July 2009 Issue  Volume 10  Number 4

Access Issues

Are You on BARD? The Long-awaited Switch to Digital Talking Books

On April 30, 2009, an e-mail message from the administrator of the brand-new Braille and Audio Reading Service (BARD) of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), popped into my Outlook in-basket. The note urged all users to exercise a modicum of restraint in stressing the capabilities of the then one-day-old--yet so-long-awaited--Digital Talking Book (DTB) download service, which had gone live just the previous day. According to the NLS, the facility, now available to registered NLS patrons without any of the earlier download limits of 30 titles per month, was already successful beyond the agency's most optimistic forecast: "We are experiencing an enormous load on the system at the current time," the message admitted with some pride, while implying that the NLS load management would resolve any residual performance issues within the first few weeks of operation.

The e-mail message brought back a sudden flood of memories. It was during my Toronto days, in the mid-1990s, while I was chairing the technology committee of the National Library of the Canadian National Institute for the BLIND (CNIB), when Lloyd Rasmussen from the NLS joined us for several key meetings. The CNIB National Library, and its technology committee in particular, were abuzz with excitement about a combination of new promising technologies that were being considered for bringing the next generation of Talking Books to Canadians who were blind or had low vision. Even back then, the strategic planners of major service providers to the community of consumers who are visually impaired the world over were realizing that the era of Talking Books recorded on analog audiocassettes, using the tried-and-true Library of Congress Talking Book format, was coming to an unavoidable end. The proverbial writing was already on the wall--sales of audiocassette players were dwindling, while various incarnations of small CD (compact disk) players were becoming cheaper. So many Walkman portable audiocassette players proudly looped to the belts of millions of techno-savvy consumers on seven continents were being swapped for an even greater number of even "cooler" Discman portable CD players, and the CD medium was becoming progressively ubiquitous. Before long--the strategic library planners knew--it would become increasingly difficult to manufacture new Talking Book players, source replacement parts for old units in the field, and even find reliable suppliers of C-60 and C-90 audiocassettes. In other words, an unavoidable crisis was looming in the land of Talking Books for people who were visually impaired.

My wise better half, born and raised at the edge of the most populous nation in the world, many times pointed out to me that in the Chinese ideographic script, the glyph for "crises" is formed by twinning the symbols for "danger" and "opportunity." I am not quite sure if she ever served in an advisory role to strategic library planners, but even at the time, it was pretty obvious to me that no one was succumbing to the desperate cries of that renowned prophet of doom by the name of Chicken Little and to her self-defeating pronouncements about the ever-impending ruin of the heavenly vault.

Rather, even before the meetings with Lloyd Rasmussen, I had started to play with an amazing machine developed by Plextor, a Japanese leader in the manufacturing of computer CD drives, often dubbed CD-ROMs. The impressive, and just slightly intimidating, desktop unit literally swallowed a somewhat clunky cartridge containing a CD-ROM into its motorized maw. After several seconds of silence and intermittent whirring, clanging, and clicking, an elegant British-accented voice announced "Aligoté to Zinfandel," the title of a book extolling the subtle bouquets of, well, Canadian wines, of course. While the implications of the subject matter and the improbable claims in the volume left this writer, accustomed to the earthy bouquets of his native Italian Barolo, Amarone, Barbaresco, and Grignolino somewhat perplexed, having been shell-shocked a few times too many by the arid vintages of the Niagara peninsula during the 1970s and 1980s, I was nevertheless stunned by what I was hearing. The entire book, several hundred pages long, was narrated with a spectacular voice quality, infinitely superior to anything I had ever heard. The volume was recorded on a single 650 MB (megabyte) silvery CD-ROM platter.

A combination of then trend-setting technologies--digital recordings; MP3 audio compression; the proposed DAISY Digital Talking Book standard; and CD-ROM, of course-- made the magic happen. Through the impressive control panel of the Plextalk desktop machine, I could fly around the book. I readily skipped over the front matter and then navigated around the volume in a drill down, by major section, chapter, subsection, and even paragraph, through the simple touch of a key. I dropped "bookmarks" at will, virtual incarnations of the mythical bread crumbs of so many children's fairy tales, and magically returned to them at the push of another button. I felt like a modern fusion of Tom Thumb and Superman. With just a single key press, I could refresh my obviously flawed experiential memory anytime and return to the passage discussing the misunderstood virtues of that sublime Niagara Zinfandel, whose quality I had such an unfortunate and only subtly different recollection of: one fine day, while quietly resting horizontal in my wine rack, the bottle decided to launch its own celebration of a sort, when Champagne-like, exuberantly firing its own cork with a loud report, it ejected its whole contents with a frothy jet of sparkling and viciously vinegary red vintage against the far kitchen wall, which until then had stood immaculately "linen white" a full 12 feet away.

