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Digital Talking Books: Progress to Date

Digital Braille: Web-Braille Puts Braille Books on the Internet

May 2002

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As NLS continues planning the next generation of audio books, the next generation of braille books has already arrived.

Digital files of NLS-produced braille materials can now be downloaded from the Internet. Thanks to the foresight in the early 1990s of Lois Mandelberg, former head of the NLS Production Control Section, an archive of electronic files, created in the production of embossed braille books, has been retained at NLS since 1992 as backup for possible future use. The dual facts that braille material can now be easily stored on computer disk (affording their easy storage and retrieval using the Internet) as well as that virtually all the books produced by NLS are in grade 2 contracted braille (meaning that these books are in the required "specialized format" that allows their free distribution to eligible users under U.S. copyright law) made Web-Braille possible.

NLS currently has more than 30,000 hard-copy braille titles in its national collection. These paper braille books are circulated to patrons from thirty-two libraries throughout the U.S. At its inception, Web-Braille included nearly 10 percent of the entire NLS braille collection. We now have virtually every braille book produced by NLS in the last ten years on Web-Braille, except for print/braille, foreign language, and grade 1 braille books.

The Web-Braille system makes braille books immediately available. Patrons neither have to await arrival in the mail nor deal with bulky volumes. The system also has obvious advantages for "how-to" and similar information, for which only one volume of several volumes may be needed at a time. Other advantages of downloadable braille books include immediate, twenty-four-hour access to thousands of grade 2 braille books; portability, whereby books can be used on portable refreshable braille devices allowing patrons to carry dozens of braille volumes at once; and searchability, a tremendous advantage when looking for particular short stories, recipes, and the like.

A user needing immediate access to specific information contained in an online braille book (e.g., a recipe in a cookbook or a passage from a poem) can obtain it in a matter of minutes. Alternatively, readers can browse books online to determine if they wish to order embossed copies from their library.

Pilot Phase

The idea for Web-Braille was first proposed by NLS staff in September 1997. While many things were known at that time-for example, the files for producing braille books could be easily read by users with portable refreshable braille equipment, many blind persons were becoming familiar with the Internet, were finding it a viable means for getting information; and Library of Congress servers could provide a good host for downloadable files-many other aspects of the project needed further investigation. These included the user interface to be used, the security measures to limit access to eligible readers, and the system file structure and file naming conventions.

It was decided to conduct a pilot test for which fifty titles were selected from the NLS braille collection. These books, covering a wide variety of subjects, include cookbooks, short story collections, novels, finance, and self-help books. Cataloging records, pulled from the NLS CD-ROM catalog, were reformatted, and from them a web page was created for the user interface, with active links to the braille files. Working with the archived diskettes, each volume of each title was checked, converted to a standard format, and loaded onto a Library of Congress mainframe computer.

In March 1998, a three-month pilot test was launched, whose evaluators were recruited from several electronic mailing lists. More than 175 individuals and institutions agreed to download files, use them with their available equipment, report difficulties, and make suggestions for improvement. Test participants included individuals who read braille, teachers and librarians in public schools, staff of cooperating network libraries, teachers in schools for blind individuals, braille transcribers, and braille producers.

Evaluators used a variety of braille equipment and software so that the downloading and reading process could be tested under a wide range of circumstances. Sixty-two of the individuals used such braille notetakers as Braille Lite and Braille 'n' Speak, which are handheld devices. Braille Lite produces braille by means of pins that rise and lower electronically rather than by generating embossed paper. Braille 'n' Speak converts braille to speech output. Fifty-five participants used braille embossers, and thirty-six used refreshable braille displays.

For Internet web browsers, sixty-four evaluators used Lynx (a text-only browser popular among blind persons) for downloading the files from the Internet, twenty-four used Internet Explorer, and fifteen used Netscape. People logging on to the Internet site were presented with a web page that featured information about the fifty braille books. The listing was arranged by book number and included the title, author, and annotation for each book. Because the files were originally created during the production of the hard-copy braille version, the text was separated into braille volumes. Links on the web page led readers to each volume, which could then be either downloaded for embossing or read online with a braille display. In a seven-week period, there were 2,808 "hits," or accesses, on the Web-Braille page and the braille volumes.

After completing the pilot, users were surveyed for information that proved crucial in designing the full system. Pilot testers gave the service an overwhelmingly favorable review and expressed interest in continuing the program on a permanent basis. Evaluators also provided valuable technical suggestions regarding file structure and naming, downloading instructions, searching capability, adjustable line length, and other issues.

