Accessibility is—and always has been—top of mind at NLS
By Mark Layman
In the early 1980s, an advertising firm came up with a catchy new slogan for the Ford Motor Co.: “Quality is Job 1.”
At the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS), accessibility has been Job 1 for more than 90 years.
“Accessibility can’t be an afterthought for us,” says NLS Director Jason Broughton. “Ensuring that people with visual or physical disabilities can easily use our equipment and materials is always top of mind, through every step of the development process.”
That commitment to accessibility is evident throughout NLS, in ways big and small—from the design of its websites, which drew nearly half a million visitors last year, to the vending machine in the NLS breakroom, which has a brailled list of the offerings taped to the front.
Consider, for example, NLS’s analog-to-digital transition in the mid-2000s. The consortium NLS chose to develop a digital talking-book (DTB) player included three subcontractors that were experts in accessibility: HumanWare, which produces its own line of digital audiobook players; the National Federation of the Blind (NFB); and the Trace Research and Development Center, a pioneer in technology for disabled people.
NLS patrons were involved in the project from the start. As described by then-director Frank Kurt Cylke and two co-authors in the Spring 2007 issue of Library Trends, focus groups in six cities “were tested on operating the controls, wrapping the power cord for storage and opening and closing the [DTB] mailing container. They reviewed player and cartridge shapes, insertion methods and button shapes and layouts. Users demonstrated . . . that built-in audio prompts to guide usage also were essential.”
The result: A digital talking-book player that is customized to meet the needs of people with visual or physical disabilities. It’s lighter and more portable than the cassette machines NLS used for 30 years. The standard model has braille labels, large buttons of different shapes and colors and gives audible feedback for its various functions. It also has a speed control that sets playback at 50 percent to 300 percent of normal with no change in pitch—technology similar to that developed by an NLS patron in the late 1960s.
The advanced model has all that, plus controls for setting and retrieving bookmarks and for navigating through books.
Since 2009, NLS has produced some 540,000 of these digital talking-book players. Now a next-generation player—lighter, with WiFi connectivity and more—is ready to be field tested.
Features like bookmarking and navigation are possible thanks to a five-year effort coordinated by NLS—with participation from a dozen organizations, including NFB, the American Council of the Blind, and the Blinded Veterans Association—to develop a national standard for digital talking books. It was adopted by NISO, the National Information Standards Organization, in early 2002—right around the time NLS produced its one millionth analog cassette machine.
Michael Moodie, who was NLS’s research and development officer, said at the time, “The real beauty of the DTB standard is that it allows users great flexibility in how they read. . . . Some books call for a straight, linear reading experience, while others will need sophisticated functions that allow random access to sections of the DTB, the ability to turn on or off selected elements such as footnotes and the capability to set bookmarks . . . .”
Besides navigational markers, digital talking books produced by NLS have other features not found in commercial audiobooks, such as descriptions of illustrations, graphics and other materials that do not lend themselves to narration. “We call it Accessibility 360,” says Alice O’Reilly, chief of the NLS Collections Division. “We think about how we can make this content accessible to people from every angle.”
The decision to bypass compact discs and record digital talking books on flash drives was made with accessibility in mind, too. A single flash drive can hold multiple books, be reused indefinitely and be played on machines with no moving parts, minimizing malfunctions. The flash drives are enclosed in plastic cartridges that have print and braille labels and are easy to insert or remove from the player, even for someone with a significant physical disability. (The cartridges are about the same size as cassettes—one of the subtle ways NLS tried to help patrons adjust to the change.)
Careful thought was also given to the containers in which NLS network libraries mail digital talking-book cartridges to patrons. An outline of a cartridge is molded into the containers to ensure they are packed correctly. And all a patron has to do to return a book is flip the address card over to reveal the library’s address and drop the container in the mail.
NLS’s top-to-bottom commitment to accessibility is evident in many other ways. Its website, for example, is compatible with screen readers, provides alt text for all images and has a menu of accessibility tools that allow visitors to increase text size, adjust contrast and turn on underlining for links. BARD, the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download website, and the BARD Mobile app are optimized to work with the built-in accessibility features on iOS and Android devices. NLS offers remote controls and breath switches for its digital talking-book players, and patrons with significant hearing loss can request a high-volume player and headphones. And NLS recently began distributing its Braille eReader, making books in electronic braille available to patrons who don’t own expensive commercial braille displays.
“Going back to the 1930s, when NLS partnered with the American Foundation for the Blind to distribute the first talking books on 33⅓ rpm records, we’ve taken advantage of the best available technology to promote and expand accessibility,” Broughton says.