Yet, while chairing the aforementioned technology committee meeting, true to the image of the stern IBM professional that I was, I kept my minor vine-cultural quibbles to myself and concentrated my concerns on the truly staggering implications of a pervasive technological transition from Talking Books produced on analog audiocassettes to entire Talking Book library systems based on digital media of various kinds. The CNIB was seriously considering the eventual adoption of Digital Talking Books based on the DAISY system, to be stored on some forms of CD-ROMs, for playback on machines derived from the Plextor device I was alpha testing, as well as on a lower-cost, but ergonomically more agile, player then being developed by the innovative Canadian company VisuAide, of Montreal, more recently merged with HumanWare International. An industry-wide debate centered on the adoption of the early clunky cartridges that housed the CD medium for digital books. Strange chimeras of CD jewel cases and sleeves of three-inch floppy drives, with their big, spring-loaded access flanges, these hybrid cartridges seem to have inherited all the clumsiness of both and the convenience of none. While the Plextor machine still used these monstrosities in the hopes of protecting the then relatively expensive silvery disks, the early Victor prototype from VisuAide had already dispensed with the unwieldy sealed sleeves and, thankfully, could be fed bare disks.

Yet, back at the committee meeting, Lloyd remained unimpressed. The CD-ROM, spun about by high-speed motors and read by Lilliputian laser beams in optical "worm drives," looked outwardly promising, yet he foresaw it to be a transitory technology, eventually to be replaced by solid-state recording systems. NLS was committed to a long-term strategic transition to a new digital recording medium, but was going to leapfrog optical spinning CD-ROM disks all together, with their inflexible storage limit of 720MB, spun and read by inherently failure-prone mechanical drives. Quite prophetically, Lloyd believed that CDs were likely to start becoming obsolete by the time NLS was ready to roll out a Digital Talking Book Service, toward the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

NLS was already performing research on a solid-state recording medium. Digitally recorded books would be stored on solid-state chips of some kind, perhaps flash memory modules. There would be no moving parts inside future NLS players, while patrons would drop highly reliable and easy-to-use memory cartridges, sporting storage capacities to rival CD-ROMs, into a player, which existed only in what I thought then to be the overactive imagination of Lloyd Rasmussen and his management. I admit it: I was skeptical. The cost of solid-state memory was then prohibitive, and even applying moderately aggressive data compression to reduce storage requirements would have yielded storage cartridges that contained only a few hours of recording at extravagant prices per unit. The same book could perhaps be downloaded from a server to a client's machine, via a modem, at a snail's pace of perhaps 32 KB (kilobits) per second on a lucky day. Obviously, the future was in the pretty iridescent spinning CD silvery disks, which only then were starting to become affordable. I was positive--nothing would ever replace the little polycarbonate marvels! Yet, Lloyd Rasmussen remained undaunted.

Time passed. The chairmanship of the CNIB National Library technology committee was eventually transferred to a more worthy and much better-organized dreamer of technologies for readers with visual impairments than me. By the time I moved to Austin with my family in 1998, I was starting to realize the probable error of my ways. The cost of permanent solid-state flash memory was steadily decreasing, small USB storage "keys" were starting to appear on the market, and the first wave of flash-based solid state MP3 music players were beginning to erode the oddly short-lived monopoly of the personal Discman.

The Reality of Digital Books

Final proof that I was the delusional one, while Lloyd Rasmussen was a farseeing visionary, came during the summer 2008 convention of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in Dallas, where for the first time I put my hands on the advanced prototype of the new NLS Digital Talking Book player, as well as on several examples of solid-state book cartridges. I was instantly sold. The machine felt solid, functional, ergonomically intuitive, and … gorgeous. The solid-state cartridge seemed to have incorporated the best concepts and design solutions of the HumanWare Victor and the most recent advanced Plextor models, with some ergonomics inherited from the classic audiocassette recorder of the American Printing House for the Blind and the functional dreams of Lloyd Rasmussen and his enlightened group at the NLS, together with a sound quality to die for. I had been obviously wrong and was delighted for it. Books would be recorded using AMR WB+, an innovative and highly compressed digital format, capable of yielding an astonishing sound quality for the audio frequency band used for the reproduction of the human voice. A full hour of recording would be stored in a mere 11 MB of memory, one-sixtieth of the amount of space available on a standard CD.

