by the same author by selecting that author’s name on the Details page of any title by that author. Users can also access a list of books in the same subject category, with the same narrator, or in the same series by selecting the appropriate link on a book’s Details page. BARD displays search results in alphabetical order. The ability to search only books that were produced by or specially acquired by NLS has also been added.

Detailed information is at https://nlsbard.loc.gov/NLS/NewBARDOverview.html.

“We rewrote more than half of BARD in a high-performance language; changed the database engine; and moved the system to more powerful servers.”

—Mike Martys, NLS automation officer

NLS director highlights talking-book program’s innovations at Library’s international summit

“A book can be a beautiful thing,” said NLS director Karen Keninger. She raised a paperback and shook it. “But for some of us, this is a frustrating object.

“I know this book contains stories I want to know. But I cannot access the voices inside,” Keninger, who is blind, explained to audience members in the Library of Congress Coolidge Auditorium.

Author Thomas Mallon and NLS Director Karen Keninger, seated in chairs
Author Thomas Mallon listens as NLS director Karen Keninger addresses audience members during the International Summit of the Book. Photo courtesy of Cecelia Rogers

Keninger was one of three panelists for Using Lessons of the Past to Guide the Future, the final session of the International Summit of the Book, hosted by the Library December 6–7, 2012.  She was joined by Fenella France, chief of the Library’s Preservation Research and Testing Division, and author Thomas Mallon. Michael Suarez, director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, was moderator.

The two-day summit—the first of its kind—featured keynote speeches and panel discussions by leaders in academia, libraries, culture, and technology who discussed, debated, and celebrated the crucial role of books in transmitting information.

Keninger spoke of blind people’s determination to have access to books and the resulting innovations, beginning with Louis Braille’s 1821 creation of the raised-dot system, Ray Kurzweil’s development of text-to-speech in 1976, and the evolution of NLS audiobooks from long-playing records to digital flash drives. In fact, said Keninger, “blind people used talking books for 40 years before the general public adopted them.

“The lessons of the past tell us that innovations have come, and will continue to come, from unexpected places,” she added. “But the real value of the book lies in its intellectual content. Whether it is a paperback, hard cover, e-book, or even a computer text file, if it can be opened, accessed, and understood, it has done its job.”

The second annual International Summit of the Book will be held in Singapore this August.

NLS developing app for blind users of Apple and Android mobile devices

The NLS Materials and Development Division (MDD), Automation Office, and Network Division staff are currently developing an app—BARD Mobile—that facilitates reading NLS audio and braille books on Apple and Android devices. “The app will enable eligible users to read digital talking books and electronic braille. iPhones support 40 different braille displays and Androids support about a dozen,” explained MDD chief Michael Katzmann. “Any of our digital books and magazines can be downloaded from BARD directly to the device. Due to poor accessibility of older devices, our app will only work on newer versions of Android.” BARD Mobile will be free to registered BARD users.

Dixon demonstrates iPhone screen-reader.
NLS consumer relations officer Judy Dixon demonstrates to coworkers how her iPhone’s built-in, screen-reading technology, VoiceOver allows her to read an e-book during an informal session on November 19, 2012. NLS res earch and development officer Neil Bernstein videotapes Dixon’s demonstration and projects it onto a screen behind her for sighted staff.

Friends of Libraries for the Blind and Physically Handicapped Individuals of North America

Pianist reignites passion for playing after losing her sight

Ayaka Isono was earning a living playing classical piano until age 29, when her vision changed. Within six months, Isono’s vision deteriorated. She had surgery to try to correct the problem, but the surgery failed and Isono, now 41, is blind. “Even now nobody knows what I have,” she said. “They just refer to it as a rare retinal disorder.”

Isono grew up around music in Japan. She had her first music lesson at age three from her mother, a piano teacher. She continued to hone her playing skills during the early years of her life through home practice and special programs, but didn’t want to become a professional musician. “I never thought about becoming a pianist or holding a job in the music field,” said Isono. “I was more interested in interior design.” After her senior recital, however, Isono decided to study music.

Isono playing piano with right hand and reading braille with left
Pianist Ayaka Isono practices using a braille score from NLS.

She moved to the United States at age 17 and received a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University, Bloomington, and a master’s degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Both degrees were for piano performance.

After becoming blind, Isono suffered through a long bout of depression. “I stopped playing the piano for three years,” she said. Instead, she focused on a new career, taking computer courses and becoming an assistive technology specialist.

As she was settling into her new field, a friend asked if Isono would give her father piano lessons. “I really wasn’t up to it,” Isono admitted. “But I did it anyway although I was extremely annoyed.” These lessons, along with her boyfriend (now husband) who constantly asked her to play the piano, reminded Isono how much she enjoyed—and missed—the instrument.

Eager to play again, Isono joined NLS and learned to read braille music, which she found challenging at first. “It took me a while to really get into it. Now I probably read music braille faster than literary braille,” she said. And she began to appreciate music in a way she never did or could as a sighted pianist.

