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Audio Technology Initiatives
NLS Technical Circulars
Audio Technology Initiatives
We live in the information age, a time of revolutionary change. After years
of planning, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically
Handicapped (NLS) will take advantage of the opportunities this revolution
has brought by moving the talking-book program from analog cassette to
a digital format.
In moving toward this goal, NLS has two major constraints: simplicity and
cost. First, the program must be kept simple because its primary focus is
reading for pleasure. Second, NLS has an inventory of more than 700,000
players and 20,000,000 books on cassettes. The cost of replacing this
inventory is estimated at $150 million.
The basic program must be available to and usable by all eligible
patrons at no charge. Some NLS services are provided to specialized groups
Web-Braille users, for example), but only when the basic product is available
to all (embossed editions for the readers who need them). As digital
talking book (DTB) technology develops, NLS's primary focus must remain
on the core group of patrons receiving the basic service.
Digital technology has made the book a complex artifact. It allows for
many features. The challenge is to incorporate the complexity of the format
and provide the features it makes possible without destroying the simplicity
of the basic reading experience. The following illustrate some aspects of
Digital audio environment
NLS will ensure that the chosen path is the right one for patrons and is
the same one that the rest of the industry is following. Several
projects now under way will help determine that choice.
- To ensure keeping in touch with the industry, NLS collaborates
with both public and private organizations internationally.
- NLS initiated and led the development of a national standard to ensure
that DTBs will be the same no matter who provides services to patrons and that
organizations serving blind readers can share resources.
- User survey
- A study has been undertaken to gather data on user demographics
and physical and cognitive abilities. The study will guide the design of the DTB player
and the book distribution system.
- Life-cycle cost model
- NLS has developed a software tool that projects program
costs under different scenarios.
NLS has set a target date of 2008 to have enough books (20,000 titles)
and players to begin distributing DTBs to patrons.
- DTB procurement
- NLS has issued its first request for proposals (RFP) with detailed
specifications for procurement and quality assurance. Contractors will
begin producing DTBs based on those specifications in 2004.
- NLS plans to convert 10,000 of 40,000 analog recorded titles to
a DTB format. An RFP for the pilot conversion of 200 titles has been issued.
- Digital duplicators
- NLS sponsored the development of a system that allows
network libraries to duplicate analog cassettes from digital masters and to
convert analog recordings to digital format.
- Low-complexity mastering system
- Most commercial digital systems are aimed at recording music rather
than speech. NLS has developed a mastering system that is now being
used in its own studio and is being installed in several network libraries.
- Storage area network
- A DTB is composed of a number of large computer files. A project is
under way to define and procure the hardware and software needed to
manage a collection of book files during recording and quality assurance
- Validation tool
- NLS has completed an automated tool to ensure the accuracy of
the files controlling navigation and playback.
- Production workflow
- NLS is analyzing workflow to prepare for changes required for
While some thought has gone into the possibility of patrons reading books online or
downloading them to their own systems, it is expected that players will continue to be
distributed to a significant number of patrons for some time. The replacement value of
the inventory of NLS cassette players is $100 million, so DTB players will be the single
largest cost item in the project.
NLS is putting significant effort into designing the player. It must be easy to use and
maintain, but it must also provide a minimal set of navigation features such as moving
from chapter to chapter.
- Software player
- NLS has developed software that permits people to read a DTB on a
personal computer and use its navigation features. This will be used to
test and refine features when designing the player.
- Design contest
- NLS sponsored a design contest in conjunction with the Industrial
Designers Society of America. Innovative elements from the 146 entries
will be included in the final design.
- Design consultant
- NLS hired a consultant who helped draft an RFP for designing the DTB
player and the book distribution medium. The RFP will be issued in
- Transition study
- contractor has been hired to develop a production plan for
the phased transition from cassettes to DTBs.
Audio delivery systems
NLS has made significant progress in developing ways to build and store the DTB
collection. The more pressing question is how to get books to more than half a million
patrons. Online access and downloading are not an option for most of them, and NLS
expects to provide books and players through the mail for the foreseeable future.
A number of initiatives to help develop a strategy have been devised.