Almost any audio book can now fit from cover to cover on one of the 1 GB (gigabyte) palm-sized chunky cartridges or, to be precise, any book that lasts 91 hours of reading or less. And all this without any tape hiss; squeaky, jammed, or broken tapes; or otherwise inaudible recordings. Only monumental works, such as the upcoming edition of The Joy of Cooking--a mammoth tome that will titillate your culinary dreams for a full 145 hours of mouthwatering listening--may require--at least initially--a total of two little cartridges. Yet, as Judy Dixon, consumer affairs officer of the NLS, recently explained to me, even this slight inconvenience may abate before long, since 1 GB flash-memory modules may become hard to source and would be abandoned in favor of even larger modules.

Naturally, as the unrepentant gadgeteer that I am, when I received a note from the Texas Talking Book Library at the end of 2008, announcing that sometime in 2009 Texas would participate in the limited prelaunch of the Digital Book Player program, I immediately volunteered to be one of the fortunate 5,000 blind consumers across Texas, Florida, California, New York State, Iowa, Colorado, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Utah, who, for 10 exciting weeks during late spring and summer of 2009, would help NLS to perform the final quality shakedown of DTB machines, storage cartridges, recorded books, and distribution service. An initial 54 book titles would be available to us for evaluation and for our reading pleasure.

From Analog to Digital

If the reader is concerned that 54 titles may be an insignificant fraction of the NLS's original analog tape holdings, please rest assured. While duplication and the availability of cartridges for the initial test phase is limited, the creation of the NLS's underlying digital recording catalog is almost complete, including thousands of new original digital recordings and the conversion of thousands of its beloved legacy analog material in DTB format. By the time you read this article, there will be almost 15,000 titles in the catalog. By the end of 2009, NLS will have approximately 18,000 titles available as Digital Talking Books, out of which 10,000 will be converted analog recordings. Starting in 2010, NLS plans to add 2,000 new titles to its DTB catalog per year. The new players will become available to its patrons, through a gradual nationwide deployment, with approximately 125,000 machines by the end of 2009 and 20,000 additional machines each month for the next couple of years. With just a little arithmetic, we can surmise that by 2012, NLS may have deployed close to 650,000 digital book players across the nation.

Not every DTB will sport an equally detailed navigation structure. At one end, some transfers from old analog tapes may allow navigation only to the beginning of the title, the beginning of the main content, and back matter. A few new titles, among them the monumental The Joy of Cooking, will support page-by-page navigation, while the vast majority will support at least navigation to major parts of books and to chapter headings.

As I mentioned earlier, by the end of 2009, the DTB catalog will sport more than 10,000 titles converted from the wonderful NLS archives. NLS staff selects candidates for conversion on the basis of the popularity of the titles or series, the popularity of the narrators, and the quality of the archival copies. Unfortunately, old tapes age and deteriorate, and the conversion of some of the oldest holdings may not be immediately practical. The best recordings will have priority for conversion over recordings of lesser technical quality or a lower state of conservation.

Downloading Digital Delights

In the meantime, the BARD e-mail announcement is still in front of me. A quick check with Judy Dixon confirms that as of May 18, 2009, a full 14,000 titles are already available for download on the BARD web site. On the spur of the moment, I start my Internet browser and open the new BARD web site at https://nlsbard.loc.gov.

I log onto BARD using my e-mail address as a user ID and the password provided by my state Talking Book Library. The BARD home page loads and is read by JAWS. I am ready to use the system. My favorite link is close to the top of the page: "Recently added books," it proudly proclaims. I follow the link; I let the page load completely. There have been 250 titles added in the last 30 days, declares the first line on the page. I begin navigation with JAWS 10.1 starting from the top. I press 1, a JAWS key that will let me jump to the next "heading 1" tag on the page. How odd, this page does not have an overall title heading. No problem, I press 2 twice and learn from a Level 2 heading that the latest batch of books was posted just a couple of days ago, on May 15. OK, so far, so good. I press 3; no, it looks like titles are not listed with Level 3 headings. Hmmm, someone must be ready for my professional consulting services in usable accessibility. I try 4--bingo! The first title in the list is announced as "Just Take My Heart." I press the down arrow once. It is a 22-hour-long book by Mary Higgins Clark, read by Annie Wauters. I am not inspired yet to a downloading frenzy.

I touch 4 once again, and the next title is A German Requiem, an espionage thriller by Philip Kerr. I read the synopsis just two lines below the title. Interested in the book, I press the Tab key once and land on "Download A German Requiem, DB68097," a link that lets me download the 119 GB single file of the book to my computer. I press Enter and--using my Time Warner Road Runner high-speed Internet service--I receive the volume in less than five minutes, at an impressive average download speed of more than 400 KB per second). I store it on an external hard drive. Later, I will copy it to my LevelStar Icon for reading. I press 4 again, and again and again--there are many new titles this week. I press 2 and find the list of titles for the previous week, posted on May 8. Pressing 2 seems to reach back one week at a time.

