August 2010 Issue  Volume 11  Number 4

Product Reviews

Reading Made Easy: A Review of the Digital Talking Book Machine from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

We Americans like to joke about the limitations of government. "Of course Project X was never finished," we'll say, "because it was done by the government." Or, "Of course no one saw the big picture in developing an idea because it was done by the government."

But the National Library Service (NLS) for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, a division of the Library of Congress, which has distributed braille and recorded books nationwide since it was founded by Congress in 1931, has designed a transition from analog to digital talking books that is both commendable and excellent. The focal point of this transition for the blind or visually impaired patron is the digital talking book (DTB) machine.

Since machines began flying off regional library shelves last year, about 200,000 DTB have been shipped to date, and libraries are dispatching new ones (which are being produced at a rate of about 20,000 per month) as soon as they become available.

In extensive testing of machines and material, taking into account a multitude of individual needs among its patrons, NLS has designed a machine that appeals to and is usable by just about anyone. The books themselves are contained on a single cartridge bearing print and braille label information, which can be popped into the machine and easily retrieved via a convenient finger hole at the machine's front edge. For the more technologically inclined, books can be downloaded with ease from the NLS site and transferred to blank cartridges or USB flash drives for a listening experience that provides superb sound quality and content navigation sure to dazzle those who have previously used only cassettes. Although the site for downloading books and magazines from NLS is itself a feat in accessibility and user friendliness, the focus of this article is the DTB player itself.


As is the case with all technology, each machine developed for use by patrons in the NLS talking book program is smaller and lighter than its predecessor. Baby boomers reading this article who grew up listening to talking books will remember the heavy (probably 20-pound) machines used to play the long-playing records distributed in the 1950s and 1960s. By comparison, the cassette machines introduced in 1970 were remarkably more portable at about seven pounds and included a carrying handle. Thus it is no surprise that the new DTB machine measures about six by nine inches and weighs less than two pounds, somewhat similar in size and shape to a standard hardback book.

There are two versions of the NLS DTB player. About 20 percent of the units shipping are the Advanced player, with the remaining 80 percent being what is called the Standard model. The two machines look almost identical, except that the Advanced machine has an additional row of buttons and more features.

Buttons on the surface of the machine are large, distinctly shaped, brightly colored, and have braille indicators adjacent to them. Play/stop, for instance, is a large square button, green in color, and has a braille letter "p" directly above it. The power button is a red concave circle with a braille letter "p" to identify it. Controls for adjusting volume, speed, and tone are easily identified by touch as large up and down arrow keys, each with its corresponding initial in braille.

All controls for playback and navigation are on the top surface of the machine. These are divided into two groups with a prominently raised white horizontal bar to separate them. With the front edge (carry handle and cartridge slot) facing you, controls below the bar include: power, rewind, play/stop, fast forward, volume up and down, and sleep. (The sleep button is a crescent-shaped key with a braille "s" beside it that, when pressed, can direct the machine to power off automatically in 15, 30, 45, or 60 minutes.)

Above the bar, controls include: an information key, tone controls, left and right arrows and a short horizontal key that comprise the navigation menu, speed controls, and a bookmark key. (The five keys that are not included on the Standard model are the information key, the three navigation keys, and a bookmark key.)

On the front of the device is the slot for cartridges and a pull-out carry handle. On the back is the storage compartment for the attached power cord, and on the right-hand side of the machine are a headset jack and USB port.

Roadmap to Reading

If you remember how much "fun" it was to have a long book on six cassettes, particularly when you needed to remind yourself of a fact in, say, chapter 4, you'll jump for joy with your first reading experience with the NLS DTB player. No more shuffling of cassettes. No more tedious rewind and forward and seemingly endless tweedling of the high-speed movement of the tape. No more frustration while listening to long passages, many of them the wrong ones, just to locate that single tidbit of information.

To play the book, you simply insert it, braille side up, quarter-sized finger hole toward you, into the slot and press play. If you have two or three or 10 books in process, each one resumes where you left off when you pop it into the machine anew.

The internal speaker is of such excellent quality that listening via the speaker in a car is no problem, and even people with some hearing loss find that listening while moving about an average-size room is effective. Adjusting a given book to a reading volume, speed, and tone level that appeals to you is simply a matter of pressing the up and down arrows designated for these three functions. There are 15 volume increments, 16 speed increments, and 11 tone increments, thus affording a wide range of sound quality variation. Even at the highest speed, there is no discernible loss of speech quality (although I stand in awe of anyone who can understand speech at the highest rapidfire rate).

With the Advanced player, the navigation menu key, pressed repeatedly, offers the options of navigating by chapter, bookmark, or phrase. Selecting one of these and then pressing the previous or next arrow keys, to the left and right of the navigation menu key, will move you through the book by that desired element. Whether a "phrase" is equal to a sentence, a paragraph, or an hour of reading depends entirely upon the particular book you are reading and how it was "marked up" while in production. The bookmarks are those that you have inserted yourself using the bookmark key.

