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NLS Technical Writings

Digital Talking Books: Planning for the Future

July 1998

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On March 3, 1931, the Library of Congress was authorized 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 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 mandate in 1931 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 with other physical impairments that prevent the reading of regular printed materials.

From an initial appropriation of $75,000 to be used for talking books, the free national library program's funding has grown to a level of nearly $47 million in fiscal year 1998.

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 recorded disc and cassette. Reading materials are distributed to a cooperating network of regional and subregional (local) 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.


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 $140 million annually.


Anyone unable to read or use standard printed materials as a result of temporary or permanent visual or physical limitations 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

Books are selected on the basis of their appeal to a wide range of interests. Bestsellers, biographies, fiction, and how-to books are in great demand. Fifty-five languages arerepresented by books in the collection. Registered borrowers learn of new books added to the collection through two bimonthly publications. Using a union catalog available on microfiche and in computerized form, users have access to the entire NLS book collection and to 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 is directed toward improving the quality of reading materials and playback equipment, controlling program costs, and reducing 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 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 working groups.


In FY98, 784,000 users read braille and audio books and periodicals. Of that number, 752,000 read audio cassettes and flexible 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. Readers with very limited mobility may request a playback machine with a remote-control unit. Hearing-impaired readers may be eligible for an auxiliary amplifier for 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 machines exceeds 812,000 units (about 672,000 cassette players and 140,000 disc players) valued at approximately $99,254,000 when originally purchased.

Available reading materials listed in the NLS union catalog exceed 163,000 audio titles in approximately 16 million copies.


Ever-changing audio technology requires that NLS always be aware of developments and prepare carefully for any systemic changes that may be desired or required. Usefulness, cost effectiveness, thoughtful stewardship, and educated oversight are the major criteria by which any audio reading program must 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.

Because any major change in the program will affect nearly three million eligible users and require several hundred million dollars in investment, any proposal for change must be carefully reviewed and evaluated.

The following pages describe in detail the Library of Congress/NLS approach to changing to digitally based audio technology. The staff strives to be thorough, imaginative, and open to influence by appropriate audio technology developments outside NLS.

The NLS approach is to have managers, engineers, technicians, librarians, and users bring varying perspectives and talents to bear on the challenge of developing the best possible talking-book program for the twenty-first century. Their efforts will result in a proposal for a Talking Book Digital Conversion Project, a project that will provide the best approach for developing a cost-effective, user-friendly library program serving blind and physically handicapped residents of the United States and U.S. citizens living abroad.


To gain a perspective on past and current Library of Congress audio activities for the blind, the following NLS publications may be examined: Facts: Books for Blind and Physically Handicapped Individuals, the NLS fact sheet; 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, Director, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

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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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Posted on 2013-06-28