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NLS Press Release

Design of flash-memory audiobook system will provide new reading options to NLS patrons

For Immediate Release:
June 21, 2005
Contact: Robert E. Fistick
(202) 707-9279 or

Washington, D.C.—In a recent test of user needs patrons of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), the Library of Congress's talking-book program, indicated a preference for smaller, lighter, audio playback machines that are more compatible with on-the-go lifestyles. The study marks a step forward in the NLS project to convert its current cassette system to a digital flash-memory format by 2008.

"Before NLS can give patrons a better experience digitally, we must determine what needs adjusting. That's where user testing comes in," says Frank Kurt Cylke, NLS director. "Feedback on the digital talking-book (DTB) system will ultimately shape the machine's portability and other areas that affect patrons most."

Focus group participants-primarily seniors with low vision, blindness, and physical handicaps-carried out a series of tasks with the current cassette player, including operating the controls, wrapping the power cord for storage, and opening and closing the mailing container. They reviewed player and cartridge shapes, insertion methods, and button shapes and layouts. The tests were conducted in Baltimore; Los Angeles; Clearwater, Florida; and Madison, Wisconsin.

Results indicated a desire for an interface that can be understood regardless of one's technical literacy. Buttons accessible in shape and layout were essential as were built-in audio prompts to guide usage. Librarians wanted a simple interface that could be easily explained and cartridge and packaging design that would increase efficiency in the book-return process.

"These results illustrate just how informed DTB consumers are," says James Gashel, Executive Director for Strategic Initiatives at the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). "Not only do we know exactly what we need from assistive technology, but we can help engineers design for those needs."

Four industry leaders in assistive technology played varying roles in the process. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) developed test procedures and moderated most of the focus groups. HumanWare, formerly VisuAide, managed the tests and identified user needs. The Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin gathered feedback from seniors with multiple disabilities in separate test sessions. Industrial designers from Battelle-a technology innovation firm contracted to create the DTB system-were at each location to observe.

More than 23 million copies of recorded and braille books and magazines were circulated to a readership of 799,718 in 2004. The international Union Catalog provides access to 423,500 titles (19 million copies). Audiobook readers borrow an average of 31 books and magazines a year. Braille readers average 20 books and magazines a year.

An overview of the NLS digital talking-book project may be found in Current Strategic Business Plan for the Implementation of Digital Systems at For enrollment information, visit or call 1-888-NLS-READ (1-888-657-7323).

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Posted on 2011-01-10