- Physical book
- Each audio book is now sent as a container of cassettes. For the
2008 target date, it is probably that each book will still be sent on its
own medium most likely a nonvolatile memory (flash memory) cartridge.
Though not final, the selection of flash memory is fairly firm, based
on consultation with a semiconductor expert and discussions with major
producers and users of flash memory.
- Internet delivery
- While the delivery of physical books is expected to remain
central, a steady increase in the number of users getting their materials
over the Internet may be foreseen. NLS plans a pilot study when
enough DTBs are in service for a valid test.
- Other electronic delivery systems
- NLS has held discussions with people who proposed a cable-based
delivery system, and is evaluating a project in Australia and the
United Kingdom aimed at satellite delivery of books.
- On-demand technology
- NLS is investigating the feasibility of producing books on demand
instead of maintaining a collection. The cost of establishing collections in
network libraries at the levels currently maintained for cassettes
may be prohibitive. Also, the space and staff resources needed to house
and circulate collections in network libraries are particularly
burdensome. NLS is therefore looking at an automated system
that would accept a list of books to be mailed to patrons, write
the books to memory cartridges, label them, and prepare and address
mailing containers. Returned books would be recycled. With such a
system, the number of cartridges required would be reduced to the number
in circulation and would level off to a small number purchased
annually for replacement. Network libraries would no longer be required to
shelve audio book collections.
- National distribution center
- NLS is exploring the feasibility of one or several national
distribution centers using on-demand technology. Network libraries would
continue to serve patrons as they do today, except that they would
send electronic files of mailing requests to distribution centers.
Because on-demand technology would be beyond the reach of all but the
largest network libraries, a compromise is sought: network
libraries would house and circulate the 20 percent of the collection
that is in high demand representing 80 percent of the circulation),
and the national centers would use on-demand technology for the rest.
In the early 1990s, NLS instructed braille contractors to provide
electronic copies of the books they produced. That led to two
- Braille books going back to the early 1990s and all new braille
books and magazines are now available online through the Web-Braille system
- Braille replacement volumes
- Sometimes individual volumes of a book get lost and render the
book unusable. A library that has lost a volume can now order a new
embossed, bound copy and put the title back in circulation.
Network library operations
NLS and network libraries are partners. For a long time, NLS has
investigated and developed technology for network libraries in the form
of circulation systems, on-demand labeling systems, and assistance in
developing local recording programs. Among new initiatives are several
related to local book production, for which libraries have been
anxiously waiting. In addition, one initiative that has been under way
for the past few years has been providing some relief to network
libraries in their everyday operations.
- Network library services Web page
- This service relieves libraries of much of the paperwork that comes
with a partnership such as this. Libraries can now use the
Internet to identify and order books from NLS, obtain bibliographic
data for their circulation systems, order supplies, update their own
data in the NLS subscription and inventory databases, send a variety of
forms to NLS, and retrieve publications NLS sends to libraries.
Annual and semiannual statistics are now gathered through this site, which
supports the interlibrary loan service (about 10,000 transactions a month).
General program direction
- Digital Long-Term Planning Group
- This group consists of two members from consumer groups, three state
librarians and eight network librarians, and the director of
the library of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Members
were selected for their demonstrated interest or expertise and their
willingness to speak up on issues of importance. The group was formed to
allow NLS to work more closely with the network on DTB planning and also
to investigate parts of the digital world other than talking-book technologies.
- Commercial audio books
- One of the areas where technology is changing the environment for NLS
is the growing availability of unabridged commercial audio books.
A project is under way to assess the feasibility of purchasing, rather
than producing, audio books that are formatted to NLS standards.
Several of these books have already been produced and distributed
under this project.
A number of technologies have been evaluated, including CD-ROM, hard-disk systems,
and commercial off-the-shelf players. Players close to what NLS needs may be
available, but always require extensive adaptive modifications. NLS plans therefore to
produce a machine that, while based in commercial technology, is designed specifically
for NLS patrons.
While it might be useful to some patrons to receive a player or distribution medium
loaded with many books, it is generally agreed that it would not work for all. NLS can
consider this in the future, after the basic service is in place.
Through this technological revolution and its attendant changes, NLS will continue to
serve its patrons, who may continue to depend on the service to provide high-quality