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Report of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped 2012

Library of Congress
Submitted to Committees on Appropriations of the House and Senate
As requested by the Committee on Appropriations, U.S. House of Representatives
In House Report 112-148 on the Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill, 2012
[H.R. 2551]
September 2012


This document was prepared under the auspices of the Office of the Director, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), with support from Ducrest Associates, Arlington, Virginia. It is the result of in-depth research and analysis by Jerome Ducrest. Edmund O’Reilly, Head of Collection Development, NLS, served as principal author.

Karen A. Keninger

Director, NLS

September 24, 2012



  1. Background.
  2. THE NLS Mission
  3. The people served by NLS.
    1. Demographics.
      1. Blind and Visually Impaired.
      2. Physically Disabled.
      3. Reading Disabled.
      4. Veterans
    2. NLS Patrons Who Are Braille Readers.
    3. Reviews of Existing Research.
      1. Surveys of Blind and Disabled Populations
      2. Survey of Program Users and Eligible Non-Users
    4. Summary
    1. Learning Ally (Formerly Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic—RFB&D).
    2. American Printing House for the Blind.
    3. BookShare
    4. NewsLine.
    5. Third-Party Talking-Book Players
    6. Mainstream Mobile Devices.
    7. Refreshable Braille Equipment.
    8. Public Libraries
  5. Priority 1: Maintain the highest quality standards possible for all NLS products and services
    1. The Network of Cooperating Libraries
    2. Multistate Centers
    3. Music Products and Services
      1. Current Music Operations.
      2. Future Music Operations
    4. Services to Overseas Patrons
    5. Collection Development
    6. Bibliographic and Cataloging Operations
    7. Modifications and Enhancements to NLS Information Systems
      1. BPHICS and CMLS
      2. PICS
      3. READS.
      4. XESS.
    8. Local Recording
    9. NLS Facilities
    1. The NLS Recorded Cassette Collection.
      1. Current Recorded-Cassette Book Operations.
      2. Future Cassette Book Operations.
    2. Audio Magazines on Recorded Cassettes.
    3. Cassette Book Machines
    4. Rigid Discs, Flexible Discs, and Talking-Book Machines.
    5. Digital Talking Books on Cartridges
      1. Duplication on Demand of Digital Books.
      2. Summary.
    6. Digital Audio Magazines on Cartridges
    7. Digital Talking-Book Machines.
      1. Digital Talking-Book Players in Current Operations
      2. Digital Talking-Book Players in Future Operations
    8. United States Postal Service
    9. Braille and Audio Reading Download System
    10. Smartphone Access.
    1. Copyright.
    3. Commercial Audiobooks
    4. E-books.
    5. Analog-to-Digital Conversion of Existing NLS Materials
    1. Braille
    2. Braille Production
    3. Hard-Copy Braille Books
    4. Electronic Braille
    5. Production and Storage
    6. Summary
    1. Survey Current and Potential Patrons to Discovery Wants, Needs, Barriers, and Opportunities for Improving and Expanding Services
    2. Implement Social Media Campaigns to Raise Awareness of NLS and Network Services
    3. Revise NLS Web Pages.
    4. Develop Partnerships with Organizations Representing a High Percentage of Potential Eligible Patrons.
    5. Evaluate, Revise, and Implement Continuing National Outreach Campaign

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House Report language directs the NLS to:

  • Take a close look at the future of its legacy programs, and
  • Conduct a detailed study of entire mix of products and services examining how changing demographics are influencing the customer base and new technologies offering new and different service alternatives.

NLS and its network libraries provide free and accessible library services to all Americans who cannot read standard print because of a visual, physical, or organically based reading disability. Embodied in its legislation are the beliefs that literacy and access to information are critical elements of success in education, employment, community and family life.

NLS works to ensure that all eligible individuals can access NLS-created materials regardless of their age, physical disabilities, economic circumstances, or technical expertise. The range of eligible individuals is vast, from a veteran who was blinded in Afghanistan and would like to download content on his smartphone, to an 80-year-old with macular degeneration who cannot afford a personal computer, to an individual who has been blind since childhood and can read braille in physical form but would not be able to learn to download content even if the technological means were made available to her. Because the range of Americans who cannot read standard print is so diverse, a mix of delivery options is essential.

Congress has supported programs that meet the needs of the diverse segments of the NLS user population and continue to evolve, in particular Digital Talking Books on flash cartridges, played on NLS-provided machines, which currently serve 85 percent of NLS patrons. NLS anticipates a demographically-driven increase in eligibility, based on the experience of late-onset vision loss of a growing population of people who are 60 or older. Braille services continue to advance, principally through the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) system, currently serving 15 percent of NLS patrons, with an anticipated 150 percent increase in users over the next five years. NLS continues to enhance the BARD to produce an infrastructure that will accommodate increasing content and an expanding user base.

NLS will continue to phase out old technology. Cassettes will be phased out over the next five years. All libraries will remove their cassette collections and machines and all relevant titles currently available only on cassette will be converted to digital format. The Direct-Mail Audio Magazine Program, which is migrating from cassette to digital talking-book format on flash cartridges, will be discontinued in fiscal 2013 when this migration is complete.

NLS understands that the demographic of potential users is changing along with the U.S. population. Today, 63 percent of NLS patrons are 60 years or older, 26 percent are of working age and 6 percent are under 20.* Eighty-five percent of the NLS patron base continues to use traditional physical formats and specialized talking-book machines. NLS anticipates an increase in eligible patrons because of population and demographic factors; however, the majority of these individuals will be dealing with late-onset vision loss and may not have the skills or training required to effectively use current or near-future technologies to download their materials. Technology is advancing rapidly, but a significant portion of the eligible user population still lacks the financial resources or is otherwise unable to access the necessary hardware and software.

As technology evolves, NLS continues to move forward with innovations in its programs to improve the reading and delivery experience for all patrons. One example is the development of applications for the iOS operating system used by Apple devices and for the Android operating system. These applications will be deployed during fiscal 2013 and will provide interfaces to search BARD, download content, store it on the mobile device, and read content using the same functionality as the current digital player. Ongoing research and exploration of cutting-edge concepts and developments will be required to keep NLS current in all aspects of its services.

I. Background.

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), a division of the Library of Congress established in 1931 by the Pratt-Smoot Act and governed by Public Law 89-522, provides books and magazines in accessible formats (braille and audio recordings) to Americans who cannot use regular print materials as a result of a temporary or permanent visual or physical limitation. As NLS works to complete its transition from an analog cassette-based audio program to a digital talking-book format, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations directed NLS to "take a close look at the future of its legacy programs and conduct a detailed study of its entire mix of products and services, examining how changing demographics are influencing the customer base and new technologies offering new and different service alternatives." 1

NLS has studied its products and services in the light of its changing demographic base and current and emerging technologies which will impact its services. NLS has developed five priorities to address these changes. This report is organized first to address the expected evolution of its demographic base and second to describe in detail the present and future state of technologies used by and impacting NLS services within the framework of those priorities.

II. The NLS Mission

The mission of NLS, as it has been carried out over the past 81 years, is to provide free and accessible library services to Americans who cannot read standard print because of visual, physical, or organically based reading disabilities. NLS fulfills its mission by acquiring or producing accessible books and magazines in braille and specialized audio formats as well as playback machines for the audio materials. NLS provides this material to cooperating network libraries that in turn maintain regional collections and equipment; provide intake, reader advisory, and reference services to eligible patrons; circulate materials; and maintain records on patrons and library materials. Under the provisions of Public Law 91-375, the United States Postal Service receives a subsidy from Congress to transport NLS materials without requiring postage to be paid. Thus, eligible patrons can receive free delivery of library materials and service comparable to those of a medium-sized public library regardless of where they live.

During this time of accelerating technological advances, NLS strives to focus its resources in ways that will benefit its patrons most significantly. To that end, NLS carefully planned its conversion to the digital talking book, opting for a long-term solid-state playback system, and optimizing delivery systems to take best advantage of parallel developments in consumer technologies. Throughout this time NLS has been able to deliver high-quality books and magazines in both braille and audio formats.

As the ultimate objective of NLS is to effectively serve patrons of the free national library program, NLS management has established five priorities for future operations. These patron-focused priorities are to:

  1. Maintain the highest quality standards possible for all NLS products and services.
  2. Enhance the reading experience for all NLS patrons by leveraging current and future technologies to improve the reading and delivery systems.
  3. Expand the scope and quantity of titles available in alternative formats throughout the NLS system.
  4. Take a leading role in positioning braille as a viable, practical, and achievable literacy medium for all blind Americans.
  5. Increase the number of eligible individuals participating in the program.

NLS is making a concerted effort to better understand the wants, needs, skills, knowledge, abilities, and resources of program patrons as well as individuals who are eligible for the program but not currently using it. NLS is also pursuing multiple initiatives to acquire, develop, and deploy products and services employing new technologies and business models that will make the provision of new and different products and services not offered in current operations technically and economically feasible in future operations.

III. The people served by NLS.

A. Demographics.

As of September 6, 2012, the NLS network served more than 800,000 reader accounts (reader accounts include institutional accounts and multiple service records for patrons using multiple services); 367,247 individual patrons registered with NLS were actively using services.

Of these, 39.1 percent were blind, 43.8 percent were visually impaired, 5.8 percent were physically disabled, 7.2 percent were certified as reading disabled, 0.5 percent were deaf-blind, and 3.6 had no recorded reason given. Sixty-three percent of NLS patrons were 60 years or older, 26 percent were of working age, 6 percent were under 20*, and 5 percent did not have an age recorded. These figures, generated by NLS’s Comprehensive Mailing List System (CMLS), are based on patron data input periodically by library staff at the state/regional level.

Keeping within the statutory framework, eligibility for NLS services is restricted to residents of the United States and citizens living abroad who are:

  1. Persons whose visual disability, with correction and regardless of optical measurement, is certified by competent authority as preventing the reading of standard printed material.
  2. Persons certified by competent authority as unable to read or unable to use standard printed material as a result of physical limitations.
  3. Persons certified by competent authority (medical doctors or doctors of osteopathy) as having a reading disability resulting from organic dysfunction and of sufficient severity to prevent their reading printed material in a normal manner.

These eligibility requirements are more restrictive than the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) definitions. NLS criteria does not extend eligibility for its programs to many categories of disability addressed by the ADA, including a wide spectrum of dyslexia and learning disabilities.

1. Blind and Visually Impaired.

Various surveys indicate that the population of blind and visually impaired Americans is between 3 and 10 million. Estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that 3 percent of people over 40 experience significant visual impairment as a result of the aging process—specifically macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetes, and cataracts are leading causes of vision loss in older Americans.2 The American Foundation for the Blind,3 and the National Federation of the Blind4 provide a range of statistical arrays and explore some of the difficulties in gathering accurate and consistent information.

Significant vision loss later in life requires substantial adjustments in many aspects of daily life, including reading, mobility, and accessing technology. Each of these factors significantly affects the use of NLS services.

When reading can no longer be accomplished visually, accessible formats, including braille and audio, become critical. Most patrons who lose their vision later in life do not become proficient braille users, but rely on audio formats, primarily human-narrated audio.

Vision loss also results in the loss of the ability to drive. Throughout the United States, with the exception of a few major metropolitan areas, the personal automobile is the primary mode of transportation. Public transportation systems range from inadequate to nonexistent, and special programs to meet the needs of people with disabilities through special programs provide only limited services.