“The transition from cassettes to digital books was a huge step for NLS—but we haven’t been resting on our laurels. We’re continuing to upgrade our servers so more patrons can use BARD and download books faster. We’re excited about the Braille eReader and the WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities of the next-generation digital talking-book player. We’re experimenting with voice-user interface technology to make our devices more user-friendly. And we are always on the lookout for more ways to fulfill our motto: That All May Read.”
Read how NLS patron Sanford Greenberg’s soon-to-be-famous roommate helped him get through college after he suddenly lost his sight—and how Greenberg went on to create one of the earliest methods for time-scale modification, an essential feature of NLS talking-book players:
NLS internship program is renamed to honor its late founder and director
Erica Vaughns’ coworkers at the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS) could always count on her to cut through bureaucratic red tape and take on—and fix—most any problem.
But it was her boisterous laugh that those who knew her have been missing the most since her death on February 20 at age 47.
It was a laugh “that brightened days and kept us on an even keel,” former NLS director Karen Keninger recalled. “You could hear that laugh throughout the building, and you couldn’t help but join in.”
Vaughns’ NLS career began in 2005 when, as an assistant to the deputy director, she documented the development of the NLS digital talking-book player, which replaced the cassette machines the program had used since the early 1970s.
The following year, Vaughns became executive assistant to the NLS director. In late 2018, Keninger appointed her to head the Administrative Services Section, which handles payroll, personnel, travel and more for NLS’s 120 employees.
While serving as executive assistant to Keninger’s predecessor, Frank Kurt Cylke, Vaughns wrote “Talking Rooms: Walking through History at the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped Headquarters.” It was published by the Library of Congress in 2009 and won an APEX (Awards for Publication Excellence) award in the One-of-a-Kind Publications/Government category. (“Talking Rooms” is available on the NLS website and in audio.)
Vaughns also founded and directed an internship program that offers legally blind college students and recent graduates the opportunity to work at NLS during the summer. NLS has renamed the internship program in Vaughns’ honor.
“We will always be proud to share Erica’s legacy of achievement and success with the young women and men who will have the opportunity to explore and expand their career options through the Erica C. Vaughns Aspiring Leaders Internship Program,” NLS Deputy Director Jason Yasner said.
Details about the internship program are online. Applications for summer 2024 internships are due November 1.
Machine-repair volunteer remembered as a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ who could ‘do about everything’
By Mark Layman
Steve Austin retired from Lucent Technologies in 1987 after a long career as an electrical engineer. But he never stopped working. For the next 35 years he gave countless volunteer hours to clearing and maintaining hiking trails in Colorado, refurbishing broken bicycles—and repairing NLS talking-book machines.
After Austin died on December 15 at age 97, a friend wrote on a Kudoboard.com tribute pageExternal that he was “a jack-of-all-trades who knew how to do just about everything, from operating a blacksmith forge for repairing tools to telling the best ghost stories around the campfire.” Another friend referred to the beer commercials featuring “The Most Interesting Man in the World” and wrote, “80 percent of their stuff is a rip-off from the life of Steve."
Austin was affiliated with a Denver, Colorado-area chapter of the Pioneers, a nationwide community-service organization of telecom employees and retirees. Pioneers chapters began repairing NLS talking-book machines in 1960—first record players and then, starting in the 1970s, cassette machines. In 2009, NLS began replacing cassettes with digital talking-book machines that play books recorded on flash drives.
A proclamation from NLS commemorating the Pioneers’ 100th anniversary in 2011 noted that, up to that time, the organization’s volunteers had repaired more than 3.6 million talking-book machines, saving taxpayers an estimated $216 million.
Austin also was a member of NLS’s Reading Technology Advisory Group, which provides feedback on new products and initiatives, and Machine Repair Group.
“Steve was always there when the program needed him, and that was pretty often,” says NLS equipment officer Kevin Watson. “He was kind, smart, humble, and giving. He never, ever, had a bad word for anyone.”
The newsletter Austin compiled for machine-repair volunteers, Fully Charged, “was invariably chock full of useful hints and tips for repair technicians,” Watson says. “It went a long way to establishing the good protocols we have for handling machines.”
Austin grew up on a farm in Connecticut during the Great Depression and was an Army Air Corps radio mechanic during World War II, according to a profile published by the Northglenn Thornton (Colorado) Sentinel in 2015. After the war he earned a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Colorado and began his telecom career.
An avid hiker, Austin joined Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC) after he retired and became a crew leader and instructor. A VOC social media post said that by 2015 he had worked on 300 trail projects. VOC established the Steve Austin Training Scholarship to honor “one of our most skilled, longest tenured, and committed volunteer leaders”; it covers the fees for up to three recipients each year to attend VOC’s Outdoor Stewardship Institute.