“I used to be able to sight-read scores pretty well. Sight-reading is one of the skills that good musicians need, where you can play the score as you read it in that moment,” Isono explained. “With braille music, this isn’t possible. I have to read and memorize all the scores, going over the them many times to make sure my memory is correct. During this process I started to notice so many details that I would never have if I sight-read. I see the structures, phrasings, musical markings, and all other details. It’s almost like touching the music.”

Isono gave her first solo recital as a blind person in 2003 and has not stopped. She also plays in a chamber music group called Ensemble Humanite, which comprises musicians from the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet orchestras. The group has given a few concerts and received great reviews. “I never thought I would play in a major orchestra again, like I did in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston when I was sighted. It’s great!” Isono enthused.

Isono has returned to teaching as well. She now teaches both sighted and blind students. “Am I nicer to the blind kids? Absolutely not! I teach all my students to read music, in braille or in print. It doesn’t matter,” she said, adding that the methods for blind pupils differ, as she must explain things descriptively and sometimes physically direct their hands.

Patrons like Isono are great for the program, said NLS music specialist Mary Dell Jenkins. “Ayaka is constantly asking for wonderful new pieces that we have to find. Patrons like her actually help to increase our collection.” A professional musician herself, Jenkins said that Isono’s life proves what she knows to be true about music: “Music is the great equalizer. Sight doesn’t matter. If you can hear it, you can learn it.”

Although music takes a good deal of her time, it is only a part of Isono’s life. She is a proud wife and mother of an active four-year-old boy. She takes yoga classes, loves to cook, and regularly downloads books to read from the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download service.

Isono believes that her blindness strengthened her artistic ability, and she encourages people to move on in their personal journeys no matter what challenges occur. “From my experience, people are afraid to ask for help,” she said. “Sometimes, that’s the only thing stopping them from learning new things or improving their skills. Seek advice and don’t be shy.” 

Had Isono not heeded her own advice, the world would have one less musical virtuoso.

Connecting accessible technology and people with vision and hearing loss

“Hi, it’s John,” greeted a female voice. “How are you today?”

“John” is John Cunniff, president of the Deaf-Blind Contact Center in Allston, Massachusetts. The voice is an interpreter who is available via video phone, an Internet-based program that provides telephone communication for people who are hearing impaired, including those with low vision, like John.

For Cunniff and the nearly 1.5 million people in the United States who have combined hearing and vision loss, such advanced telecommunications technology can be life-changing. But the high cost keeps it out of reach for many, and those who can afford it often face the daunting task of learning how to use it.

Addressing this challenge is the mission of iCanConnect, a campaign to spread the word about the Federal Communications Commission’s new National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program (NDBEDP). Launched in 2012, NDBEDP aims to provide lower-income Americans who are deaf-blind with accessible communication technology such as braille displays, computer screen readers, iPhones, and iPads.

“Accessibility for people with disabilities is the most critical civil rights movement of our time.”

—Steven Rothstein, president, Perkins School for the Blind

“Life would be very difficult for me” without adaptive technology, Cunniff said. “I would need to ask friends or family to interpret and they would need to be right here next to me. They all have their own lives and can’t always drop everything to help me.”

Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, and the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults (HKNC) in Sands Point, New York, are spearheading the campaign with the rollout of a pilot program to spread the word about NDBEDP to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In states that have partnered directly with them, Perkins and HKNC will take the lead in managing equipment distribution, training, and reimbursement for purchases. The remaining states have partnered with other organizations in their area.

“Accessibility for people with disabilities is the most critical civil rights movement of our time,” said Perkins president Steven Rothstein. “NDBEDP is not simply about individuals who have vision and hearing loss being able to use the telephone, computer, or e-mail. It’s about their right to be contributing, involved members of society. And without equal access to today’s communications technology, that’s simply not possible.”

NDBEDP was mandated by the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which Congress passed in 2010 and requires equal access to new communications technology for people with disabilities.

More information about the campaign is available at iCanConnect.org.

NLS, braille producers focus on the future of braille

Diminishing capacity and advancing technology were at the center of discussions among NLS staff and representatives from the four companies that produce braille books and magazines for the agency during a November 27, 2012, meeting in Washington, D.C. NLS director Karen Keninger convened her staff members as well as those from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) in Louisville, Associated Services for the Blind (ASB) in Philadelphia, the Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired (Clovernook) in Cincinnati, and National Braille Press (NBP) in Boston to address current production issues with braille books and to gain perspective on the way forward for NLS braille production.

“I am a big proponent of braille: it is the core component of literacy,” said Keninger.
“NLS has a history of being focused on audio—now it is braille’s turn.

“Emphasis on braille in the education system over the past 30 years has provided a mixed result at best. Braille is still considered a last resort, and we want to change that perception. We must expand our ability to provide braille.”

 Keninger outlined her five priorities for NLS braille production:

  1. Develop a braille e-reader for NLS to provide to patrons.
  2. Maintain the product quality that NLS is known for, with faster production.
  3. Use technology to improve the reading experience.
  4. Expand the quality and scope of braille materials.
  5. Expand the readership.