People who lose their vision later in life account for the vast majority of NLS patrons.5 They are faced with the reality that the technology and skill sets required to use today’s personal computer with limited or no vision, or with severe physical disabilities, are significantly different from those they used before the onset of disability. They are often faced with a reduction in income because of retirement job loss as a result of disability. Yet, the technologies they need, such as screen readers or screen enlargement software, refreshable braille devices, and similar adaptive equipment for the physically disabled add hundreds or thousands of dollars to the cost of computer systems.

The larger problem is learning to operate the technology efficiently. Family members and local service providers seldom have the knowledge required to teach nonvisual access techniques. Training is an ongoing challenge for many organizations serving the blind and disabled as well. It is expensive and time-consuming, and is generally associated with vocational rehabilitation programs for adults and school programs for children. These programs carry restrictive eligibility criteria and are not available to the majority of NLS patrons. Those patrons not affiliated with any of these programs have few or no resources for training available to them, and the accumulated experience of professionals in the rehabilitation and independent living fields indicates that the majority are not able to learn to use these systems independently. As a result of these issues surrounding technology, 85 percent of NLS patrons continue to rely on the traditional, non-technical option of books delivered through the mail rather than using NLS’s download service.

Thirty-two percent of patrons currently using NLS services are under the age of 60.6Many of these individuals experienced vision loss early in life and have had more opportunity to learn the alternative skills of blindness. They are more likely to be able to read braille proficiently and to use computers and smart phones with assistive technology. However, according to data compiled by the National Health Interview Survey on Disability, 68 percent of legally blind Americans in this population group are unemployed.7 Thus economic factors impact the ability to own the technology and to pay ongoing costs for Internet access.

Technology is also changing: Internet appliances that provide access through speech-controlled interfaces such as Siri on the iPhone, touch screens with audio feedback, and other built-in features will provide easier access for blind and severely visually impaired users as they become more commonplace and less expensive.

2. Physically Disabled.

Five point eight percent of NLS patrons have disabilities that prevent them from holding or handling a book. These disabilities range from paper allergies to quadriplegia. NLS believes that this population is severely underrepresented among NLS patrons and plans to explore this issue in an upcoming survey. Due to the range of disabilities in this patron segment, generalizations about their abilities to use computers and Internet appliances are difficult to make.

3. Reading Disabled.

Seven point two percent of NLS patrons are certified as reading disabled. The needs of this population differ significantly from those of the blind and severely visually impaired, and center primarily on their inability to process the printed word. These patrons rely on audio presentation of text, but generally are able to drive and to use mainstream computer and smartphone technologies with ease. According to the National Council on Learning Disabilities, 15 million Americans have reading disabilities.8 NLS eligibility criteria require that a doctor of medicine or osteopathy certify that a reading disability is organically based. However, in the past 40 years the definition of an organically based reading disability has come into question in light of advances in medical science.

4. Veterans

Preference for our nation’s veterans is written into the founding legislation of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (Public Law 89-522), and the organization honors that commitment not only by offering veterans priority service in its national network of libraries, but by encouraging active input and participation in book selection policy, especially through the standing membership of the Blinded Veterans Association in the NLS Collection Development Advisory Group.

Many Americans are surprised to learn that more than 165,000 blind or visually impaired veterans now live among us. Each year, some 7,000 veterans become newly blind or visually impaired as age-related macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy affect their lives more profoundly.9 In addition, some 13 percent of evacuated wounded service members in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered a serious eye injury of one type or another, and frequently reading or print disabilities are associated with polytrauma.10

In addition to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project compilations Voices of War: Stories from the Homefront and the Frontlines and Forever a Soldier: Unforgettable Stories of Wartime Service in digital audio editions, NLS has made available such wartime memoirs as Shades of Darkness, by George Brummell—who has worked directly with NLS as a member of the collection building committee—Howard Wasdin’s SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of and Elite Navy SEAL Sniper, and works of practical value to vets, including Glenn Altschuler’s GI Bill: A New Deal for Veterans, Don Philpott’s Wounded Warrior Handbook: A Resource Guide for Returning Veterans, and the Department of Veterans Affairs handbook Federal Benefits for Veterans, Dependents, and Survivors in both English and Spanish.

B. NLS Patrons Who Are Braille Readers.

While most NLS patrons use only talking books, an important subset is braille readers who use the NLS braille collection both in hard copy and electronic formats. Braille is the sole effective literacy medium for people who cannot read print. Unlike audio, braille is comparable to print in the detail of information it conveys, and thus provides a one-for-one corollary to print for those who are able to read it. Advocates estimate that as many as 90 percent of blind or severely visually impaired persons who are employed use braille.11 Frequent braille users are typically persons with early-onset vision loss who learned braille in childhood or early adulthood.

C. Reviews of Existing Research.

1. Surveys of Blind and Disabled Populations

NLS has recently reviewed information from surveys pertaining to the population of blind, visually impaired, and otherwise disabled individuals in the United States. The results of these surveys vary widely because of factors such as differing definitions and inconsistent sample sizes. As noted by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), which annually tracks vision-loss statistics, “Reporting the demographic characteristics about people with vision loss is challenging because inconsistent measuring criteria are used to identify people with vision loss. Across surveys, criteria vary depending on the purposes and goals of the survey.”12 The same can be said for physical and other disabilities. Each survey has its own criteria and varying definitions for each disability, which makes the consistent identification and comparison of populations with disabilities difficult.

Consistent with the statutory parameters, eligibility requirements for the NLS program are stringent, with minimal visual acuity and field of vision defined, and with physical limitations delimited such that standard printed material cannot be used. Generally speaking, the definition of disabilities used in these other surveys was not sufficiently specific or was insufficiently comparable to permit cross-tabulations, correlations, or other such types of analyses with data for the population of NLS program users. Within major U.S. population surveys, such as the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), the American Housing Survey (AHS), and the American Community Survey (ACS), attempts are made to indicate the number of people with disabilities. However, differing criteria, purposes of the survey, and sample size translate into different results. The requirements specified for NLS eligibility are far less generalized than the standards applied in these surveys, where “trouble seeing” is merged with total blindness and difficulty walking a quarter mile overlaps with the ability to manipulate a print book. The ACS covered only deaf-blindness below the age of five.13

According to “The Burden of Vision Loss,” part of the CDC’s Vision Health Initiative (2009), a 2004 study found that approximately 3.4 million individuals—about 3 percent of the U.S. population aged 40 and older—were either legally blind or visually impaired.14

The study indicates that over the next 30 years, the number of adults with vision impairment caused by age-related eye disease will double because of the rapidly aging U.S. population within the demographic bulge caused by the baby boom. An investigation cited by the CDC predicted that eye diseases associated with diabetes are likely to increase during the next four decades reflecting overall changes in the population as well as improved survival rates of diabetics. The number of people who experience diabetic retinopathy is projected to triple from 5.5 million to 16 million people from 2005–2050.15

2. Survey of Program Users and Eligible Non-Users

As discussed in the Library’s budget justification for fiscal 2013, NLS has commissioned a major survey of patrons and eligible non-patrons beginning in early fiscal 2013. A contract for this survey is in place. The contractor will design and administer a comprehensive survey of current NLS patrons and eligible non-users, analyze the survey results, and provide NLS with profiles and interpretive analysis of both groups. The contractor will also offer recommendations on how NLS can both improve current patron satisfaction and leverage information on potentially eligible patrons to increase the program participation rate among non-users.

Information on NLS program specifics will also be collected from users, with emphasis on patrons’ current qualitative assessments and recommendations. From eligible non-users, the survey will also collect information regarding whether participants are aware of the program and, if they are, their reasons for choosing not to participate. The survey will address veterans as well as potential users in institutions such as VA hospitals, nursing homes, adult correctional facilities, and colleges.

The results from this survey will be used by NLS management in the formulation of strategic plans for future operations that will most effectively serve program patrons.


Current NLS patrons range in age from 3 to 110 years. They come from all socioeconomic groups and live in every state and county in the United States and its territories. Some are very savvy technology users, while others never use technology at all. Some read braille, most do not. Six percent are under 20 years of age; 26 percent are working age, and 63 percent are age 60 or older. The largest age group is 80­–89 at 22.4 percent. Most of the 63 percent who are over 60 have experienced vision loss later in life. Many experience additional disabilities as they age. Thirty percent of those who are working age are employed. Population trends predict an increase in eligible patrons over 60, congruent with the retirement of baby boomers. Active NLS patrons represent only a fraction of the eligible population. NLS programs and services must therefore meet the needs of children, working-age adults, and retired persons for information and leisure reading. At the same time NLS needs to learn more about eligible non-users and determine how it may address their needs.

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In the past 81 years, quantum leaps in information systems and consumer electronics have dramatically changed the ways in which NLS program content is produced, stored, distributed, and used. The products and services available to the blind and disabled reading community have also expanded, providing options for NLS patrons. At first glance, it may appear that these options could supplant NLS services. Therefore, NLS has taken a close look not only at its own products and services, but also at the alternatives currently available in order to refine its role in this expanding milieu.

Throughout its existence, the NLS network has functioned as a free public library for all eligible Americans regardless of their location, education, mobility, socioeconomic circumstances, or technological expertise. All of the current alternatives involve factors that effectively restrict availability to portions of the NLS patron population. These factors include cost, accessible design, location, technological expertise, and purchase of or access to certain equipment and services.

The following list is representative of other services available to and used by some NLS patrons.

A. Learning Ally (Formerly Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic—RFB&D).

Learning Ally produces and distributes audio textbooks and other educational materials to eligible users for grades K-12, undergraduate, and graduate-level students. The materials are narrated by volunteers and produced in digital electronic Daisy 2.02 format. Approximately 70,000 titles are available for download and must be played on NLS equipment or third-party players purchased and authorized for that purpose. A $75 annual membership fee is required.

B. American Printing House for the Blind.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2005 authorized the U.S. Department of Education to provide alternative formats for educational materials used in the United States. The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) has a contract to establish and operate a clearinghouse for publishers of educational materials to provide their products in National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standards (NIMAS) format. If a school district requests it, a publisher of educational materials must provide an electronic NIMAS-format file of the content, which users can then convert to braille or text-to-speech audio formats. Users of this program must be certified under NLS rules. APH products and services and the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Center (NIMAC) are primarily focused on K-12 education.

C. BookShare

A subsidiary of Benetech, BookShare is a nonprofit firm free to students, with about 150,000 people with qualifying disabilities using it. Qualified non-student users pay an annual membership fee of $50. Print text is scanned and converted to electronic text files. These files are then formatted in Daisy format or electronic braille format and must be read using computer software and/or a refreshable braille device. BookShare is currently working on delivery of an MP3 format generated using text-to-speech technology. There are currently about 127,000 titles available for download, including textbooks and leisure reading materials. An iPhone application for using content from this service has been developed and is in use.

D. NewsLine.

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) produces NewsLine, a telephone and Internet-based service providing newspaper and magazine content to eligible subscribers. The same eligibility criteria apply for use of NewsLine that apply for the NLS program. The costs for NewsLine are shared by NLS and participating states. Approximately 340 newspapers, magazines, and TV and job listings are provided by the service. Content is updated daily and made available to subscribers in all states that participate in the NewsLine program. States are not required to participate, and access is not uniform throughout the United States.

In addition, a variety of Internet-based and generally accessible options exist for purchasing current books in audio and digital text formats or downloading books that are out of copyright. These include Apple iBooks,, Blio, Internet Archive, and Google books. Amazon’s Kindle and similar devices are also available but require purchasing both the device and the content and, at this writing, are not fully accessible.