Although the three navigation keys are not available on the Standard version of the NLS talking book machine, it is possible to navigate books in a similar fashion with that version. The rewind and fast-forward keys offer a number of navigational options. If you press and hold the rewind key, the machine will first announce "back 20 seconds." If you continue to hold the rewind key, it will soon say, "back one minute." The longer the key is held down, the greater the distance jumped, moving from one minute to five minutes, 15 minutes, and then to "jump back by chapter." Once the "jump back by chapter" announcement has been heard, continued holding of this key will result in a single beep for each chapter. By pressing and holding the rewind and fast-forward keys in this way, you can jump from, say, chapter 1 to the middle of chapter 12 in a matter of seconds.

Information, Please

The information key, unfortunately, is only available on the Advanced player. This diamond-shaped key has a single dot at its center and the braille letter "i" beside it. If tapped, an announcement of book title, position in book, time remaining, and battery status will be heard. Users of the Standard players, however, do have access to this information. On those units, battery status is announced at power-up, and book position is announced when a cartridge is inserted.

Asleep at the Wheel

Although the machine will power off automatically after 30 minutes of remaining idle, the sleep feature allows you to predetermine a shut-off time. If, for instance, you press the sleep key three times, thus setting it to 45 minutes, and do indeed fall asleep while the book is playing, it is a simple matter to go back 45 minutes in the book using the unit's navigation keys to find your place again.

Speaking of power, the battery life on the NLS DTB player is phenomenal in the realm of assistive-technology products for blind or visually impaired people. Recharging the unit by plugging it into a wall socket takes about two and a half hours. Battery life is then about 29 hours of use. If you choose to keep it plugged into a wall socket for most of the time, the battery life will not be at all diminished.

Throwing the Book at It

The purpose of the NLS DTB player is, of course, books, and the breadth of reading experiences it affords is heady stuff to book lovers. First, if you're not technically inclined, the books provided through the NLS network of libraries couldn't be simpler to access. Each book is contained on a single cartridge, and the books are shipped in small blue boxes designed specifically for them. They are shipped through the mail, just as books on cassette and books on long-playing records have been in decades preceding them. Each box has a reversible card on the outside that is addressed to the patron on one side and back to the cooperating library on the other.

The narrators, of course, are the same professional narrators you have always heard through this program. All books currently recorded are produced digitally and thus will be available on cartridges. Books previously in the collection are being converted. The task, obviously, is an enormous one, so it will be some time before the entire collection is available in this new format. Cassettes are currently also produced, but production of this older medium will cease in late 2011.

If your choice is simply to enjoy the books shipped to you from your cooperating library, the new player is indeed a boon to the reading experience. For those with just a bit of technical inclination, however, the possibilities for accessing reading material are considerably more significant.

First, NLS makes the books available on its own NLS BARD website. Even while prototypes of the new machine were being tested by scores of patrons with varying abilities, this site was also being tested and honed to a point of maximum usability by all. If you are an eligible patron of the NLS service and have an Internet-connected computer, you are eligible to download books from the BARD site. Downloaded books can either be transferred to blank cartridges (available from various vendors serving the blind community at about $15 each) or onto a USB flash drive available at any retail store where computer accessories are sold. When I first received my player, I purchased two 2GB flash drives for $20 at a nearby Staples, and have continued for the past year to use those devices to transfer books to the NLS player. About 30 NLS books are currently on one; I use the other drive for additional types of content.

And that's the other commendable feature of this player. You can play all manner of other content on it by transferring that content to a cartridge or flash drive. Music, podcasts, commercially available MP3 audio books and, if you are a qualifying member, Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic content can be played on the machine as well.

The player has had several software upgrades since its initial release. When units are shipped, librarians typically ensure that the latest upgrade has been installed. This process has also been designed to be extremely easy, so that upgrading the machine can be done by just about anyone. (The upgrade file is downloaded to your computer and placed on a flash drive or cartridge. That device is then inserted into the appropriate slot and the machine is powered on.) Michael Katzmann, who serves as chief of the NLS Materials Development Division, believes that the fantastic response from the already 200,000 happy patrons who have received their machines is, in large part, due to the advance planning that went into the DTB's design and implementation. Library patrons of varying abilities were asked for their input at every step of implementation to test the resulting products and that involvement is evident. However, I must digress and ask how the conclusion was drawn that a good way to learn which software version a player has would be to press the sleep button 10 times?

Quirks aside, the NLS DTB player is an example of true design excellence, in which customer needs were clearly considered at every turn. The best part is, if you are an eligible recipient of materials from the NLS, one of these lovely machines with all of its capabilities is yours for free.

For More Information

About one-third of all NLS patrons have now received their NLS DTB players. To learn about shipment in your area, contact your cooperating network library (the one that currently sends you braille and talking books). You may also visit the National Library Service (NLS) for the Blind and Physically Handicapped website for more program details.

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