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Digital Talking Books: Planning for the Future

July 1998

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Twenty Steps to Next-Generation NLS Technology


In designing and implementing next-generation technology for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, we must address the following questions.

  1. When do we change?
  2. What do we change to?
  3. How will we know it's cheaper?


This is a summary of steps that must be taken to design and implement next-generation NLS technology. Two factors motivate change: cost and patron expectations. As digital methods supplant analog methods in the consumer entertainment market, older technology becomes obsolete and expensive. Furthermore, features available only with digital technology are likely to be in demand by patrons. Future system access will likely be via two routes: electronic communication of book data and postal delivery of media and players. (In this section, "digital talking book" [DTB] and "book data" include magazines.)

In this summary, we focus on replacing about 672,000 cassette tape players with digital players. This move involves a major cost risk. Before replacing all the tape players, we plan to develop and provide software-only players and accompanying software. The book data (the media) are likely to be distributed through regional centers, which will, in turn, distribute them by mail or provide direct electronic connections to patrons.

To the extent that a list format allows, the steps are presented in order of dependency, which is roughly chronological. Many activities, however, are done concurrently. While the introduction above is framed in deceptively simple terms, scanning the outline below will help the reader realize how complex the process really is. The key to success is managing risk at every step by pursuing multiple options.

Design Phase

The design phase, discussed in detail in an earlier section, comprises eleven steps and will require about five years. The hallmarks of the design phase will be a system approach, low cost, low risk, and high visibility.

  1. Define and prioritize digital talking-book (DTB) features.
    1. Propose mandatory, desirable, and specialized categories.
    2. Use National Information Standards Organization (NISO) process involving community of users, librarians, advocacy groups, manufacturers, producers, international borrowers, and lenders.

  2. Simulate a DTB using a personal computer.
    1. Test feasibility and patron interest in features.
    2. Develop and refine user control preferences.
    3. For risk control, build several simulations based on different software approaches.

  3. Develop a computer-based cost-analysis tool for the NLS system and candidate digital systems.
    1. Build a historical cost data set.
    2. Examine and forecast long-term trends.
    3. Estimate critical decision points.
    4. Determine cost range within which DTB adoption is feasible.

  4. When the book simulation is stable, make it available to evaluators worldwide.
    1. With NISO approval, make changes suggested by evaluators.
    2. Develop software to test and certify NISO compliance of DTBs.

  5. Design and build a prototype digital collection-accessing and -archiving system.
    1. Write software to convert familiar NLS analog products to NISO-compliant digital files; select titles and convert them to NISO format.
    2. While strictly limiting the number of subscribers, open the system to remote access for further evaluation as a model for regional access.

  6. Select an acceptable copyright protection system.
    1. Propose the use of a system accepted for consumer entertainment such as the Content Scrambling System for digital video discs.
    2. If A is not acceptable, consult publishers, and design and propose a minimum-cost acceptable system.
    3. Obtain NISO concurrence; test real-time decoding.

  7. Develop DTB computer software for production and presentation.
    1. Build authoring tools for DTB production by both volunteers and professionals.
    2. Begin digital mastering with concurrent text linking in NISO format.
    3. Compare concurrent audio/text linking with software linking.
    4. Build modular playback software for multiple platforms.
    5. Establish DTB software facility for maintenance configuration control.

  8. Examine distribution methods from a systems perspective, focusing on cost and convenience.
    1. Design mixed electronic and media-delivery systems such as
      • Electronic delivery direct to patrons from regional centers and, for special cases, from a national center.
      • Postal delivery of media made at regional centers and, for special cases, of media made at a national center.
    2. When considering costs, include regional production, storage, and packaging.
    3. When considering convenience, include ease of system operation and use by patrons, librarians, machine-lending agencies (MLAs), volunteer producers, and international borrowers.
    4. Write options paper expressing technological choices in a decision matrix; use cost-analysis tool developed in step 3.

  9. Select players that best express the features in the NISO digital talking-book standard.
    1. For cost control and acceptance, use components of popular entertainment hardware where feasible.
    2. Design and test user interfaces required for NISO DTB compliance.

  10. Build multiple prototypes.
    1. Implement an evaluation plan to find user preference.
    2. Implement an evaluation plan to assess effects on regional libraries, MLAs, postal delivery, manufacturers, duplicators, contract studios, volunteer studios, and repair organizations.

  11. Design and implement prototype testing to determine life-cycle cost.
    1. Predict theoretical reliability (mean time between failures) and test for actual performance; identify vulnerable components.
    2. Develop a maintenance plan that specifies
      • Which components can be repaired.
      • Which components must be replaced.
      • Range, depth, positioning, and value of spare parts.
    3. Predict life-cycle cost (dollars per patron, per year) and forecast the pay-back point using the cost model developed in step 3.

Implementation Phase

The implementation phase, discussed in detail in the next section, comprises nine steps and will require about five years. This phase will be characterized by high risk, high cost, and high visibility.

  1. Narrow player and media choices by selection via decision matrix.

    1. For the chosen players, refine cost estimates and package design, storage, and maintenance; get postal approval for packaging.
    2. For the chosen media, refine cost estimates and package design and storage; get postal approval for packaging.
    3. Consider safety, pest control, and pilfering.

  2. Design and test catalog access and ordering system.
    1. Consider patron privacy and library personnel resources.
    2. Automate catalog update from NLS.

  3. Design and test circulation- and inventory-management software for libraries, MLAs, and NLS.
    1. Build in self-identification of players (for audit purposes).
    2. Build in statistical reporting that ensures patron privacy.

  4. Design and test software for international lending.
    1. Ensure that international copyright requirements are met.
    2. Design and test software for conversion of books to international format.
    3. Test electronic and media delivery methods.

  5. Evaluate player manufacturers and communications providers.
    1. Qualify manufacturers with sufficient and available production capacity.
    2. Establish methods for getting the best value in communications.
    3. Ensure that all government procurement regulations are satisfied.
    4. Award manufacturing and communications contracts.

  6. Operate digital and cassette systems simultaneously.
    1. Scale back production of cassette book machines.
    2. Produce 1,000 to 5,000 digital players for field evaluation.
    3. Further evaluate electronic delivery, at least to regional centers.

  7. Begin full-scale production and deployment of digital equipment.
    1. Set up QA process at manufacturer(s).
    2. Set up QA process at warranty repair and volunteer repair facilities.
    3. Cease production of cassette players; continue repair for ten years.

  8. Establish a method for continuous patron evaluation of the new system.
    1. Update player software in response to patron preferences and library support needs.
    2. Establish maintenance process for player and software documentation; include configuration control.

  9. Establish a method for continuous evaluation of infrastructure.
    1. Include librarians, MLAs, international borrowers, and lenders.
    2. Include configuration control.

John Cookson, Head, Engineering Section

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prologue --- planning --- NISO --- activity planning --- 20 steps --- 9 tasks --- consumer involvement

bibliography --- appendix i: details in implementation --- appendix ii: overview of contracting approach

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