E. Third-Party Talking-Book Players

Several types of third-party talking-book players are commercially available. Costs start at approximately $300 per unit and functionality varies. However, NLS has developed a methodology for authorizing these third-party players to play protected digital talking books by verifying the eligibility of the purchaser and providing a unique key. The NLS Engineering Section verifies that all such third-party machines function properly with respect to protecting publishers’ copyrights via digital rights management. Approximately7,500 patrons have registered third-party players for use with downloaded materials. This represents 15 percent of BARD users, but does not necessarily mean that these patrons are not also using NLS-provided equipment.

F. Mainstream Mobile Devices.

There is a proliferation of smartphones, pads, and other commercially available mobile devices offering relatively high functionality at relatively low costs, but minimally costing several hundred dollars. The human-machine interfaces are usable, but not as straightforward as they could be for blind and disabled users. For example, the iOS operating system, which is used in Apple’s handheld devices, has built-in accessibility features which can be activated from within the settings menu. High contrast and screen enlargement features are available as well as a completely non-visual interface. The non-visual interface, called VoiceOver, uses text-to-speech technology to speak items on the screen in response to a prescribed set of gestures. Using these gestures, the iOS user can locate and activate controls on the screen and enter text.

G. Refreshable Braille Equipment.

Equipment for reading electronic braille is commercially available, but expensive both to purchase and to maintain, with costs ranging from $1,500 to $8,000, and periodic maintenance costing hundreds of dollars.

H. Public Libraries

Local public libraries offer electronic books in both audio and text formats. Audiobooks are also available on compact discs and in older formats, but several factors make public libraries impractical for many NLS patrons. First of all, the inability to drive may make getting to the library difficult if not impossible. Once there, the self-service nature of the public library rarely addresses the accessibility requirements of individuals who cannot read standard print. Materials are not labeled in such a way that a blind person can identify titles, or even the order of play. Download services such as OverDrive are not fully accessible even with assistive technology and require significant technological facility for blind and severely visually impaired users. Some libraries have also implemented portable book-reading devices such as the Nook or the Kindle into their offerings, but neither of these options is accessible to a blind person. Public libraries have, however, served as referral points for NLS services. Some public libraries have provided more extensive services to blind patrons, but this pattern is neither widespread nor consistent nationally.

Although options exist and continue to expand that provide access to books and magazines in various accessible formats, none provide the scope and universal access that NLS offers to its patrons. Approximately 15 percent of NLS patrons are currently using downloaded materials from NLS, and many of these patrons have the technical skills and financial resources to take advantage of some of the resources identified above. However, fully 85 percent of NLS patrons do not use the download services NLS provides and are unlikely to be using any of the alternative services. NLS expects a gradual shift in the use of technology by its patrons as mainstream mobile devices become more accessible, easier to use, and less expensive.

NLS must be cognizant of the 85 percent of its patrons who continue to use its traditional physical formats and its specialized talking-book machines. At the same time, NLS is exploring new ways of delivering content to all its patrons, as well as new ways to expand the quantity and scope of that content.

As NLS reviewed its legacy programs and studied its mix of products and services in light of evolving technologies and changing demographics, five priorities emerged as a framework for the current and future direction of the program. The following sections of this report are organized within the context of those priorities and provide a vision for the NLS program. That vision addresses the disposition of legacy products and services and the implementation of emerging technologies within the context of current and future service alternatives.

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One of the primary reasons for instituting a national program was to obviate the inevitable difficulty and high cost for individual libraries to acquire books in special formats. From the inception of the program, NLS took responsibility for acquiring materials for the regional libraries. This service includes the acquisition, production, and distribution of braille and recorded books and magazines, necessary playback equipment, catalogs and other publications, and publicity and marketing materials. NLS contracts for two multistate centers to warehouse and distribute playback equipment and supplies, specialized collections of materials, and back-up copies of the NLS collection. NLS also acts as the headquarters for the network and, in that role, disseminates information about disabilities, coordinates weeding and reassignment of excess materials, provides consulting services, develops new products and services, and sponsors a national conference in even-numbered years. Information technology has played a dominant role in NLS management concepts for the past two decades, and maintenance of the highest standards of reliability, effectiveness, and cost-efficiency throughout NLS systems is of paramount importance.

A. The Network of Cooperating Libraries

Since its inception, NLS has relied on a network of cooperating libraries and machine-lending agencies throughout the United States and its territories to provide direct customer service to eligible patrons. This has proven to be a worthy model of federal, state, and local government cooperation in providing service to Americans.

Network libraries screen applicants for eligibility, sign them up for services, provide patrons with information about the service, initiate and maintain book services, provide playback equipment for talking books, provide reader-advisory services to patrons, answer questions and provide first-level reference services. Network libraries are also responsible for tracking, storing, maintaining and circulating NLS books and machines and reporting information about equipment, books, and patrons to NLS on an ongoing basis. They provide the labor, facilities, utilities, storage and distribution equipment, information systems support, and most operating supplies necessary to store and distribute NLS-provided materials to program patrons. As of September 2012, participating network agencies consisted of 56 regional libraries, 45 subregional libraries, 11 advisory and outreach centers, and 4 independent machine-lending agencies.

Network libraries do not receive any funding from NLS. All funding comes from other sources, including state and local sources, and some federal funding through executive branch sources.

Forty-three network regional libraries are housed in state library agencies and the remaining 13 are variously supported within vocational rehabilitation agencies or through other local arrangements. The value of these network libraries to the NLS system cannot be overstated. They make it possible for people with disabilities to get the level of service they need to use the materials and equipment produced by NLS.

In recent years, many network libraries and their parent agencies have experienced significant cuts in funding used to provide NLS services. These funding cuts have resulted in reductions in staff and space in some libraries, and reorganization and consolidation in others. Network libraries are increasingly being asked to do the same or more with fewer resources.

The skills needed by network library staff are also changing. As more NLS patrons take advantage of the NLS download system to get books and magazines, network library staff are called upon for technical support in addition to other duties.           

Although 15 percent of patrons have signed up to use NLS’s download service, network libraries still need to store and circulate physical copies of NLS materials.

The transition from cassette-based talking books to the digital talking book system is approximately 50 percent complete. Ninety percent of the digital talking book machines distributed to network libraries have been assigned to patrons, and all talking books are being produced only in digital format. The talking book magazine program will be moved to digital format in the fall of 2012. In order to preserve continuity of service, the network has left cassette-based talking books in place until the digital system is mature. Therefore, retirement of the cassette-based machines and talking books has just begun. At this time, network libraries still have some 18 million cassette books and 450,000 cassette machines in inventory. Approximately 360,000 patrons are using the new digital format, but 350,000 continue to use cassettes either instead of, or in addition to, digital books. Some 37,000 titles in the NLS collection are only available on cassette at this time and are slated for digitization over a period of years as funding permits. The completion of the transition from cassettes to digital talking books will also have an impact on the libraries, eventually freeing up space currently being used to house cassette collections and machines. This change underway but is anticipated to take a number of years to complete. At this time, however, all states except Wyoming have maintained their regional libraries, and indications are that this will continue.

The participation of network agencies in future NLS operations will remain critical to the success of the program, and the value of these local services should not be underestimated. They will continue to provide all direct contact with patrons, including reader-advisory services, registration and maintenance of patrons’ records, storage and distribution to patrons of standard NLS-provided physical reading collections in special media, and storage and distribution to patrons of NLS-provided playback equipment.

As the technologies supporting NLS services become more and more complex, additional technical assistance, training, and support will be required for network libraries. Therefore NLS will develop additional resources to meet this need.

While the workload associated with storage and handling of physical books and machines may gradually diminish as more and more content is delivered directly via the Internet, it will be a long time—if ever—that these requirements disappear completely. Because of the advanced age of the majority of NLS patrons and the challenges associated with adjusting to significant disabilities later in life, NLS expects a percentage of its older patrons will continue to need the simple delivery and reading systems currently in place. If, as anticipated, program readership increases, the need for direct patron service will increase as well. The fundamental business model that has been employed for 81 years, whereby the federal, state, and local governments share the responsibilities and costs for program operation, has been successful and should continue.

B. Multistate Centers

Multistate center (MSC) operations began in 1974 when the capacity of the NLS headquarters became inadequate to store and distribute certain operating supplies, books from back-up and special collections, and equipment from back-up inventories to network agencies. NLS supports two multistate centers—Multistate Center East (MSCE) in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Multistate Center West (MSCW) in Salt Lake City, Utah.

MSCs perform a number of vital functions for the program:

  • Operating supplies and materials. The MSCs store and distribute various supplies and materials required for program operations in network agencies. These include packaging supplies, mailing containers, batteries, catalogs, factsheets, labels, and standard forms and documents.
  • Special book collections. MSCs store and distribute special book collections in both braille and audio formats—perhaps most significantly the Special Foreign Language Collection.
  • Back-up circulating collections. The MSCs store and distribute circulating copies from back-up collections for the audio and braille book and magazine collections.
  • Archives. MSCs provide archival (non-circulating) storage of virtually all program content with the exception of musical materials.
  • Equipment. MSCs provide storage and distribution of equipment from back-up inventories. The back-up stock of digital talking-book players for the program is maintained at the MSCs (33,466 units at the end of fiscal 2011). There were 42,154 cassette machines at the MSCW at the end of fiscal 2011, with about 75 percent available and 25 percent needing repair. During fiscal 2011, 24,131 cassette machines were recycled, an activity that will increase for the next several years. All equipment disposed by the MSCs is sent to UNICOR for proper recycling.
  • Accessories. MSCs store and distribute accessories used with program equipment. These include pillow speakers, headphones, headphone adapters, headphone amplifiers, headphone covers, extension levers, remote control units, solar battery chargers, batteries, USB adapters, and amplifier boxes.
  • Duplication. The MSCs duplicate a relatively small number of copies of audiobooks for network libraries, which add them to their collections for circulation to patrons. NLS has provided the MSCs with duplication hardware and software to facilitate this production.
  • Quality assurance. The MSCE performs quality assurance reviews of network library-produced materials, both books and magazines. During fiscal 2011, the MSCs performed 144 such reviews of materials produced by 10 network recording groups. NLS plans to increase this activity in future operations in order to make more network-library-produced materials available from BARD after passing quality assurance at the MSCs. MSCs are also currently performing analog-to-digital conversions of already accepted network library-produced materials for use on BARD.

The concept has served NLS and the program well, with the MSCW in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the MSCE in Cincinnati, Ohio, both strategically located and serving the program efficiently and effectively. NLS has chosen not to consolidate these operations to a single center in order to provide faster deliveries to network agencies (the MSCW serves areas west of the Mississippi River, and the MSCE serves the areas east) and to diversify risk to the equipment inventories, book collections, and supplies inventories stored. NLS plans to continue the operation of these two MSCs for the foreseeable future.

C. Music Products and Services

Since 1962, NLS has been authorized to provide braille and large-print music scores, books, magazines, and instructional cassettes about music and musicians to program patrons. Music services are centralized at NLS headquarters in Washington, D.C., and follow a somewhat different model from that of the book and magazine programs. Providing these services from a unified collection and distribution center is more efficient given the special formats required, the small numbers of copies per title in the collection, the relatively few patrons per network library service area, and the specialized knowledge that is required to provide the services. In fiscal 2011, about 10,000 patrons in the program were enrolled for music services, with about 2,000 being active during the year.

