Digital Talking Book players and some books have been around for a number of years now. However, most people in the United States who are blind or have low vision have not used them and do not know how exciting it can be to read these books. Our aim in this article is to try to capture some of that excitement. We also cover issues that have been raised by the copyright protection now being used, and in an accompanying article we review the current players (see "Read Me, Read Me Not" in this issue).

In 1995, several libraries for the blind in various countries created the Digital Audio-based Information System (DAISY) Consortium to develop specifications for Digital Talking Books. In 1997, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) also began research in this area. NLS created a committee under the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) to create a formal published standard for Digital Talking Books that could be internationally recognized and approved. Before long, the DAISY and NISO groups were working together to develop a single, worldwide standard. Digital Talking Books are sometimes referred to as DAISY books, as NISO books, or even as NISO/DAISY books. For more information on the background of DAISY books, see the May 2001 special issue of AccessWorld on Digital Talking Books.

What Are Digital Talking Books?

Digital Talking Books are not really things that you can hold, although they usually come on a CD-ROM today. The same Digital Talking Books may also be available on the web or from the Internet server at your school. To put it technically, Digital Talking Books are well-organized collections of computer files that are produced according to specifications that are published in the standards that define them (see the web sites <> and <>). They are a medium-independent information access-and-delivery technology--the files can be stored on CD, in a directory or on a memory card--that is based on open standards, primarily the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) XML (Extensible Markup Language) and SMIL (Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language, pronounced "smile").

The traditional Talking Book is excellent for reading novels, which you usually begin at the beginning and continue reading until you come to the end. But this kind of reading is an inefficient way to get information from encyclopedias, dictionaries, and cookbooks. It is also a poor way to study anything because it is not easy to go back and forth to specific parts of a book, check cross references, underline parts for later review, and write notes in the margin. Tapes and even braille books have not served us well in such reading tasks. Finally, through Digital Talking Books, we have the same kind of random access to information that nondisabled readers take for granted. We have an alternative to dealing with a long table of contents on Tape 1 and rewinding Tape 4 to the beginning of Side 2. We can say good-bye to counting beep tones while cringing through the shrieking noises made by audiocassettes in fast forward. We will spend more time enjoying learning instead of struggling with cumbersome technology.

Driving Miss DAISY

A fully coded DAISY book can have many levels of navigation, accessed by using the player's keypad or buttons. For example, Level 1 could be chapters, Level 2 could be subheadings within a chapter, and Level 3 could be paragraphs. Using the appropriate keys, you can navigate forward or back through the book using these levels. You can also go to a particular page, navigate by phrase (as defined by the book's coding), or place a bookmark at a memorable passage or at the beginning of a section you need to study.

DAISY books can include both text and audio files. Without the text, only part of the promise in this technology is possible today. For example, there is no way to check the spelling of a word or search for specific text in audio-only books.

Where Are the Books?

Currently, audio-only DAISY 2.02 books from Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) and DAISY 3.0/NISO text-only books from are available in the United States. Current stand-alone players play only audio DAISY books.

In September 2002, RFB&D began to distribute DAISY books as part of its 100,000-book collection. It is now circulating over 10,000 DAISY books. Currently, all these books are audio only with page and heading information, with 51% having been converted to DAISY format directly from cassette. The remaining 49% were recorded digitally.

To play a DAISY book from RFB&D, you must have a player that has been tested and approved by RFB&D in field tests. As of this writing, the Telex Scholar, VisuAide's Victor Reader Classic Plus, Victor Reader Pro (a discontinued player), and the PTR1 player/recorder from Plextor have been approved.

Copyright Concerns

Talking Book programs in the United States have historically used some kind of technology that is not commonly available to the general public, such as recording cassettes at half the speed of commercial recordings so that they cannot be copied and played on commercial machines by nondisabled readers. In addition, until 1996, organizations like NLS and RFB&D first had to obtain explicit permission from the copyright holders to produce any titles as Talking Books. Beginning in 1996, a new amendment to U.S. copyright law (known as the Chafee Amendment) gave these agencies blanket permission to make any title available, as long as it was produced in a format that is not generally available to the public.

Since DAISY titles are essentially HTML and MP3 files, RFB&D uses something it calls intellectual property protection (IPP) to make sure that only RFB&D subscribers read the organization's books. If you insert an RFB&D DAISY book CD into an approved player, you are asked to enter your personal identification number (PIN) to verify that you are an RFB&D subscriber. Once you enter your PIN on the player's keypad, you can listen to any book from RFB&D until you turn the player off. When you power the player on again, you must enter your PIN again. Players that have not been approved by RFB&D will not play RFB&D books.

While the process of authorizing a player involves installing a software key in the player's permanent memory, it can no longer be accomplished by users because RFB&D has stopped sending out keys on CD. Instead, subscribers must now either buy their players directly from RFB&D or ship their players to RFB&D to have authorizations installed. In addition, RFB&D now requires subscribers to sign copyright agreements (available at <>).

Why is RFB&D doing all this? There is rampant fear among publishers that people will start to post books online illegally, just as they have done with music on Napster and elsewhere. These issues are now also covered under a U.S. law known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, which is the result of an international treaty under the World Intellectual Property Organization. Of course, it is not legal or appropriate for people to redistribute RFB&D or other titles. However, we hope that the benefits to users of DAISY technology will not be overshadowed by anticopying concerns, even if the process seems to be excessive or burdensome on consumers. (see "A New Page that Speaks Volumes" in the January 2003 issue of AccessWorld) has a collection of over 15,000 books. Bookshare members can read DAISY books from Bookshare using any player that supports DAISY version 3.0 for text-only books--there is no recorded audio track. Currently, the only players on the market that will read Bookshare books are VisuAide's Victor Reader Soft and the open-source Emacspeak audio desktop software. Members can also download and read titles from Bookshare's 15,000-book collection using OPENBook and Kurzweil 1000 optical character recognition software. Bookshare books are also available as formatted braille files that can be read using a personal organizer, such as the BrailleNote or PAC Mate, or read or printed in braille on a computer.

Readers in other countries, including Japan, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, have been enjoying DAISY books for years. RFB&D and Bookshare are beginning to bring the tantalizing benefits of DAISY to the U.S. market. NLS is scheduled to begin distributing DAISY books in 2008. The future of reading is almost here.

Jay Leventhal
Janina Sajka
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Access Issues