- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2003

The Library of Congress branch that provides audiobooks for the blind and physically challenged made a meritorious decision years ago not to embrace the eight-track tape. If only the rest of us had been so forward-thinking. Now the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is skipping an entire format again, bypassing CD technology to offer digital talking books the size of a credit card.

The Library of Congress estimates about 3 million Americans are either too impaired visually to read traditional text or suffer from disabilities that make holding books and magazines impossible. The NLS serves about 690,000 of that group with its audio products.

Talking books and magazines on special audio cassettes have been sent free of charge along with playback machines to eligible recipients for about 30 years.

The looming switch to digital promises to be a boon for patrons, with improved sound, portability and the chance to skim back and forth quickly over text. Users also will be able to slow down or speed up the narration without sacrificing pitch for those who read — or rather listen — more quickly. Today’s cassette players can speed up the narration, but at faster speeds, it takes on an Alvin and the Chipmunks effect.

The digital books also will feature a “sleep” switch so users can fall asleep while listening and not fall too far behind in the text.

Michael Moodie, NLS research and development officer, says the books and magazines selected for audio transfer are “a cross section of what you might find at the library.”

The books range from “Pro Wrestling: From Carnivals to Cable TV” by Keith Elliot Greenberg to “Death in the Afternoon” by Ernest Hemingway. The NLS adds from 2,000 to 2,200 new books into the audio format each year.

Cassettes have proved a solid method for putting forth the material.

“For most of our users, it works fine,” Mr. Moodie says.

The current system, in operation since the early 1970s, involves audiocassettes that appear identical to those in mainstream use for decades. The NLS cassettes, though, are four-track, not the two-track models produced for popular music recordings. They play at half the speed of a traditional cassette, which allows them to pack in more information — up to six hours of material. The average book requires 12 hours of cassette time.

When the NLS system began, reading materials were translated onto bulky 78-speed records, which held just 30 minutes per side, requiring several pounds of records for an average-length book. The transition from 78 to 33⅓-speed records in our culture was spurred on, according to NLS, by a movement to improve the inefficient NLS system. The 33⅓-speed records could store much more information, meaning fewer delicate discs were needed for each book. Once the 33⅓ records proved workable in the NLS system, the medium was embraced by the mainstream.

The future digital book, which will hold about 12 hours of material, will compress digital data to fit on 128 megabytes of memory.

The switch to digital will be costly. The price for digital memory cards prohibits NLS from switching right now, but prices continue to drop. Another potential obstacle is that some users might not want to switch from a format that, while imperfect, has served them for years.

Many steps remain before the switch takes place. NLS must decide on a specific format for the books, from flash memory cards to memory sticks. The prices for each are still too high for the kind of mass production the NLS reading system demands.

NLS expects to have digital masters of 20,000 titles ready by 2008, as well as 50,000 digital talking-book players. That year will see the start of the transition, as about 10 percent of its audience will have access to the new players. The first digital books will begin trickling out within the next year and may be distributed via the Internet to readers with the appropriate equipment and skills.

Mr. Moodie says NLS never considered switching to the CD format.

“For us, CDs really don’t work. Sixty percent of our patrons are over 60. … CDs aren’t user-friendly for people who need to touch things,” he says. CDs can be smudged by repeated handling, and because the audiobooks are used over and again, they would become damaged quickly.

Plus, CD players tend to be more delicate than cassette players.

“Our players take a fair degree of knocking around in the field,” Mr. Moodie says, adding that the final digital talking-book machines will have to have as few moving parts as possible for a longer life.

Freddie Peaco, a volunteer coordinator with NLS, appreciates how the cassette system has made so many books available to her and others without sight. The system does have its drawbacks, though.

“Once in a while, they unwind and you get that tangled cassette on a really great book,” Mrs. Peaco says.

The audiobooks beep while fast-forwarding to alert the reader to a new chapter, but getting the players to stop at just the right time can be tough, she adds.

Many audiobook patrons become frustrated with the current system’s need to constantly flip switches and tapes, says Steven Booth, manager of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind within the National Federation of the Blind consumer group.

“For the user, it’s somewhat complicated,” says Mr. Booth, who is working with NLS to help develop the new system. “After you listen to tracks one and two, you have to flick a switch for three and four. Some forget to change the side-selector switch. Many people never do it.

“With digital books, you have one straight shot through the book. You don’t have to worry about rewinding or fast-forwarding,” he says.

Patrons who get along just fine with the current system can continue to use it even as the digital talking books enter the system.

“They’re going to keep the cassettes going as long as possible. It’s going to be a slow transition,” Mr. Booth says.

Penny Reeder, editor of the Braille Forum, the American Council of the Blind’s monthly magazine, says the sooner the transition to digital occurs, the better.

“The digital format allows you to have more access to a book, in the same way someone who reads print does,” says Ms. Reeder, whose District-based group supports the general well-being of the visually impaired.

The current cassette system is “very liberating,” Ms. Reeder says. It’s also limiting.

“The quality of some of the cassettes isn’t great,” she says. “There’s a hum in the background.”

Much worse are the system breakdowns.

“It’s happened to me,” she says. “You’re in the crucial point of the book and the cassette breaks.”

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