1. Current Music Operations.

NLS produces and distributes music content in several formats. The following music materials circulation, by media format, occurred during fiscal 2011: Large print, 648 titles, circulated 445 items among 165 readers; audiocassettes, 2,444 titles, circulated 3,860 copies among 774 users; braille, 20,401 titles, circulated 2,040 items among 604 readers. There are more than 100,000 total items of all materials in the NLS music collection, all of which are stored in and distributed from NLS headquarters. Most music titles have a master copy and circulating copies, except for audio materials where there are mostly circulating copies only. Most master copies, in all formats, are analog (paper, photographic negative, or 1/4-inch tape), and all are in the process of being digitized, in various formats. All new masters are in digital format only. In recent years, the pattern of mass-produced copies of new titles has been sharply curtailed in the interest of storage space and cost. It should be noted that music materials in audio formats are not music performances, but rather music instruction and music appreciation presentations.

In addition to the above, during fiscal 2011 there were 1,879 music titles on Web-Braille (NLS’s web-based download site for braille files), with 400 copies downloaded during fiscal 2011. Music materials on Web-Braille will be consolidated into BARD in 2012.

NLS also produces and distributes direct-circulation music magazines. Patrons may enroll for subscriptions through the NLS Music Section. These magazines are shipped directly to patrons by mass-duplication contractors. There are five music magazines, three of which are audio only, one of which is braille only, and one which is in braille, audio, and large print. During fiscal 2011 there were 552 braille and 6,105 audio-magazine copy circulations, with an additional 97 copies downloaded from BARD. Four of the five music magazines are now offered on BARD, and the one magazine title on Web-Braille will be added to BARD this year when the consolidation is complete.

2. Future Music Operations

NLS notes a growing interest in music services, especially in braille format.

There are five enhancements to future music operations that NLS is now planning and implementing:

  • Production of music materials on digital cartridges. Production and distribution of audio music products on digital cartridges is just beginning, and this new medium has been given the name digital book music (DBM). Music audio magazines that are now produced on cassette will be produced in future operations on digital talking-book cartridges as described elsewhere.
  • Availability of music scores on BARD. While no music scores have yet been put onto BARD (four audio music magazines already have been), NLS is in the process of putting them all online. All music titles in braille format on Web-Braille are also being moved into BARD during the consolidation of the systems during 2012.
  • Duplication-on-demand fulfillment. NLS plans to employ more duplication-on-demand fulfillment for music products in the future and reduce the number of copies per title mass-duplicated. This method will especially be employed for large print and braille.
  • Conversion of existing materials to digital format. NLS is planning to convert most of the existing circulating music collections to digital format, with the exception of large-print titles. This conversion will enable distribution of these materials from BARD and on digital cartridges. After conversion is complete, NLS will be able to reduce the number of music materials copies per title retained in collection storage in a careful title-by-title weeding process.
  • Awareness of music program. Since NLS will continue to provide centralized music services directly to program patrons in the future, it is making a concerted effort to ensure that all staff in network libraries are aware of NLS music services offered in the program, with the ultimate objective of making sure that all patrons are aware of it.

D. Services to Overseas Patrons

A small number of U.S. citizens living abroad are served directly from NLS headquarters in Washington, D.C. In March 2012 some 274 overseas patrons received essentially the same services as those provided to patrons living in the United States—audio and braille books, magazines, and playback equipment and accessories as required. Overseas patrons seem to have taken good advantage of BARD downloads. The NLS librarian responsible for overseas patrons occasionally must intervene when, for example, power-source compatibility may be an issue. For any patrons receiving services overseas, NLS requires both proof of American citizenship and a passport number. Some patrons are transferred to the overseas librarian when the patrons move overseas, while others may be registered directly from abroad. The overseas librarian also prepares a semiannual newsletter for patrons abroad.

NLS plans to continue serving overseas patrons in this manner as it has proven to be effective and efficient.

E. Collection Development

In the policies that govern the development of its collections of reading materials in special formats, NLS aspires to reflect the offerings of a good, medium-sized public library and satisfy the information and recreational needs of program users at no cost to the users. NLS has neither the resources nor the mandate to provide educational, scientific, or academic materials. Within this framework, the priority of NLS is to provide reading content desired and required by program patrons.

NLS seeks direction from its patrons through a regularly convened Collection Development Advisory Group made up of network librarians, patrons, and consumer group representatives; input from individual patrons through their network libraries; input gathered at consumer conventions and similar venues; and direct contact with patrons by e-mail and telephone.

NLS employs a staff of professional librarians to select books and magazines for the collection based on patron input and professional expertise, and within the constraints of the NLS budget. NLS does not anticipate a major shift in this process, but does intend to add a member of the general disability community to the Advisory Group to more directly represent this portion of its patron base.

F. Bibliographic and Cataloging Operations

NLS uses the Library of Congress Voyager system for bibliographic control of all reading materials in the program. As of July 2012, Voyager contained 167,232 title records for NLS-produced or purchased materials, of which 64,545 were braille; 12,028 were Web-Braille; 25,301 were digital talking books; 76,738 were recorded cassette, rigid disc, and flexible disc; and 648 were large-print musical scores. Voyager also contained 33,086 title records for network library-produced materials, of which 3,128 were braille, 1,168 were Web-Braille, 1,441 were digital talking books, and 28,517 were cassette books.

Network libraries, patrons, and external organizations all interact with Voyager via the Internet. Libraries import records and load them into their systems, and patrons and external organizations perform searches and queries.

NLS has a number of current initiatives and plans that will enhance and improve bibliographic and cataloging operations in the future.

  • BARD interactions. BARD bibliographic records for reading materials are built from records provided in the Production Inventory Control System (PICS), but BARD is outgrowing this. Voyager-based data are somewhat more comprehensive and reliable than PICS data, so an automatic interface between these systems is being planned by NLS.
  • Resource Description & Access. NLS will be changing the bibliographic and cataloging system to implement Resource Description & Access, a new international standard for bibliographic control that goes into effect in March 2013. Research and academic libraries will be moving to this new standard, so NLS will also be changing the catalog accordingly.
  • Linked data. NLS will implement a linked-data schema for the encoding of bibliographic records. The current system uses the MARC format for machine-readable records, which is a very “local,” library-specific capability. The linked-data schema is more flexible, and NLS plans to stay up-to-date and implement this in the future system.
  • Catalogs/databases. NLS is planning to restructure the NLS catalog to improve update processes.
  • Other bibliographic and cataloging systems. NLS plans to link NLS program operations with bibliographic systems in addition to Voyager in order to enhance user-friendly search and discovery capabilities. Two current possibilities involve using open-source technology for the NLS catalog, including SOLR, an open-source search tool, and VU Find, a search tool from Villanova University.

G. Modifications and Enhancements to NLS Information Systems

The current operations of and planned future enhancements to the BARD and Voyager information systems, which are used by program patrons as well as NLS and network agency staff, have been presented above. Five other information systems are also used by NLS and network agencies in current program operations, but are not used by patrons. Planned modifications and enhancements to these information systems for use in future program operations are presented below.


The Blind and Physically Handicapped Inventory Control System (BPHICS) is used to track and control the national inventory of NLS-owned equipment that is loaned to network agencies which in turn loan them to program patrons. The Comprehensive Mailing List System (CMLS), which was originally developed for and still functions as, a subscription database for the distribution of magazines and other publications, evolved into a general-purpose national-level patron database and is used to authenticate patron eligibility to download books and periodicals from the BARD system, conduct patron surveys, and more recently track digital talking-book player distribution. Both systems were developed by contractors in the late 1970s; they are owned by NLS and operated and maintained by a contractor.

NLS performed an evaluation of both the BPHICS and CMLS systems in 2011 and found that a number of improvements and enhancements are warranted. NLS is now developing the functional requirements of the future BPHICS and CMLS systems, which will be finalized shortly, and systems development efforts are planned to begin in either late 2012 or early 2013.

The two information systems will be replaced by a single system that will subsume the functions of both and provide additional functionality that does not currently exist. The new system will contain a consolidated relational database of information on all patrons and equipment in the program—including equipment custody tracked to the patron level—and will interface with network agency information systems in real time over the Internet rather than using a batch-processing mode.

Transfers of patrons between network agencies will be streamlined relative to current operations by the new system acting in the capacity of a clearinghouse to facilitate such transfers through automated data exchange rather than the reentry. Automatic data exchange between the new system and BARD will enable prompt validation in the BARD patron approval process. Automatic data exchange between the new system and the NLS-maintained Network Database will enable the automatic and timely update of network agency information. Magazine producers will be able to directly download labels from the central subscription database according to predefined schedules with significantly less labor.

The new system will contain equipment operational status, as well as the patron or agency-of-record for the equipment, and thus eliminate the current cumbersome requirement for separate and independent reporting of Monthly Machine Report data, and enable tracking of equipment repair and/or patron-user histories. System security will be enhanced and routine queries of the system for patron and/or equipment information will be streamlined and facilitated.

The new system will improve cost efficiencies, timeliness, and accuracy of system data in the reconciliation process between network agencies and the central system by seamlessly integrating the reconciliation process into the standard operating procedures employed in network agencies, improving the audit trail for both patron and equipment data in the system. After implementation, labor savings will accrue to NLS from reduced costs for contractor support and labor savings will accrue to network agencies because the reconciliation processes for both patron and equipment data will be simplified and integrated into everyday operations.


The Production Inventory Control System (PICS) has been used by NLS for more than two decades, and is operated as an in-house system by NLS staff and contractors The system is used by NLS for managing the production of program materials (excluding equipment). Over time it has been successively modified to incorporate other functions in program operations including quality assurance, publications data output, and network agency directories among other functions.

In the fall of 2012, NLS expects to migrate most PICS functions to a web-based interface. PICS no longer efficiently supports the business processes used in program operations, and frequent intervention is required to maneuver data in the system for processing. Appended functionality over time has outworn the capacities of the original system, and it no longer makes sense to continue to demand the information processing support required for some functions via PICS.

An additional reason for the transition to a web-based interface is that cassette-book production ceased in 2011, and this change has required inordinately complex internal modifications to PICS never envisioned in the original system design. The total costs for operation and maintenance of PICS, which are relatively high, should be substantially reduced.


The Reader Enrollment and Delivery System (READS) is a library automation system, one of four kinds currently being used in the program, that was developed by NLS, and is provided at no cost to network agencies that require it. Maintenance of the system is provided by contractor support. In addition to being used by network agencies, it is also used by the MSCs and NLS Music and Overseas Sections. It supports the management of patron information, book circulation, collection management, and equipment inventory control. NLS has plans to modify READS, likely in 2013, which will add the functionality required to interact with the new BPHICS-CMLS system. NLS is also considering, but has not yet decided, to modify the processing environment in which READS operates and potentially host the system centrally with the network library-based systems operating as nodes on an Internet-based network.

4. XESS.

The Excess and Redistribution System (XESS) is an NLS-owned information system used by network libraries to redistribute copies of NLS-owned books, in all formats, from locations of relative excess to locations of relative deficiency. Maintenance of the system is currently provided by contractor support. Libraries weed their book collections of unneeded copies of given titles and post them for availability on XESS where all, some, or none of the excess copies are requested by other libraries that need them. Excess copies not redistributed are then disposed by the weeding library by sending the copies, in their containers, to a recycling contractor or as otherwise directed by NLS. NLS will use the XESS system in the forthcoming process of replacing audio cassettes on network library shelves with digital copies of books, or otherwise authorizing the elimination of cassette books that are available in digital format.

