Skip to main content


Text Size

Catalog Search

1-888-NLS-READ (1-888-657-7323)

July–September Newsletter

In this Issue

Special Report: NLS on the Move

Network Exchange

Analog to digital conversion completed

Collection Development Advisory Group meets

NLS retires the C-1

Special Report: NLS on the Move

By David Pelizzari

NLS is on the move, exploring ways to use technology to meet our patrons’ needs as reliably, easily, and responsibly as possible. In this special issue of News, we’ll give you a behind-the-scenes look at four pilot projects that will help NLS and its nationwide network of cooperating libraries get more braille and audio books and magazines to more patrons, faster than ever before.

But first: Have you seen the new NLS website? It launched in July at It takes advantage of responsive information architecture and navigation features to better serve our patrons who are blind, have low vision, or are disabled—but it also has visual appeal for the sighted visitors who are looking for news and information about our program. (For the next few months, while we continue to move older material to the new site, we’ll keep a link to the previous site displayed on the home page.)

This fall we also celebrate the completion of another big project: the conversion of tens of thousands of NLS books from analog tape to our current digital platform and the retirement of the C-1 cassette machine, a workhorse of our program for three decades. You can read more about that later in this issue.

“Technology is exciting in itself,” director Karen Keninger says, “but much more exciting is how it advances the ability of NLS and its network to serve our patrons who cannot read in conventional formats.” Duplication-on-demand. Synthetic speech. Wireless downloads. Braille eReaders. Read on to discover what’s just around the corner for the nation’s braille and talking book program.

NLS engineer Lloyd Rasmussen demonstrates a prototype wireless download device.
NLS engineer Lloyd Rasmussen demonstrates a prototype wireless download device, which is about the same size as a digital talking-book machine.

Wireless downloads

Simple devices with “built-in” wireless service can act as a wireless mail carrier for patrons, dissolving many barriers to access. Think of it as similar to the ease with which people can download a movie and then play it on their own device—as opposed to driving to the mall and buying a DVD. Plus, it’s nearly instantaneous. After a book has been downloaded via this simple device, the patron can play the cartridge on an NLS digital talking-book machine or compatible third-party player—and use it again and again to receive more books.

Wireless transmission of talking-book files directly to patrons can make their interactions with their network library quicker and more personalized. A simple wireless device would allow even technologically unsophisticated patrons or those without standard computer or mobile access to receive NLS services.

Current use of talking books on cartridges by NLS patrons requires complex interactions among NLS, the network of cooperating libraries, the post office, and the patron. The process requires many steps of contact, downloading, shipping, playback, and return of materials.

Baseline research for trial phase, including internal device testing, is now complete. Now prepping for wider network testing this fall.

Pilot participants will be distributed among network libraries nationwide.

Several Perkins Library patrons try their new eReaders.
Participants in the eReader pilot began receiving machines at Perkins in August.

Braille eReader

Refreshable braille displays—braille eReaders—turn a digital braille file instantaneously into braille for tactile reading. They have been around for four decades, but their cost put them out of reach of many. Now eReaders are becoming more affordable and easier to operate, and NLS is preparing for their wider use among its patrons. NLS is working with the Perkins Library in Watertown, Massachusetts, on a pilot to evaluate how best to distribute braille files to patrons with eReaders, what the overall ease of use is, and what demands might be placed on network library logistics and tech support.

Wide and affordable distribution of digital braille files to individual patrons’ refreshable braille displays.

Press braille publications require large staffs, budgets, storage, circulation systems, and shipping systems in order to reach end-user patrons.

Kick-off with the Perkins Library was held August 3; read about the event on the library’s blog at Pilot will last about nine months.

Two hundred patrons associated with the Perkins Library eventually will participate in the pilot.


When the distribution of digital talking books (DTBs) on cartridges began, it mirrored the system used for books on cassette—one book per cartridge, which circulated to patrons and was stored until required. It is now possible with Duplication-on-Demand to create a customized cartridge containing books selected for, or requested by, an individual patron. For libraries that choose to use it, Duplication-on-Demand makes all the titles in the NLS collection available all the time for all patrons, without requiring libraries to stock physical copies of books or to anticipate demand.

Just-in-time duplication of talking-book cartridges “on demand” at network libraries.

NLS will be moving away from production of physical copies of DBs in the next five to ten years. Duplication-on-Demand would enable a network library to reach that goal sooner.

Pilot has begun; libraries are circulating Duplication-on-Demand cartridges to patrons.

