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NLS Technical Writings

Digital Talking Books: Progress to Date


May 2002

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On March 3, 1931, Congress authorized the Library of Congress to initiate the Books for the Adult Blind Project. On July 1 of the same year, the first braille titles for the collection were procured. In 1932 "talking books" were being developed for the Library of Congress by the American Foundation for the Blind, and a sound reproduction machine was produced in 1933. Free mailing of talking books was approved by Congress in 1934, and by 1935 the Library of Congress talking-book program was in full operation.

From its 1931 mandate to serve blind adults, the program was expanded in 1952 to include children, in 1962 to provide music materials, and again in 1966 to include individuals whose other physical impairments prevent their reading regular printed materials.

From an initial appropriation of $75,000 to be used for talking books, the national free library program's funding has grown to $49.788 million in fiscal year 2002.

Today under a special provision of the U.S. Copyright law and with the permission of authors and publishers of works not covered by the provision, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) within the Library of Congress selects and produces full-length books and magazines in braille and on cassette. Reading materials are distributed to a cooperating network of regional and subregional libraries, where they are circulated to eligible borrowers. Reading materials and playback machines are sent to borrowers and returned to libraries by postage-free mail. U.S. citizens living abroad receive service directly from NLS in Washington, D.C.


The NLS program is funded annually by the U.S. Congress. Regional and subregional libraries receive funding from federal, state, and local sources. Under an additional appropriation to the U.S. Postal Service, books and materials are mailed as "Free Matter for the Blind or Handicapped." The combined expenditure for the program exceeds $160 million annually.


Anyone unable to read or use standard printed materials as a result of temporary or permanent visual or physical limitation may receive service. In 1979, a survey sponsored by the Library of Congress found that two million persons with some type of visual impairment, and another one million with physical conditions such as paralysis, missing hands or arms, lack of muscle coordination, or prolonged weakness may be eligible to register for the service.

Book and Magazine Materials

NLS selects books on the basis of their appeal to a wide range of interests. Bestsellers, biographies, fiction, and how-to books are in great demand. Books in fifty-five languages constitute the collection. Registered borrowers learn of books newly added to the collection through two bimonthly publications. Using a union catalog available in computerized form, eligible readers have access to the entire NLS book collection as well as the resources of cooperating agencies worldwide.

Consumer Relations

A consumer relations office maintains regular contact with consumer groups and individual users of the program to identify and resolve service problems and to ensure that users' needs are met. Consumers contribute to program development by participating in surveys, evaluating new equipment, and serving on advisory committees. Those with a technical aptitude are also welcome to participate in audio-book-development discussions.

Research and Development

The NLS research program aims to improve the quality of reading materials and playback equipment, control program costs, and reduce the time required to deliver services to users. Recent research activities include (1) an evaluation of the braille and audio magazine program, (2) the development of a standard for digital talking books (DTBs), (3) a study of the application of digital techniques to NLS recorded material, and (4) the thorough investigation of recent and potential audio technologies for use in the program. The DAISY (Digital Audio-based Information System) Consortium is working on many of the same issues surrounding the development of digital talking books. NLS is closely monitoring their work, participating in key committee meetings, and has included DAISY members in NISO (National Information Standards Organization) working groups.


In FY01, 695,907 users read braille and audio books and periodicals. Of that number, 663,781 read both books and periodicals on audio cassettes and discs.

Audio Book Reading

Playback equipment is loaned free to readers for as long as they continue to borrow recorded materials provided by NLS and its cooperating libraries. Talking-book machines are designed to play disc books and magazines recorded at 8 rpm and 16 rpm; cassette machines are designed for cassettes recorded at 15/16 ips and the standard speed of 1-7/8 ips on 2 and 4 tracks. A reader with very limited mobility may request a playback machine with a remote-control unit. A hearing-impaired reader may be eligible for an auxiliary amplifier to use with headphones. A cassette machine designed primarily for persons with limited manual dexterity is available, as is one that plays both discs and cassettes. The inventory of active audio cassette machines is 713,082. In addition there are 167,550 disc players.

Available audio and braille reading materials listed in the NLS union catalog exceed 390,000 audio titles in approximately 21 million copies. Of these 247,000 are audio files.


Ever changing audio technology requires that NLS always be aware of developments in the field but prepare carefully for any desired or required systemic changes. Because any major change in the program will affect nearly three million eligible users and require several hundred million dollars in investment, all proposals for change must be carefully reviewed and evaluated.

Usefulness, cost effectiveness, thoughtful stewardship, and educated oversight are the major criteria by which any audio reading program may be judged. Library of Congress/NLS professional staff work to apply these criteria to all facets of our program, with regular assistance from appropriate public- and private-sector experts.

NLS senior staff describe in detail in the following pages the Library of Congress/NLS approach to conversion to digitally based audio technology. They strive to be thorough, imaginative, and open to influence by appropriate audio-technology developments outside NLS.

At NLS managers, engineers, technicians, librarians, and users contribute varying perspectives and talents to the challenge of developing the best possible talking-book program for the twenty-first century. Their combined efforts will result in a proposal for a Talking Book Digital Conversion Project, a project to find the best means of developing another cost-effective, user-friendly library program.

At this writing the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped has determined that digital service will begin to be offered in April 2008. At that time 20,000 retrospective audio titles will be available in a digital form, with full digital production of current titles to commence in 2004. Thus, there will be more than 8,000 of these also available in 2008.

NLS plans to have 50,000 digital sound reproducers available in 2008, with approximately 50,000 produced each year thereafter.

In sum, the NLS staff works diligently to initiate a digital audio program in six years. The following articles will detail plans to advance this goal.


For a perspective on past and current Library of Congress audio activities for blind people, the following NLS publications may be examined: Facts: Books for Blind and Physically Handicapped Individuals 2002, the NLS factsheet; That All May Read: Library Service for Blind and Physically Handicapped People; and Talking Books: Pioneering and Beyond, by Marilyn Majeska. Many comments in preceding paragraphs first appeared in these sources. (Full publication information may be found in the bibliography)

Frank Kurt Cylke
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

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