H. Local Recording

Network libraries and recording studios have the potential to significantly broaden the scope and quantity of digital talking books available to NLS patrons throughout the country. However, the LOW-COMPLEXITY MASTERING software initially developed to assist in digital talking-book production is obsolete and does not work efficiently in today’s computing environment. Development of a replacement software system that can be purchased by network libraries from the vendor will enable network libraries to make the most of the wealth of volunteer and local expertise and talent available for this project. In addition, developing software intended only for converting WAV files to digital talking books will allow those libraries using off-the-shelf recording software to quickly and easily create digital talking books. These new digital talking books can then be uploaded to BARD for national distribution. NLS provides as much support as possible to local recording programs in the form of advice and consultation—an intangible resource, but one that is the result of decades of carefully observed experience.

I. NLS Facilities

NLS has been housed in its current facility for decades. The lease is expiring in 2016, and the landlord may not be interested in renewing it. In addition, the facilities are in need of renovation, are not optimal for current or future work flows, and are not optimally located. Efforts are underway to relocate the entire NLS operation within the next few years. Careful and thorough planning will be required to make this move efficient and to cause the least disruption of NLS service and work flow.

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A. The NLS Recorded Cassette Collection.

Audiobooks on recorded cassette, along with the proprietary cassette book machines, have been in wide use for more than 35 years, and were at the heart of an effective, efficient program until the transition from analog to digital systems became both desirable and inevitable. Contracting for production of new book titles on recorded cassettes ended in 2010 and production of books on cassette ended in 2011. Nevertheless, recorded cassette books are still used extensively in the program, and will continue to be important for several more years.

1. Current Recorded-Cassette Book Operations.

During fiscal 2011, 8,896,027 cassette books were circulated to 255,089 individuals and 11,402 institutions, a total that slightly exceeds the 8,787,517 digital talking-books on cartridges circulated during the same period—although an additional 2,129,228 titles were downloaded from BARD. Preliminary operating statistics for fiscal 2012 indicate increases in BARD and cartridge-based digital book circulation, and a continuing decline in cassette books circulation.

There are at least three important reasons that the level of cassette circulation and readership has remained as high as it has:

  • Familiarity with existing products. Many patrons are accustomed to using cassette books and are reluctant to give up their cassette machines. As more of this cohort learns of the multiple advantages of digital technology, the changeover will accelerate.
  • Quantity of titles available. The number of book titles available on cassette exceeds the number of titles in digital format. But no new titles in cassette format are currently being produced (or ever will be). NLS is digitizing older analog titles as quickly as possible, but many well-loved books are still available only on cassette.
  • Relatively current content. Production of new audio titles on cassettes continued into fiscal 2011, which means that fiscal 2011 cassette-book circulation still drew upon that year and two previous years of all new book titles produced in that format. NLS produced titles in both digital cartridge and audio cassette formats for two and a half years. Historical book-circulation data and feedback from network libraries suggests that circulation declines markedly after the first three years following a book’s release, to a relatively low residual level. Thus a very significant drop in cassette-book circulation from current levels is almost certainly expected for fiscal 2014 and may in fact begin during fiscal 2013.

The current collection of standard cassette books (i.e., those that circulate from network agencies and back-up collections at the MSCs) consists of 57,271 titles. In addition to these, there are more than 5,000 cassette books in the special foreign language collection (acquired by purchase or donation rather than produced by NLS), and 21 titles in special collections that circulate from the MSCs. Lastly, there are 2,444 cassette titles in the music collection of music instruction and music appreciation. At the end of fiscal 2011, the national collection of cassette books consisted of 18,284,780 copies stored in and distributed from network libraries.

In addition to storing and distributing NLS cassette books, most network libraries have also produced cassette books that are primarily of local and special-interest materials, and are available from network library collections. In July 2012, there were 28,517 titles in cassette format in these collections, with almost all network libraries having some type of collection.

2. Future Cassette Book Operations.

NLS plans to convert as many of the 37,000 remaining cassette titles to digital format as conditions and resources allow. Some titles will be unusable (corrupt or missing reels), some will be inappropriate (e.g., outdated medical advice); but the intention is for the majority of the book collection to be digitized within five or six years. Patrons have been urging NLS to complete this conversion as quickly as possible. In a comparatively short span, NLS and network agencies would be free to move beyond the necessity for maintaining analog collections and cassette machine inventories.

Network agencies have begun to weed their cassette-book collections, using the XESS system and process to redistribute copies among libraries and purging unneeded copies. NLS has established a four-year plan for the reduction and possible elimination of library-based cassette collections. Disposal of unneeded cassette-book copies will be in compliance with federal regulations for disposal of federal property.

As demand for cassette-book circulation wanes, consolidations among network libraries are expected, whereby one library will handle the storage and distribution workload for multiple libraries, in a manner similar to that currently done for storage and distribution of bound braille. This consolidation will free up resources in network libraries to focus on digital services while retaining the option of cassette circulation for those patrons who want titles not available in digital format. As demand wanes even further, NLS plans to move any remaining cassette-book circulation to the MSCs as it does now for long-outmoded rigid discs and flexible discs.

B. Audio Magazines on Recorded Cassette

Audio magazines in cassette format were introduced in the mid-1990s and quickly replaced magazines in flexible-disc format. This business model uses disposable audio cassettes mailed one-way to program patrons directly from mass-duplication contractors in paper envelopes rather than in the containers that are used for the two-way circulation of cassette books from network libraries and MSCs.

The model was very successful over the past fifteen years, but now NLS is planning a transition to digital magazine service within months. NLS has developed a business model and supporting system for production and distribution of audio magazines on digital cartridges, which should be phased in starting in late 2012. Audio magazines on digital cartridges will provide a number of aesthetic and technical advantages to patrons, not least of which is the requirement for a single piece of playback equipment; digital magazines will eliminate one of the main reasons many patrons have retained their cassette machines. Cassette technology has become obsolete and producers are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain certain components of production—most notably the tape used for mass cassette production.

As of September 2012, 42 audio magazine titles were produced in cassette format, with issue frequencies varying from weekly to annually. During fiscal 2011, 2,730,280 audio magazine copies in cassette format were circulated to program patrons. NLS currently plans to make all these magazines available in digital versions.

C. Cassette Book Machines

Cassette book machines, along with audiobooks on cassette, have been used in the NLS program for more than 40 years. With the transition of the NLS program from an analog to digital delivery system, production of cassette book machines ended in 2007.

Currently all network agencies have an adequate supply of cassette book machines, and there is also a backup stock in MSCs, so the program is operating adequately with the existing inventory of machines. In January 2012, there were approximately half a million cassette book machines in active inventory (i.e., either assigned to patrons, available for issue, or in repair) program-wide, with about 50,000 of these units in back-up stock in the MSCs.

Volunteers are currently performing repairs on cassette players. Although the technology is obsolescent, there are no repair parts availability problems, both because NLS made lifetime buys of certain critical parts several years ago and because such a large inventory of units exists relative to the current demand.

NLS is currently working on options for network agencies to dispose of unneeded cassette machines as the demand for them wanes, in accordance with federal regulations for disposal of government property, while ensuring that every agency and the program overall still has an adequate supply for future requirements. With the end of analog book production in 2011 and the planned conversion of audio magazines digital format in 2012–2013, the demand for cassette machines will decline. NLS expects a gradual consolidation of cassette-machine services and storage, predicated on the management of a small residual inventory.

D. Rigid Discs, Flexible Discs, and Talking-Book Machines.

Rigid discs, flexible discs, and talking-book machines are legacy products and services in the NLS program that have already effectively ended and migrated from network agencies to the MSCs. Now only a handful of network libraries support these services. During fiscal 2011, there were only 1,185 individuals and 34 institutions program-wide registered for use of rigid discs and flexible discs, to whom were circulated only 373 copies from both network libraries (251 copies) and MSCs (122 copies).

At the end of fiscal 2011, the national collection of rigid-disc and flexible-disc books consisted of 23,612 copies stored in and distributed from network libraries. In July 2012, there were 11,324 rigid-disc and flexible-disc titles in the NLS “withdrawn” national collection. The MSCW stores and circulates a collection of 5,709 rigid-disc titles, while the MSCE stores and circulates a collection of 1,931 flexible-disc titles (which are also available in cassette format).

There is considerable valuable material in these legacy collections, and a few titles have been successfully converted from rigid-disc to digital format. When the conversion of the analog cassette collection is complete, it may be possible to give some attention to the conversion of some of these high-quality recordings from the past.

E. Digital Talking Books on Cartridges

The digital talking-book format was first introduced to NLS patrons in 2009. The new format replaces analog cassette-based talking books and provides the patron with a better reading experience. In fiscal 2011, 264,019 individuals and 7,178 institutions in the program received 8,787,517 digital talking books on cartridges. Digital books on flash memory cartridges employing the Universal Serial Bus (USB) 2.0 connector, with a shell customized for use with the NLS digital talking-book machine, have proved to be a great success with numerous advantages over cassettes, including better audio quality; the ability to mark and navigate content; higher information storage density per unit volume and weight; and greater reliability, longevity, and reusability. Because of the continued need for this product and its virtually unqualified success in program operations, the production of digital books on cartridges will continue for the foreseeable future.

About 2,000 new book titles are currently produced annually on digital cartridges, with 200 titles originating from commercial sources, and 1,800 titles produced for NLS by six contractors with original narration. Network libraries request specific quantities of each new title. Currently their combined requests range from 100 to more than 2,000 copies per title. The current average number projected for fiscal 2012 was approximately 800. At end of fiscal 2011, the national collection of digital books on cartridges consisted of 3,410,212 copies stored in and distributed from network libraries; in addition to these collections, the MSCs also have digital book back-up (circulating) and archive collections. Each cartridge in this collection contains a single title.

The digital cartridge uses NAND Flash Memory, which has been both performance-effective and cost-efficient, and appears to be the type of memory media that will be prevalent for the foreseeable future. But since both the cartridge and digital player use the USB 2.0 connector standard, NLS could adapt digital cartridges to a new memory medium in the future if it proved to have superior performance cost or performance relative to those of NAND flash. NLS has experimented with several digital cartridge capacities, and recently some data reliability concerns for the larger capacities using multi-level cells have emerged—those employed in one and two gigabyte cartridges. NLS has found that lower capacities using single-level cells appear to be more reliable, such as those with 256 and 512 megabytes, and are using these for new production.

The reconditioning and reuse of digital cartridges is planned to begin in late 2012 and continue as an integral part of future operations for as long as digital books are mass-duplicated on cartridges—the reusability of cartridges being a major advantage of the medium. Network libraries will first weed their digital talking-book collections, reducing the number of copies per title as appropriate, then use the XESS system and process for redistributing unneeded copies, and finally return copies not redistributed to NLS contractors. These contractors will recondition the cartridges and mailing containers for reuse in the program.

Some NLS digital books are not mass-duplicated on cartridges but instead are only available from BARD. These are titles that were originally recorded in digital format but produced on cassette between 2003 and 2009, and titles that were recorded in analog format prior to 2003 and have been converted to a digital format.

In keeping with its mandate to make all content available to all patrons, NLS can provide any of these items on cassette at the present time. In addition, limited duplication of digital books onto cartridges is being performed at the MSCs to bridge the current gap. NLS does not have the resources to distribute all of these titles on cartridges, and is evaluating a duplication-on-demand system which would fill the need once the cassette collections have been eliminated completely.

1. Duplication on Demand of Digital Books.

Although it has never been the intent of NLS that network libraries carry the burden of duplication of NLS materials, many network libraries have found it expedient to duplicate some titles for their own patrons. In response to network library requests, NLS has developed and provided a system for these libraries that facilitates this effort. However, libraries must purchase their own cartridges for this purpose. The multistate centers can and do duplicate some books upon request, but their capacity is limited.