Implementation Phase

In July 1998, NLS decided to make Web-Braille a permanent part of its program. Implementing Web-Braille on a full-scale basis meant that many things still needed to be done. We knew now that user satisfaction was high, and we knew how users would use these electronic materials, but a major challenge remained: how to integrate Web-Braille into a system that previously had not included electronic materials.

The next tasks included:

Once Web-Braille was opened to all eligible users, it was necessary for NLS staff to respond to a flurry of questions from network libraries and patrons. We created a "frequently asked questions" section to answer some of the more frequently occurring concerns.

Ongoing Issues

Piloting and implementing Web-Braille has been a very instructive process, and many aspects of this effort will no doubt provide valuable lessons when NLS pursues similar activities for the digital talking book.

Among the most significant were:

Scope of Audience

Throughout the initial planning stages for Web-Braille, our assumption had been that the primary-and probably only-audience for braille books on the Internet would be technically savvy braille readers. Early in the pilot phase, however, we began hearing from classroom teachers, special educators, media librarians, and the like, all telling us that they desperately needed braille materials for their students. At first, this was puzzling-our libraries had vast quantities of braille books. What was the problem? After many conversations with these educators, a clearer picture emerged. Apparently, all braille readers in a given state in a specific grade are likely to need the same book at the same time. This could mean that as many as twenty or thirty copies of Pride and Prejudice might be needed, and the library would have only one or two copies at the most. In addition, the problem was a matter of budget. While few school districts have budgets that enable them to purchase multiple copies of Pride and Prejudice, it is entirely possible for them to emboss as many copies as needed.

At present, nearly half of those who have registered for Web-Braille are, in one way or another, connected with the educational system. We have communicated with dozens of teachers who are enthusiastic about braille for their students and are encouraged that they can get these materials from the Internet.

Staff Training

Maintaining Web-Braille has meant that a number of NLS staff find it necessary to acquire skills not previously needed for their jobs. New duties include electronic file preparation and checking, server maintenance, and various skills associated with using the Internet. Many regional library staff, as well, have also had to acquire skills to register Web-Braille users online and respond knowledgeably to patron inquiries.

User Support

Users of Web-Braille employ a dizzying variety of software and hardware to access the system including operating systems from the latest version of Windows to proprietary systems running on dedicated notetakers, more than a dozen different web browsers, a variety of speech and braille screen readers, numerous brands and models of braille displays, braille embossers, and other specialized products. User support has thus been especially challenging, because each user's problem presents its own unique issues. It is increasingly clear that only the most general situations can be addressed with "Frequently Asked Questions."

Recent Developments and Next Steps

Books are added to Web-Braille at the rate of about forty per month. As each grade 2 braille book, embossed for the collection, is approved for shipment, the files are routinely transferred to the Web-Braille system. To learn of and access the latest Web-Braille titles, patrons can browse the online version of Braille Book Review, locate a title of interest, and (after entering their valid user ID and password) select the desired volume to view or download.

In July 2000, links added to the NLS online catalog for each Web-Braille title enabled users to enjoy the sophisticated search capabilities of a full-scale catalog system. Once the record for a title is located in the catalog, eligible Web-Braille users can directly access each volume via the provided links.

In May 2001, all NLS-produced magazines were added to Web-Braille. To this end, many additional issues had to be resolved, since NLS does not receive the braille files used to emboss the hard copy. The procedure is for braille producers to transfer magazine files into secure locations that have been created for this purpose. If an automated process, scanning these locations twice a day, detects a new file, the automated process loads the file into Web-Braille. The magazine name, issue date, and part number are determined from the name of the file, and the automatically generated web page presents users with the list of available issues.

In late 2001, NLS began testing newly developed optical braille recognition software's capability to scan physical braille books and store them as grade 2 braille files. By thus scanning older braille titles, we could add classic literature, prequels to existing Web-Braille titles, and other books of interest to Web-Braille users.

In December 2001, one music magazine and nearly two hundred braille musical scores were added to Web-Braille.

At this writing, Web-Braille has been launched for 2-1/2 years. We have over 1,800 registered users and more than 4,000 titles on the site. User feedback from individuals and schools continues to be extremely positive. For many, Web-Braille provides a whole new way to access library materials-a chance to browse and select a book after having given it a thorough perusal. Web-Braille is another element in the ongoing movement to enhance braille literacy among blind persons-a movement that is heartily endorsed by blind persons and librarians alike.

Judith M. Dixon
Consumer Relations Officer

Prologue --- Twenty Steps to Next-Generation NLS Technology --- Work Accomplished to Date --- Nine Tasks to Implement the Use of Digital Talking Books --- Digital Braille: Web-Braille Puts Braille Books on the Internet --- Bibliography

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Posted on 2013-06-28