Braille book production

“NLS has been experiencing a decrease in the capacity for producing books in the past few years, but the production capacity has not affected magazines,” observed John Bryant, head of the NLS Production Control Section.

Dolores Ferrara-Godzieba of ASB and Chris Faust of Clovernook cited the length of the production process as a factor. “It takes much longer to turn around a book than a magazine,” said Ferrara-Godzieba. “Books are under much more scrutiny. Production is limited because it takes too long.”

Faust noted that Clovernook would like to shorten the lengthy process of approving physical braille, stating that two to three weeks could be trimmed from production time if approval on braille was given before it went to press.

Bryant replied that NLS is introducing a new procedure for quality assurance of braille products in which the electronic braille file is checked before the physical copy arrives, which NLS hopes will improve efficiencies and reduce delays.

This new process will be similar to the current automated process for reviewing audiobooks:

  • The producer will upload the electronic files to NLS.
  • The automated system will perform several tests on the files before they are sent to the NLS Quality Assurance Section (QAS).
  • QAS will perform a detailed electronic review of the braille files.
  • Once the braille files have been approved they can be placed on the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) site.
  • The producer will then send a paper control copy to QAS for review. This control copy will be reviewed for gross issues of “print” quality and formatting, such as lack of depth in the braille dots, wrong pagination, and wrong format.

“Once the files have been accepted,” said Bryant, “they can go right on BARD for download. The book may be available to the public before the control copy even comes in to QAS.”

Ferrara-Godzieba expressed concern that the new process would take twice as long because QAS will review the full electronic file in detail and then review the paper control copy in detail. “If NLS is still holding the book, then we can’t distribute it.”

Bob Norton, head of NLS QAS, responded that the new process should save time and money because in the current procedure, the braille quality check is conducted after the producer has already produced  the control copy. The new process will allow QAS to catch errors in the braille before the volume is printed and the producer won’t have to spend money throwing out bad volumes.

APH and ASP reps pose with spiral-bound textbook.
Jack Decker, APH, (left) shares with Dolores Ferrara-Godzieba and Scott Schneider, ASB, an example of the spiral binding that APH uses for all of its braille textbooks. "We have been doing textbooks with this type of binding for about 10 years without a single complaint. This sample has a color cover, so that a visually impaired student has a book that looks like the textbooks that sighted students have. It also has the ability to fold back on itself," said Decker.

A critical need for quality proofreaders

Ferrara-Godzieba, Faust, and Brian MacDonald from NBP all noted difficulty finding qualified proofreaders to ensure accuracy of their materials and thus keep production on track. “The key to moving forward is more proofreaders,” said MacDonald. “We have been recruiting online and at conferences, but the attention to detail needed is hard to find—and absolutely essential.”

Faust confirmed that Clovernook also has problems finding and training qualified proofreaders. “We can’t find enough employees. Fifty to sixty percent of the people we find fail the braille test. We need a bigger pool of people to choose from,” he said.

“We’ve had the best results from training our own people on site, but we all share the same proofreaders. We want NLS to promote the training program and bring in more people from outside of the field,” remarked Ferrara-Godzieba.

NLS consumer relations officer Judy Dixon stated that NLS would be willing to fast-track some proofreaders through the certification program if it would help producers.

Perspectives on braille’s future

At the close of the meeting, Keninger asked each one of the assembled braille producers for their perspectives on the future of braille.

Decker said, “Sighted kids are moving to iPads and Kindles, so we need to move our kids to a similar format in refreshable braille.”

“We founded a center for braille innovation a few years ago and are working on a prototype for an affordable full-page braille display that has DAISY capabilities,” said McDonald.

ASB and Clovernook will remain committed to hard-copy braille. “ASB is looking to produce it as long as people want it. We don’t think that it will die,” said Ferrara-Godzieba.

Faust agreed, adding, “Clovernook also recognizes that accessible media is the future. We just haven’t figured out where to fit in, step in, or help without clogging the system."

Teen gives back to community in Perkins studio

“Theater is my passion,” said 16-year-old Julia Fein, the first teenage narrator to record for Perkins School for the Blind Talking Book Library. Fein, who acts in both community theaters and productions at Beaver County Day School in Brookline, Massachusetts, recorded her first commercial audiobook, Lois Lowry’s Crow Call, at age 14 and hopes to do more professional narration in the future.

Teenage girl with script and microphone.
Julia Fein takes a break from recording.

But she also wants to use her talent to give back to the community. As a middle school student in Connecticut, she read newspaper articles and poems for the CT Radio Information System. When her family moved to Newton, Massachusetts, she looked for a similar radio station where she could volunteer—and instead found Perkins. “I feel really lucky that [coordinator of volunteer services] Mike Cataruzulo and [studio director] Robert Pierson allowed me to audition to be a narrator, even though they had never had a high school student narrate before,” said Fein.

Since her successful audition, she has recorded three books: A Little Maid of Provincetown, Danger in the Narrows, and Lemonade Mouth. “I have fun narrating! I place myself in the story,” said Fein. “I also know that my hard work gives people a way to enjoy these books. I hope to be able to bring many more wonderful books to life in the Perkins studio.”