NLS is exploring the possibility of a national duplication-on-demand center that could fill requests for materials not available on cartridges, including those titles on BARD. This possibility will require careful research and planning to determine resource requirements and optimal location to ensure cost-effectiveness. A potential model is the digital magazine program currently being deployed.

A very recent development is the duplication on demand of multiple digital books on single cartridges by network libraries. The number of titles that can be placed on a cartridge varies with the sizes of the titles and the capacity of the cartridge (the average NLS book requires approximately 125 MB of memory). Book titles in a series are good candidates for such an application, and some libraries are doing this now. Access to multiple titles on a single cartridge is facilitated by the digital player’s “bookshelf” feature. This method of content distribution reduces network library cost, distribution workload, collection-storage needs, and USPS delivery workload.

Because the bookshelf feature on the digital player was added after the machine was designed and is difficult for some patrons to use, duplicated digital books produced by NLS contractors will for the most part continue to contain one title per cartridge in future operations. If implemented, multiple digital-book titles on single mass-duplicated cartridges would be employed for short, complete series. NLS believes that as a rule network libraries and patrons should customize their digital cartridges to their own satisfaction.

2. Summary.

To meet the needs of 85 percent of patrons who do not use its download service, NLS will continue to produce digital talking books on flash cartridges for the foreseeable future. Quantities of cartridges duplicated for distribution to network libraries will continue to be determined by those libraries, and NLS will carefully monitor these quantities in anticipation of shifts in resource needs. NLS will continue placing one book on each cartridge to meet the needs of its older patrons who find the bookshelf feature confusing and will recall cartridges no longer needed in the network for reuse.

F. Digital Audio Magazines on Cartridges

NLS has distributed magazines on cassettes for more than a decade. The plan to convert magazine distribution to digital cartridges is in place and expected to begin this fall. When the digital magazine system is stabilized, cassette distribution will cease.

The new paradigm employs a complex system drawing patron data from network libraries and magazine data from BARD, and the customizing of individual cartridges with magazines for each patron. Patrons will receive their customized magazine cartridges weekly or monthly, depending on the magazines subscribed to. They will be expected to return the cartridges for reuse when finished reading, and will be encouraged to do this as quickly as possible. Patrons receiving multiple magazines on a cartridge will be instructed in the use of the bookshelf feature of the digital player. Returned cartridges will be reconditioned and reused. This is a new system for patrons and libraries alike, so NLS is preparing training and support materials to assist them. NLS anticipates the system to be cost-neutral after the initial investment in cartridges.

G. Digital Talking-Book Machines.

Since its introduction in 2009, the NLS digital talking-book machine has equaled or exceeded expectations in terms of functionality, reliability, durability, and affordability. In addition to these attributes, it is one-third the size of the cassette machine with double the battery life. The machine can be used with a specially-designed digital cartridge or with an off-the-shelf thumb drive, depending on the patron’s preferences. But the most important factor is its ease of use. Its design has proven highly effective for patrons with low or no vision, as well as patrons with significant physical disabilities and varying cognitive abilities.

The digital player, BARD, and audiobooks and magazines on digital cartridges form the backbone of the infrastructure for the provision of audiobook services to program patrons in future NLS operations.

1. Digital Talking-Book Players in Current Operations

As of the end of January 2012, a total of 433,396 digital players were reported program-wide in the inventories of network agencies (either assigned to patrons, available, or in repair) and MSCs, consisting of 323,021 standard (DS1) models and 110,375 advanced (DA1) models. Like all NLS-produced equipment used in the program, digital players are allocated to network agencies by NLS, which store and loan them for free to program patrons.

The current production mix is 40 percent advanced and 60 percent standard units. Both the standard and advanced digital players have the following common features: play NLS (ANSI/NISO Z39.86:2002) digital talking books; play Daisy 2.02 digital talking books; play AMR-WB+, MP3, and WAV audio files; include a variable speed control that permits speeding up or slowing down playback without changing the pitch; portable; equipped with a rechargeable battery and an electrical cord; and include built-in audio instructions for using the digital player. The difference between the two models is that the standard model has eight controls, while the advanced model has thirteen controls—five additional buttons for setting and retrieving bookmarks and navigating through structured levels of a book.

New units produced come with a 13-month warranty, with the manufacturer generally replacing rather than repairing the few defective units encountered under warranty. Volunteers are performing all non-warranty repairs on the players, but the availability of volunteers performing equipment repairs continues to decline. While commercial repair of digital players is currently not necessary, it is possible that some could be required in the future. There are no problems obtaining parts for digital talking-book player repairs.

2. Digital Talking-Book Players in Future Operations

All network libraries and independent machine-lending agencies have sufficient quantities of digital players for their immediate needs. New units are being shipped directly from the manufacturer to the Multistate Center West, where a back-up inventory of digital players is being accumulated rather than allocating them to network agencies. Given that, unlike the later years of cassette-machine production, there is no planned relatively low-volume “maintenance” production of new digital player units in future operations; this back-up stock in the MSCs is critical given future requirements for network agencies to issue units to new readers as well as to compensate for attrition due to loss and damage. In future years, the MSCs will issue these players to network agencies as needed and requested for their operations.

NLS uses a National Audio Equipment Advisory Committee as a formal mechanism for obtaining feedback regarding NLS-produced equipment. This committee is chaired by the head of the NLS Engineering Section, and comprises representatives of consumer groups, patrons, and people who work on NLS equipment, including volunteers and staff of network agencies. The committee formulates and presents recommendations to NLS, and NLS responds to and acts upon the recommendations. NLS also takes these recommendations and other observations into account for the development of equipment used in the program.

Although NLS has no immediate plans to modify existing player design, future enhancements may include a modification to enable the reception and use of program content sent via wireless telecommunications.

H. United States Postal Service

The USPS delivers virtually all of the materials required for the free national library program under the auspices of Free Matter for the Blind, for which the USPS receives a congressional subsidy. These deliveries include the movement of all reading media and equipment among points of manufacture and supply to NLS, multistate centers, network agencies, and patrons. The vast majority of items handled by the USPS for the program are audio books and audio magazines, while delivery of braille and equipment constitute a relevant but considerably smaller share.

According to its 2011 Annual Report to Congress, the USPS moved approximately 62,000,000 total items, weighing approximately 30,000,000 pounds, under the auspices of Free Matter for the Blind. While the Free Matter service provides movement of eligible materials for operations other than that of the NLS program, NLS materials constitute the majority. NLS has a postal liaison who consults the USPS regarding any changes in services and products provided by the program, especially changes related to mailings such as packaging designs and address labeling.

The services provided by the USPS are fundamental to the operation of the program, and will be needed as long as any physical materials—whether reading materials or equipment—need to be shipped among parties in the program. While the delivery workload associated with the NLS program will significantly decline in the future because of increased Internet delivery of content; smaller, lighter, and more compact physical audio books; more e-communications among parties in the program; and smaller, lighter, and more reliable playback equipment, this decline will be over a period of many years and the requirement for USPS support is not expected to cease in the foreseeable future.

I. Braille and Audio Reading Download System

The NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) system was implemented in April 2009. BARD allows direct download of digital books and magazines in audio or braille format by registered patrons of NLS. It is a secure, password-protected system that has been developed and maintained by NLS staff. Since its launch four years ago, both content and use have steadily increased. Content includes more than 26,000 digital talking book titles and multiple issues of 42 digital magazines. Content hosted on the Web-Braille site will be integrated into BARD within the next months. More than half of the titles available on BARD as digital talking books are not available on cartridge in the network and are currently available only as sometimes scarce or well-worn cassettes.

An average of 850 new users register for BARD each month, and patrons download some 285,000 items per month. As of August 2012, BARD had 50,144 patron and institution accounts, and 875 library and NLS accounts. Even though the number of NLS patrons is fairly steady, the number of NLS BARD users is slowly growing. This growth we believe reflects the general trends in technology adoption across the U.S. population—NLS patrons are slowly becoming more comfortable with technology and the Internet; Internet access continues to become increasingly affordable and available, especially in rural areas; and more patrons are realizing the advantages of Internet-delivered materials in terms of time and quantity. However, only 15 percent of NLS patrons are BARD users at this time. Fifty percent of BARD users are 60 years of age or older, which is somewhat less than the overall NLS patron distribution.

BARD has become an integral part of the NLS automation system, with planned links to its internal and network-based information systems, and catalog and digital magazine distribution system. Current and future software upgrades will be required to provide all of the functionality needed to interface these systems.

Future plans for BARD. An upgrade to the BARD interface and programming is imminent. Primary new features will include integration of Web-Braille into the BARD system; the addition of foreign language, music, and locally produced materials; wish list and history lists for each patron; and enhanced displays and links. Planned future enhancements also include RSS information delivery, expanded search capabilities, and enhanced features for low-vision users.

Several factors will result from the increased use of BARD, both as a download service and as an integrated part of the NLS automation system.

As more patrons download materials, network libraries are expected to gradually decrease their requests for copies of digital talking books on cartridges. This gradual decrease will occur over several years; 85 percent of NLS patrons currently use cartridge-based talking books at this time, and the rate of increase in BARD usage is steady but slow.

Patrons able to access BARD will put increasing pressure on the capacity of the infrastructure of the Library’s bandwidth.

The number of patrons using BARD is expected to increase by 150 percent within the next five years. Factors expected to affect this increase include extrapolation of current growth (100 percent); increase in overall patron numbers (20 percent); increase in patrons’ ability to use technology (10 percent); and deployment of smartphone applications (20 percent). Although this will still represent only 38 percent of NLS patrons, it will put a significant load increase on the BARD infrastructure.

NLS expects to deploy smartphone applications within the next six months. Patrons have expressed great interest in this project. Many already have smartphones, and using a ubiquitous mainstream device instead of specialized appliances is particularly attractive to younger patrons. NLS has been advised by staff in Veterans Administration hospitals that the availability of smartphone apps would significantly increase interest in the NLS program by veterans. Therefore, NLS expects a surge of downloading once these applications are deployed. (More information on smartphone access is below.)

The goal of NLS is to provide adequate BARD capacity to meet demand and to do so in the most cost-effective manner. Therefore, NLS will monitor BARD load carefully and continuously adjust the BARD capacity planning to reflect actual trends.

The major issue will be download capacity. At present, using Library of Congress trunk lines, BARD infrastructure can support up to 300 simultaneous downloads. Patrons are expressing dissatisfaction with download speeds in many parts of the country already, especially on the West Coast. As this demand increases, it will put significant strain on the Library’s infrastructure. Increasing capacity at the Library will require planning, funding, and prioritization with other major projects and may not be the best solution in the long run. NLS is therefore considering a two-stage approach to expanding BARD’s capacity through a distributed network. Stage 1 would employ several geographically-distributed servers; currently BARD uses a single server located in the Library’s primary computing facility. The first additional server added would likely be located somewhere in the West, where BARD downloads are somewhat slower than in the East or Midwest. Additional servers would be added as needed, with all servers containing all content on the BARD system. This approach may or may not suffice for the long-term. Stage 2, if necessary, would implement a “distributed system,” whereby a telecommunications company with national coverage would distribute BARD content from multiple locations within their infrastructure.

As BARD content and usage expand, more resources will be required to maintain the system. Although some reduction may be experienced in other facets of NLS services as a result of BARD usage, these reductions are not anticipated to fully offset BARD expansion needs for several years.

J. Smartphone Access

NLS patrons have urged NLS to develop and deploy access to the BARD system using mobile devices such as smartphones. Therefore, NLS has developed specifications and contracted with vendors to develop applications for the iOS operating system used by Apple devices and for the Android operating system. These applications will be deployed during fiscal 2013 and will provide interfaces to search BARD, download content, store it on the mobile device, and read content using the same functionality as the digital player currently offers.