Austin told the Northglenn Thornton Sentinel that years earlier he began helping a city maintenance worker who picked up discarded bicycles, repaired them and gave them away. When the man moved, “I kind of took it over,” Austin said. “Now there are [seven of us] that work two mornings a week to fix up the bikes. . . . We gave away over 350 bikes right before Christmas to families that can’t afford to buy them.”
Austin was honored as Outstanding Senior Corps Volunteer at Colorado’s 2016 Governor’s Service Awards. And in 2019 he received a 30-year service award from the Friends of the Colorado Talking Book Library (CTBL).
Terri Marcotte, the CTBL’s director of volunteer engagement, says Austin had given the library nearly 2,000 hours of his time just since 2013. And from 2018 through 2022, he worked on 1,960 NLS digital talking-book machines.
“And that doesn’t take into account helping everybody else,” adds CTBL machine lending officer Tod Zeigler. “When people ran into trouble with machines, he’d be the go-to-guy.”
Even after he was injured in a fall late last year, Austin kept working. “He called and said he had two cases of machines he was going to finish and then take some time off,” Zeigler says.
Those 16 machines, the last of thousands that Austin repaired over the past 35 years, are back at the library now, ready to be re-distributed to patrons.
Marcotte recalls that when she interviewed Austin in connection with his library award, she learned his community service also included building wheelchair ramps, helping his local police department with Halloween and Christmas programs for kids and working at food banks.
But to Austin, it didn’t seem like a big deal. “It’s volunteering,” he told a reporter from Denver TV station KMGH who visited his bicycle repair group last summer, “and since I retired, this is what I do.”
New catalog makes finding NLS books easier than ever
The new NLS Catalog launched this winter at https://nlscatalog.loc.gov. Among the new features:
- Users can search the catalog by keyword or by using the “Browse” single-search box to find words or phrases in titles, author/narrator names, subjects, Dewey call numbers, Library of Congress call numbers and NLS book numbers. There is also an advanced search option that allows users to combine search words using guided menus. Tips are included on each of the search pages.
- The design enables easy reading and navigation, requiring minimal resizing, panning and scrolling regardless of whether the catalog is being used on a mobile phone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer.
- Search results include direct links to BARD, the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download website.
- Each page has links to “Ask a Librarian” (which goes to the NLS Information Services Section, formerly the Reference Section), suggest a title for NLS collections, and report record errors.
- Users can email themselves information about a title and print short- and long-form search results.
NLS launches Spanish-language website
NLS launched its new Spanish-language website in late January. The 24-page site provides general program information and lists of resources in Spanish, and is an easy way for both current and prospective patrons to access Spanish-language materials. It is accessible from a link at the top of the main NLS home page (www.loc.gov/nls) or by visiting https://www.loc.gov/nls/es/.
The website launch coincided with an important anniversary. On February 8, 2019, the United States became the 50th member state to join the Marrakesh Treaty, a landmark copyright agreement allowing for the international exchange of accessible-format books. This agreement has contributed to the significant growth of NLS’s Spanish-language catalog. “Now, four years since joining this historic global initiative, NLS is proud to showcase our wealth of accessible resources and to make a space available for Spanish speakers with visual and print disabilities to enjoy the transformational power of reading,” NLS Communications and Outreach Section Head Kristen Fernekes said.
Seattle talking-book library featured in the New York Times
The New York Times showed some love to the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library (WTBBL) in a Valentine’s Day story celebrating the myriad ways libraries across the country provide services and resources to enrich their communities. The story included a photo of a 14-year-old visually impaired girl who moved with her family from India to Seattle after her father discovered WTBBL on a business trip and decided there would be more opportunities for her in the US. Find the story onlineExternal (subscription may be required).
NLS FY2023 exhibit schedule
If you’re attending any of these conferences, stop by our booth and find out how NLS can help the people your organization serves!
Council for Exceptional Children
Music Library Association
St. Louis, MO
Music Teachers National Association
American Foundation for the Blind
National Council of State Agencies for the Blind
American Occupational Therapy Association
Kansas City, MO
American College of Healthcare Administrators
National Rural Health Association
San Diego, CA
Native American Healthcare Conference
June 30–July 6
American Council of the Blind
National Federation of the Blind
American School Counselors Association
USAging (National Association of Area Agencies on Aging)
Salt Lake City, UT
American Federation of Teachers
American Association of Diabetes Educators
Disabled American Veterans
Atlantic City, NJ
Blinded Veterans Association
St. Louis, MO
American Legion National Conference