NLS network libraries in Arkansas, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, North Dakota, and Virginia (two libraries)—all of which use the WebReads library automation system—will test duplication-on-demand.

A talking-book narrator reads in the NLS studio as a monitor listens in.
Live human narration will always be the gold standard for NLS recording, but improvements in synthetic speech have made it a viable option for some material.

Synthetic speech

New synthetic speech technologies use a more realistic voice to read just about anything—without sounding like a robot. There is no replacing the human voice for recording the text of books, but advances in synthetic speech could allow NLS to make available material that previously wasn’t recorded, such as lengthy notes, bibliographies, or other repetitious information—and more cookbooks! Time-sensitive materials also could be produced more quickly using synthetic speech. However, the user experience needs to be tested with NLS patrons before synthetic speech can be widely used.

Augmenting talking books with material that would otherwise be left unrecorded due to time and economic limitations; improving the timeliness of certain offerings; making more ephemeral or specialized texts available.

Human voice recording for talking books is ideal, but production is costly and time-consuming. That makes it hard to justify the voice recording of ancillary material such as appendices, bibliographies, and notes. The time required for voice production also delays time-sensitive materials and is too expensive for ephemeral materials.

Synthetic “test” texts now prepared; finalizing roll-out to pilot participants for late summer 2017.

One hundred patrons across four NLS network libraries will participate in the pilot.

Network Exchange

A blind boy tries out an electric guitar.
A BELL Academy participant tries out a guitar.

Pennsylvania: For the second year in a row, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (LBPH) hosted the Braille Enrichment for Literacy & Learning (BELL) Academy’s Growing Readers and Growing Leaders summer program.

Sponsored by National Federation of the Blind, the program provides hands-on activities and braille crafts and encourages independent living skills for children ages four to twelve who are blind or have low vision.

Among the highlights was a visit from a local music store that brought drums, a flute, a trombone, and other instruments for the children to try out. “It was a noisy day at LBPH, but we didn’t mind,” said the library’s children’s specialist, Briana Albright.

Illinois. The 250 participants in the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired’s Spring into Braille program this year read a total of 175,970 pages of braille. Five lucky readers won $50 gift cards at the end of the program, which ran from April 3 through May 31. Anyone who reads braille can take part in the annual program, which began in 2012.

Oregon. The Talking Book and Braille Library launched a social media campaign this summer that will run through the end of the year. Using the hashtag #TalkingBookTuesday, staff members share a post each week across Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. Subjects for posts include happenings at the library, outreach activities, summer reading reminders, and book-to-movie announcements.

“We try to balance the number of posts that are purely about our library with posts that link to outside sources,” said Joel Henderson, the library’s user accounts coordinator. “The ultimate goal is to build a strong local following so we can connect not just with our users, but with people who may know potential users, like family members, friends, co-workers, and fellow parishioners.”

Ohio. Congratulations to William “Will” Reed, manager of the Ohio Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled in Cleveland, on receiving the 2017 Cathleen Bourdon Service Award. The award, presented by the Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies, recognizes Reed’s work as an advocate for information access and for people with print disabilities. Among other activities, Reed served on the committee revising the Standards and Guidelines of Service for NLS network libraries.

Visit us on Facebook at for more stories from our network libraries!

Analog to digital conversion: Mission accomplished

By Mark Schwartz and Mark Layman

NLS will soon celebrate the completion of a project that began in 2003—and kicked into high gear in 2010—to convert thousands of older books from analog cassettes to digital audio.

The benefit to patrons of the analog-to-digital transition can perhaps best be illustrated with a story not from, but about, the Bible.

Famed actor Alexander Scourby’s monumental recording of the King James Version of the Old and New Testaments has been part of the NLS collection for decades. One set released on vinyl in 1964 required 68 records that played at 16-2/3 rpm—half the speed of commercial LPs.

A woman draws while listening to a book on a C-1 cassette talking-book machine.
In this NLS poster series image from 2006, a patron with low vision uses a C-1 machine to listen to a cassette book.

Things got a little easier for patrons when NLS released Scourby’s complete recording on cassette tapes—15 of them.
But in 2010, NLS released all 79 hours and 2 minutes of Scourby’s Old and New Testaments on one—just one!—digital cartridge. The recording was simultaneously made available for patrons to download from BARD.

At the time, The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments was one of about 3,000 titles that NLS offered on digital cartridge.