The apps being developed for Apple and Android-based smartphones will remove the complexity inherent in the current BARD download system. These devices come equipped with built-in accessibility features, including text enlargement, high-contrast settings, text-to-speech output, speech input, and support for refreshable braille devices. The set of gestures and commands required to activate and use these features are generally simpler to learn and use than the command structures required by a personal computer.

Because these devices have accessibility features built into their operating systems, NLS patrons will not incur any additional expense above and beyond that encountered by mainstream users of the devices.

With properly developed apps for these devices, NLS anticipates a significant increase in BARD usage, with smartphones and similar Web-enabled appliances to become fully integrated download, bookshelf, and reading systems.

It should be noted that the cost of these appliances, including ongoing data plans or Wi-Fi access, prices them out of reach for many consumers. A February 2012 Nielsen survey, New U.S. Smartphone Growth by Age and Income,16 shows a clear correlation between income and smart phone penetration in the general population. For the 70 percent of the disabled population who are unemployed, lower incomes are a major factor in this equation.

In the long term, broadband delivery of digital talking books directly to NLS talking book machines either pushed from network libraries or downloaded by the patron may revolutionize NLS’s delivery system. This possibility is not imminent however and would require major infrastructure advances nationwide as well as within the NLS network and the NLS program itself.

NLS continues to research cutting-edge technologies in order to position itself to take advantage of new reading and delivery options as they become feasible and practical for the patron and within the fiscal and administrative constraints of the program.

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With current production processes, NLS has averaged approximately 2,000 new talking books each year and generally 500 braille titles. This represents a very small percentage of standard books published in a given year. NLS plans to continue producing at least this many titles each year but, wherever possible, hopes to increase both the scope and quantity of titles produced annually. Determining factors will include the NLS budget, its mandate to serve as a public library, new and emerging technologies, and creative methods for acquiring materials.

A. Copyright.

NLS functions under the Chafee Amendment to the copyright law (Title 17 United States Code, Section 121) to produce books and magazines in specialized formats for eligible and registered patrons. NLS purchases print books and magazines and assigns them to producers to narrate or transcribe into braille or a specialized talking-book format. As a trusted entity, NLS maintains the highest standards of compliance with all copyright laws.

NLS notes its relationship to the U.S. Copyright Office, which like NLS is part of the Library of Congress. The Copyright Office is the primary advisor to the Congress on matters of copyright policy and works closely with other federal agencies on delegations to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva. At this time, there are a number of ongoing policy discussions at both the domestic and international levels that relate to copyright and disabilities laws. Whether and how these policy discussions would affect the services of NLS is a question that NLS is actively monitoring. In general, NLS is aware that the Chafee Amendment may require updating to reflect technological developments, new products in the marketplace, and new possibilities for international cooperation, including proposed international standards for exceptions and limitations to benefit the visually impaired and new voluntary initiatives such as the TIGAR project (see below).


Under the auspices of WIPO, a number of publishers, rights-holder groups, and libraries and institutions serving persons with print disabilities from around the globe launched a project known as TIGAR (Trusted Intermediary/Global Accessible Resources). This is a pilot based on licensing—created to develop a mechanism for the lawful and cooperative exchange of accessible format versions of books (including braille and digital recorded audio) between foreign organizations serving persons with print disabilities. Part of the rationale of TIGAR is to reduce the expense and repetition of effort of various agencies around the globe producing accessible versions of the same books independently of each other. Reducing duplication will free resources to have more print works converted to accessible versions.

In a pilot effort, TIGAR is resolving technical issues such as file transfer, formats, cataloging, and rights clearance that need to be addressed for cross-border transfer of copyrighted material between disparate organizations serving the visually impaired community. The project was initially launched in the fall of 2010 with a limited group of participants. Files are transferred between trusted intermediaries (known as TIs) in different nations. The Library of Congress expressed an early interest in TIGAR and the publishing community, which controls copyrights in many of the books that are at the heart of the exchange, expressed an early trust in having the Library of Congress participate. Following review and negotiation of the memorandum of understanding among WIPO, rights holders, and TIs, the Library of Congress formally joined the project in May of 2012. The NLS chief of the Materials Development Division was appointed to oversee the Library’s participation in the project.

The participation of NLS in TIGAR is predicated on the exchange of materials for the benefit of NLS patrons. As a first step, eligible titles from participating publishers and produced by NLS has taken place, and a number of braille and audio titles were transferred to the WIPO servers in August 2012. In tandem, a number of works produced abroad were downloaded by NLS.

Though still early in the TIGAR project, participants are cautiously optimistic. The work is being done with the participation and consent of publishers who are granting permission for the use of accessible versions already produced by sister agencies around the globe. The project is being watched with care by stakeholders to see how the project evolves, but there are two immediate gains: one is the development of an infrastructure for exchange between libraries—trusted intermediaries—and the other is the proposed goal of a central, unified catalog that will list all accessible versions of works available to the print-disabled individuals in every language in every part of the world.

C. Commercial Audiobooks

When NLS is able to acquire the master recording of a commercial audiobook, the production process is less expensive and considerably expedited. The narration is already complete, and the NLS contractor is left with the task of converting the audio files into a protected digital talking-book format according to NLS specifications. This process entails adding appropriate mark-up, applying the AMR-WB+ codec for data compression to make data storage and transmission feasible and efficient, and applying digital rights management encryption to the books’ files to protect owners’ copyrights for the contents as required by law for use in the program.

NLS and its contractors have developed cooperative arrangements with audiobook producers such as Brilliance, Blackstone Audio, and Recorded Books, acquiring permission to use the recordings and purchasing the performance copyright from the producers. NLS hopes to expand this avenue in the future. NLS currently is working through existing NLS contractors, but is considering contracting directly with audiobook producers to obtain these rights in the future.

D. E-books.

To date, NLS has purchased printed books for use in its production process. Consideration is being given to the use of e-books since many books are now being produced and distributed electronically. In tandem with this possibility is consideration of using high-quality text-to-speech to render all or part of the contents of an e-book to an audio file that would then be converted to a digital talking book. This avenue could potentially produce books quickly and inexpensively and thereby add content to the NLS collection at a minimal cost to the program. The key will be acquisition of an acceptable text-to-speech engine. Great advances in this technology are occurring now and NLS hopes will be at a high-enough quality level soon. This will not be a substitute for human-narrated audio, but for certain types of nonfiction and reference materials or for parts of books such as notes and indexes, it may be deemed acceptable by patrons.

E. Analog-to-Digital Conversion of Existing NLS Materials

NLS owns approximately 37,000 titles in cassette format that have not been converted to digital format. In addition, the talking book collection on vinyl discs contains important recordings which have also never been brought forward in the program. Efforts are underway to convert all appropriate legacy material to digital formats. Patrons are particularly interested in books that complete series, so these will receive high priority. Resources permitting, NLS hopes to complete this project within the next five to six years.


A. Braille

Braille is universally recognized as the literacy medium for people who are blind or severely visually impaired. Unlike audio formats, braille is a direct corollary to print. Each letter, each capitalization and punctuation mark, each paragraph, heading and emphasis mark is displayed in braille with the same fidelity as print. Text breaks, sections and chapters, footnotes, endnotes, references and sidebars are all clearly portrayed. Mathematical symbols, equations, numbers and notations are rendered plainly for the reader. Scientific notation, tables, charts, graphs, maps, flow charts and related presentations can be rendered precisely for the braille reader. The braille music system contains all the notations that provide not only the notes but also the nuances of a musical score. This level of detail is not possible in audio renderings of text. Yet, this level of detail, gained through literacy in print or in braille, is critical for success in education, and in the pursuit of jobs in today’s information economy. Without this access, blind and severely visually impaired students and workers face barriers which significantly impact their ability to compete effectively in today’s information-dependent world.

Audio rendering of printed text provides a level of access unavailable otherwise for the 95 percent of NLS patrons who cannot read standard print and do not read braille. For this reason, NLS has devoted the bulk of its resources in recent years to its talking books. However, in this information-rich age where literacy is a prerequisite to most jobs and full inclusion in community life, audio formats are not considered an acceptable substitute for print in any but the leisure reading arena for the non-disabled population. The same holds true for the disabled population. Leaders in the blindness field believe that braille is the only complete path to literacy for blind children and adults. Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind;17 Mitch Pomerantz, President of the American Council of the Blind;18 and Carl R. Augusto, president and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind19 all strongly support braille literacy.

NLS has played a fundamental role in providing hard-copy braille materials since its inception in 1931. Braille readership has waxed and waned over the years, and a disturbing downward trend in adult braille literacy is currently a topic of serious discussion among consumer organizations, educators, and other stakeholders in the blindness field. In the fall of 2013, NLS will host a “braille summit” in which stakeholders will discuss, debate, and determine braille policies, products, and services in future program operations. The objective of this braille summit will be to determine the NLS products and services mix that best meets today’s braille readers’ needs and support an increase in braille literacy.

For the most part, adults who read braille fluently learned to read it as children. But people who lose their vision later in life can and do learn to read braille with varying levels of proficiency. Of the U.S. population of blind people who are employed, approximately 90 percent are braille readers. Because of the vast importance of literacy in American society, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) legislation recognizes braille as the first option for children who are blind or severely visually impaired.

Students are using braille in different ways than they did just ten years ago. With increased access to devices with refreshable braille displays, the demand for electronic braille has increased. However, hard-copy braille continues to play an important role for beginning and advanced readers alike.

B. Braille Production

Braille production has slowed recently because of a dearth of qualified vendors. NLS is considering changes in contracting practices to divide the work between transcribers and embossers. Many organizations are able to transcribe print into electronic braille files but do not have the equipment to produce hard-copy braille according to NLS specifications. Dividing these tasks among contractors would maximize the production capacity of embossers and introduce an expanded pool of transcribers.

NLS has maintained a training program for braille transcribers throughout its history. The gold standard has always been direct-input transcription using a six-key braille keyboard first on mechanical devices and later using computer software. However, the state of braille-translation software has improved to the degree that NLS is considering developing a training program aimed at braille-translation transcribers. This change will broaden the field of certified braille transcribers and thus increase the quantity of braille products for the NLS program.

Tactile elements such as raised-line drawings, maps and diagrams in hard-copy braille have been omitted from NLS materials in recent years because of the cost of production. In some cases, such as maps and some diagrams, nothing effectively substitutes for a graphic representation. NLS needs to research options for producing tactile elements for braille materials and contractors who can produce them in a cost-effective and acceptable manner for inclusion in appropriate publications.

C. Hard-Copy Braille Books

NLS produces approximately 500 new book titles annually in hard-copy braille volumes, and additionally about 35 new titles per year in print-braille—a medium that permits blind and sighted readers to read the same text simultaneously. Continued production of both of these products is planned for the immediate future. Hard-copy braille books are allocated to network libraries, which store and distribute them to program readers. During fiscal 2011, there were 24,718 individuals and 1,915 institutions program-wide registered for use of braille books, to which 241,075 individual volumes were circulated. As of late July 2012, the number of braille book titles in the NLS collection (either produced or purchased by NLS) was 65,545, of which 18,805 were in the national collection, and the remainder consisting of special collections, maps, and music. At the end of fiscal 2011, the total NLS collection of hard-copy braille books consisted of 1,331,193 volumes stored in and distributed from network libraries.