Back on the BARD home page, I tab to a link that would take me to the list of the 40 most popular books in the collection. But I am more intrigued by a search field that promises to locate books by keywords. Perhaps still thinking about my hero Stephen J. Gould, I type "fossil" in the entry field and press Enter. BARD finds a whopping 28 titles. I press 2 a few times; there seem to be 5 books with "fossil" in the title and 23 with "fossil" in the annotation--unfortunately, none by Stephen J. Gould.

Returning to the home page, I find a simple combo box that lets me search books in alphabetical order by author. I tab to the combo box; I press the Alt-Down arrow to open the box for the selection; I press G to select all authors whose names start with G; I tab once to the Go button and press Enter. The results are displayed. I learn that today BARD has an impressive 906 books written by authors whose names start with G. I press Control-F and type "Gould, Ste" in the JAWS virtual search field and press enter. JAWS finds a Level 3 heading for "Gould, Stephen J." There are three titles in BARD by Stephen J. Gould, starting with Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History, read by John Beryl, with a reading time of 22 hours and 44 minutes. I feel infinitely better now. My reading yearnings are not being ignored by NLS after all.

Another combo box on the home page takes me to lists of books in alphabetical order by title, while one more combo box lets me pick titles from a list of 86 genres, including 214 Spanish-language titles. Everything from 210 adventure books to 35 entries on astronomy to 444 science fiction titles to 300 religion books and even to 2 tall tales. Further combo boxes yield the titles of 45 periodicals, ranging from Analog to National Review to True West.

This is impressive. I can download any book and any magazine issue any time. BARD is available 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 52 weeks per year, to all registered patrons of the NLS. I can download books to my Windows computer for temporary storage on an external drive or directly on my LevelStar Icon for instant reading. There are no daily, monthly, or yearly upper download limits.

Judy Dixon gently reminds me, however, that NLS preaches download moderation. With a doctorate in clinical psychology, she is fully qualified to chide me, while--ever so patiently--she explains that my obsessive compulsive pack-ratting (OCP) is an anxiety disorder, and I should be treated by a mental health professional. "Self-treatment via hyperdownload of NLS DTBs is not an approved form of therapy for OCP," Judy adds. It may in fact stress the capabilities of the BARD servers and consequently reduce the level of service available to my fellow NLS patrons. I feel duly chastised.

To console me, Judy whispers to me that I do not need to wait for DTB cartridges to appear in the mail like audiocassettes of old. My soon-to-be received NLS DTB player will also happily play those DTBs that I still obsessively download, in spite of Judy's kindly therapeutic attempts on my overwrought psyche. It is not necessary to own an Icon, Braille+, HumanWare Stream, or Plextalk Pocket to read books from BARD. Blank 1 GB writable cartridges sporting a USB port will be available for sale starting in the second part of the year from at least three sources: The American Printing House for the Blind, Independent Living Aids, and National Audio Company in Springfield (Missouri). These cartridges will cost $15 or less each. They will act like little external USB drives. I will just need to unpack the zipped file of a single NLS DTB on each cartridge using Windows Explorer. Then I will drop the little beauty into the player, and voila! John Beryl will start reading Bully for Brontosaurus, so I can get my well-deserved Stephen J. Gould fix.

By sheer coincidence, as I was preparing to proofread my final draft of this article, a welcome present arrived by U.S. mail: a sturdy box containing, you guessed it, a brand-new DTB player. Of course, I extracted the unit from its carton and excellent protective foam brackets and started to push buttons madly, until somewhat miraculously, I discovered a magical large round recessed button on the left top of the unit, surrounded by a raised ridge, and promptly turned on the DTB player. Compulsively, I persisted in pressing keys at random. A pleasant recorded male voice announced that I have 22 hours of battery life available. I am duly impressed; it is just enough to read Bully for Brontosaurus from cover to cover. But, oops! I do not have a blank cartridge for copying the book yet. Oh well! But wait, a quick call to my AccessWorld editor-in-chief reminds me of the little tab hiding a secret USB port on the right side of my new DTB player--I have the advanced version, after all. I fetch a 2 GB USB storage key from my personal stash and plug it into my laptop. In just 7 minutes, I download the 191 MB zipped file of Bully for Brontosaurus. I unpack it to the USB key. I remove the key from my Windows laptop and insert it into the USB port of the DTB player. The cultured voice of John Beryl announces: "Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History," by Stephen J. Gould. At last, I am in Heaven.

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