Today, NLS patrons can choose from 95,000 titles on digital cartridge and/or on BARD. That includes more than 42,000 titles previously available on cassettes that have been converted to digital.

With the wrap-up of the analog-to-digital conversion, NLS has retired its C-1 cassette book machine, a workhorse of the program for more than 30 years. NLS began distributing books on cassette tapes in 1969. Over time, NLS incorporated improvements to increase the playing time of a tape, such as a slower playback speed (15/16 inches per second, half the speed of commercial tapes) and four-track rather than two-track recording.

NLS began distributing modified commercial cassette machines in the late 1960s; the first model built to NLS specs came out in 1973. The C-1 was introduced in 1981. The last C-1—the 1,248,113th—was delivered to NLS on March 1, 2007. Including earlier models, a total of 1.5 million cassette book machines were manufactured and distributed over nearly 40 years to more than 25 million NLS patrons.

“The analog-to-digital conversion has been a major undertaking for NLS, especially since 2010,” NLS director Karen Keninger said. “So many of the classics and really good old books were on cassette. Our patrons wanted them in the new format to take advantage of digital’s fantastic sound quality and easier navigation and the instant access that BARD provides. It’s great to finally be able to say, ‘mission accomplished’ on this particular effort—but we’re also happy that a couple of years of new adventures lie ahead.”

Three CDAG members read a proposal on a laptop computer.
CDAG members Laura Williams, Stephanie Wambaugh, and Susan Hammer-Schneider review a proposal.

Collection Development advisors hold biennial meeting

By Gabrielle Barnes

CDAG members

Organization Representatives
Susan Glass (American Council of the Blind)
Wade Davis (Blinded Veterans Association)
Marci Carpenter (National Federation of the Blind)

Gloster Williams (Midlands Conference)
Linda Goodspeed (Northern Conference)
Eddie Weaver (Southern Conference)
Peggy Chong (Western Conference)

Laura Williams (Midlands Conference)
Marilyn Stevenson (Northern Conference)
Josh Berkov (Southern Conference)
Susan Hammer-Schneider (Western Conference)
Stephanie Wambaugh (Children’s/Young Adult)

NLS should add an author and series “subscription” option to BARD to notify patrons when a new series title or book by their favorite author has become available, the Collection Development Advisory Group (CDAG) recommended at its meeting this spring.

The advisory group—made up of staff from network libraries, representatives of groups that serve people who are blind or disabled, and patrons—meets every two years. This year’s meeting was held May 24–26 in the Library of Congress Madison Building on Capitol Hill, since the NLS building in Northwest Washington is being renovated.

Apart from an orientation to collection-building by NLS selection librarians and a tour of the Library’s historic Jefferson Building, the dozen committee members spent three days discussing ideas for improving the braille and talking book collection. They were assisted by NLS Consumer Relations Officer Judith Dixon.

On the last day of its meeting, CDAG presented 14 recommendations to a room full of NLS staffers.

One recommendation called on NLS to allow network libraries to submit their locally produced magazines to BARD in a manner similar to the current network-produced books program, which would substantially increase the number of magazines available to patrons nationwide.

A few recommendations focused on expanding the foreign language collection, such as adding a broader range of fiction and nonfiction titles in Spanish and acquiring more books in other foreign languages including French, Mandarin, and Farsi.

The group also recommended that the Music Section supplement its collection of braille and large-print scores with pieces for a wider array of instruments, such as harp, horns, and reeds.

CDAG commended NLS staff for acting on many of the recommendations from its 2015 meeting, including producing braille titles without regard to their length; adding different genres of books to the children, young adult, and adult collections; and adding magazines including AARP publications, O, the Oprah Magazine, and Rolling Stone.

“NLS is grateful for the work that CDAG and our other advisory groups do to help us maintain a collection that is both diverse and relevant to satisfy patrons’ reading wishes,” said Edmund O’Reilly, head of the Collection Development Section.


A C-1 cassette talking-book machine rests in a makeshift coffin.

Saying goodbye to a workhorse of the NLS program

With the analog-to-digital conversion project nearing its completion, NLS has officially retired its C-1 cassette machine. More than 1.2 million C-1s were made for NLS; the last one was delivered ten years ago. The California Braille and Talking Book Library (BTBL) in Sacramento held a mock funeral for the C-1 after the digital conversion began. A digital cartridge mailing container was among the mourners. Read more about the analog-to-digital project, and the legacy of the C-1, in Analog to digital conversion completed. (Photo courtesy of Mary Jane Kayes, BTBL Librarian.)