Some network libraries have also produced hard-copy braille books that are primarily local and special-interest materials, and are available from network library collections. In July 2012, there were 3,128 titles in these collections, with most concentrated in eight network libraries.

Over the years, the distribution of hard-copy braille books in the program by network libraries has undergone considerable centralization, driven by the very high storage-space-to-circulation ratio of this product. The braille book storage and distribution operations in the network have become more efficient by consolidation of the collections of individual libraries. In current operations, the Utah regional library provides braille services to patrons in 21 states, the Massachusetts regional library to patrons in 7 states, and the Philadelphia regional library to patrons in 3 states. Several special collections are distributed from the multistate centers rather than from network libraries.

As of February 2012, NLS was producing 40 direct-circulation magazine titles in paper-bound braille format. During fiscal 2011, 242,648 magazines in braille were circulated, including 500 copies of music magazines. NLS is planning to continue production of hard-copy braille magazines at approximately the same levels as the recent past, but copy production per title will decline over time as more readers obtain more content online and use refreshable display devices.

D. Electronic Braille

Like print, the options for reading braille are changing. A braille reader can now read braille displayed on refreshable braille devices. These devices, which are usually connected to a computer or integrated into a portable system, consist of a line or more of braille cells made up of pins that correspond to the six dots of the cells. These pins change position, rising and falling as the display refreshes to display new lines of braille text. Thus the braille reader can read an electronic braille file in a manner similar to reading print on a computer screen.

This reading system presents several advantages. A device may be smaller than a single braille volume and easily portable. Because the files are small, many books can be contained on a single storage card. Files are easily and quickly downloaded from the Internet even with slow connections. With appropriate formatting and software, electronic braille books can be navigated, searched, and bookmarked in ways impossible with hard-copy braille.

Today’s braille displays use piezoelectric technology to drive the display. Retail costs are between $60 and $80 per cell. This makes a 40-cell display (half of a standard print line) cost more than $2,400. Multiple-line displays are not produced at all because of the cost. The current technology works well, but is not practical as a universal access device for all braille readers.

Several initiatives are underway to develop a new technology to replace the piezoelectric braille cell. The goal is to develop a technology that is inexpensive to produce, robust, reliable, functional, and inexpensive to maintain. NLS has joined one such effort, spearheaded by the Daisy Consortium, and drawing international support to identify and test promising possibilities.

In the meantime, NLS has supported a web service called Web-Braille since 1995, making electronic braille files available for download to any patron who has access to a refreshable braille device. Web-Braille files may be read online, saved, or transferred to an embosser.

Some 6,000 program patrons currently use Web-Braille. Content from Web-Braille is provided in braille-ready format, the current standard format for electronic representation of braille. During fiscal 2011, 4,154 Web-Braille users downloaded 38,462 braille books, 8,936 braille magazines, and 400 braille musical scores. This service has been particularly important to deaf-blind patrons. Content includes 12,027 NLS-produced braille titles, of which 10,148 are books and 1,879 are musical scores. The collection is augmented by 1,168 network-library-produced braille titles.

When the cost of refreshable braille technology falls to a supportable level with either current technology or an as-yet undeveloped technology, NLS plans to develop and implement a braille reading device comparable to its digital talking book machine. The advantages to patrons have been cited above and the advantages to NLS and the NLS network will be significant. Perhaps most important will be an immeasurable contribution to the revitalization of braille literacy.

E. Production and Storage

NLS currently produces approximately 500 titles in braille and 40 magazines in braille each year. Production costs include two distinct phases—transcription and embossing/binding. Implementation of a braille reader available to all patrons will shrink the demand for hard copies of braille books and magazines, thus saving the cost of production. In time, some titles may not need to be produced in hard copy at all. With embossing and storage costs eliminated, NLS may be able to reintroduce large reference materials such as an unabridged dictionary or encyclopedia.

Hard-copy braille is bulky, requiring considerable space to store and maintain. Within the NLS network, states are consolidating braille collections and in many cases contracting with larger libraries to provide handling and storage services. Although electronic braille is not expected to completely eliminate the need for hard-copy braille, future production processes and reduced demand may in the long-term lead to braille being stored digitally and produced in hard copy only on demand.

F. Summary

In the near term, NLS expects to continue to produce hard-copy braille books and magazines for its patrons as well as maintain electronic braille download options. In the fall of 2013 NLS will host a summit to take an in-depth look at braille usage and needs, and to position NLS products and services to best meet those needs. NLS also plans to explore development and distribution of a braille reading machine with functionality comparable to that of the digital talking-book machine.

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Approximately 3 million Americans are eligible to use NLS services, but fewer than 15 percent do so. A lack of knowledge about the service is one of the most often cited reasons for not using it. NLS and its network libraries need to find new ways to educate all eligible individuals about the resources available to them through this program. To meet this priority, NLS will implement a comprehensive review of current outreach practices, leverage partnerships with other organizations, and test and implement new opportunities including social media avenues.

A. Survey Current and Potential Patrons to Discovery Wants, Needs, Barriers, and  Opportunities for Improving and Expanding Services

A comprehensive survey of current patrons and of individuals who are eligible but do not use NLS services can provide insight into ways the services can be improved and ways that currently eligible non-users can be made aware of the resources available to them. This survey will be conducted in fiscal 2013.

B. Implement Social Media Campaigns to Raise Awareness of NLS and Network Services

Current and emerging social media outlets have become the vehicles of choice for news and information for a large segment of today’s population. An active presence in this arena for NLS will be developed and monitored for its effectiveness.

C. Revise NLS Web Pages.

NLS web pages have not been updated in look and functionality in several years. A dynamic, updated look with changing information and a focus on facts and data sought by users will help spread the word about NLS network services. Accessibility is an imperative for the pages, and fortunately screen-reading software and options for people with low vision have evolved to allow more current designs to be accessible.

D. Develop Partnerships with Organizations Representing a High Percentage of Potential Eligible Patrons.

Many organizations in the United States represent populations with physical disabilities who have a high likelihood of eligibility for the NLS program. Partnerships with these organizations can help spread the word about NLS network services to individuals with qualifying disabilities who may not be aware of their eligibility. Currently NLS maintains active partnerships with the National Federation of the Blind, the American Council of the Blind, the Blinded Veterans Association, and the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies among many other professional organizations. An active outreach effort is underway to reach blinded and disabled veterans through veterans’ hospitals, beginning with Walter Reed. NLS is also initiating contacts with other disability organizations representing individuals who are eligible for service based on physical disabilities.

E. Evaluate, Revise, and Implement Continuing National Outreach Campaign

NLS has conducted a national outreach campaign for several years. Efforts will be made to study the effectiveness of the elements employed in various outreach activities and concentrate resources on the most effective strategies.

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NLS and its network libraries form the first and most fundamental level of free and accessible library services to all Americans who cannot read standard print because of a visual, physical, or organically based reading disability. For the past 81 years, NLS has carried out its mission by providing books and magazines in specialized formats for circulation at no cost to eligible patrons, developing and providing accessible playback equipment for eligible patrons to play specialized format materials produced for their specific use, cooperating with a network of libraries to provide direct patron service circulating NLS-produced materials, and driving the creation of standards and the development of accessible technology which will enhance access and literacy for NLS patrons. Embodied in its legislation are the beliefs that literacy and access to information are critical elements of success in education, employment, community and family life. To that end, NLS will ensure that all eligible individuals can access NLS-created materials regardless of their age, physical disabilities, economic circumstances, or technical expertise. NLS will continue to move forward proactively with innovations in its program to improve the reading and delivery experience for all patrons as technologies and environments evolve. At the same time, NLS will maintain the highest quality standards for the materials it produces and maintain its integrity as a highly trusted entity in the publishing and copyright arena. NLS will continue to position itself as a patron-centered organization, seeking input and feedback from its constituencies at every level.

Major programs include the physical distribution of braille and talking books and talking-book players through network libraries; BARD, a recently introduced digital download service; direct-mail braille and audio magazines; and music services.

NLS has introduced the digital talking book and the digital talking-book machine with great success. Adequate numbers of machines are available for the immediate future, and the number of titles available is growing steadily. However, a significant number of NLS patrons have not yet adopted the new technology. NLS and its network of cooperating libraries continue to work on this transition.

Eighty-five percent of current patrons rely on physical delivery of books through the mail and use NLS-provided machines to play them. NLS anticipates an increase in eligible patrons because of population and demographic factors discussed earlier. However, the majority of these individuals will be dealing with late-onset vision loss and may not have the skills or training required to effectively use current or near-future technologies to download their materials. For these reasons, NLS anticipates maintaining physical copies of digital talking books and machines indefinitely. The required numbers will gradually decrease to a lower level over time.

NLS is in the process of phasing out cassette technology from its program. This project is not expected to be completed until all libraries have removed their cassette collections and machines, and all patrons are using digital players and books. In addition, it will not be complete until all relevant titles currently available on cassette are converted to the digital format. This overall process is expected to take at least another five years to complete.

NLS will continue serving music and overseas patrons in the current manner as this has proven most effective.

Because braille is the acknowledged literacy medium for people who are blind or severely visually impaired, NLS will continue to support its braille program. When new technologies make the cost of refreshable braille displays affordable, NLS will provide braille-reading machines with refreshable braille displays and other functionality comparable to that of the digital talking-book machine to all patrons who read braille who request one. At this future stage, the need for hard-copy braille books and magazines will decrease as braille readers are able to use downloaded braille files.

NLS will continue to enhance its Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) system to keep up with demand and to improve the download experience. An anticipated increase of 150 percent in users over the next five years will require substantial infrastructure support to meet expanding demands on the system.

NLS is migrating its direct-mail audio magazine program from cassette to digital talking-book format on flash cartridges. The cassette-based magazine program will be discontinued in fiscal 2013, as soon as the digital program is operational. The direct-mail braille magazine program will continue as is for the foreseeable future.

* NLS Comprehensive Mailing List System, “Calculated Age at Registration.” Five percent of patron records contain incomplete data on date of birth.

1 House Report 112-148 on the Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill, 2012.

2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Improving the Nation’s Vision Health: A Coordinated Public Health Approach. Retrieved Sept. 25, 2012. [PDF: 1.87 mb / 58 p.]

3 Retrieved Sept. 25, 2012.

4 Retrieved Sept. 25, 2012.

5 NLS Comprehensive Mailing List System, Calculated Age at Registration.

6 NLS Comprehensive Mailing List System, Calculated Age at Registration.

7 CDC/National Center for Health Statistics, National Health Interview Survey, 2009. Retrieved Sept. 25, 2012.

8 Retrieved Sept. 25, 2012. 9 Blinded Veterans Association, “Locate America’s Blinded Vets.” Retrieved Sept. 25, 2012.

10 Institute of Medicine,Treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Military and Veteran Populations: Initial Assessment, June 13, 2012.

11 Ralph Ranalli, Boston Globe, January 5, 2008.

12 American Foundation for the Blind, Special Report on Aging and Vision Loss, updated January 2012. Retrieved Sept. 25, 2012.

13 National Institutes of Health, U.S. DHHS, Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Adults: National Health Interview Survey, 2010. Population: 229,505,000; ages 18 and above.

14 Retrieved Sept. 25, 2012.

15Saaddine, Honeycutt, Narayan, Zhang, Klein, and Boyle, 2008. “Visual Impairment and Eye Care among Older Adults—Five States, 2005.” MMWR 2006;55(49):1321–1325.

16 Retrieved Sept. 25, 2012.

17 Retrieved Sept. 25, 2012.

18 Retrieved Sept. 25, 2012.

19 Retrieved Sept. 25, 2012.

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