The opportunities to access books and magazines have grown exponentially in the past decade for people who are blind or have low vision. In addition to the braille and audiocassette books sent by mail through the network of regional libraries operated by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), many sources have made reading materials available to us in other formats. Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), the largest producer of recorded textbooks, moved from audiocassettes to compact discs (CDs), incorporating the DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) markup features that enable students to navigate by chapter, heading, and page. Commercial sources such as Audible.com have made professionally recorded books available for download to be played on computers or handheld MP3 players. Other sources, such as Bookshare.org, offer people who are unable to read print a growing collection of books in electronic format that can be downloaded and read via synthetic speech, magnified print, or braille. And one of the most popular sources of the past decade has been Web-Braille, the NLS site that offers the translated braille files of books that have been produced for the NLS program as downloads to be read on any braille-aware device.
For the past year, I, along with 99 other NLS patrons, have tested the newest generation of Talking Books, and the direction the project has now taken is nothing short of thrilling. NLS has always been on the cutting edge of audio technology in producing its Talking Books. Recognizing that audiocassettes would eventually be phased out, NLS was formulating a plan for Talking Books' future as far back as 1999. Digital recording was clearly the way to go, and the DAISY/NISO standards (that is, approved by the National Information Standards Organization) provided guidance on how to produce such digital recordings.
But how would patrons access them? NLS established a contractual agreement with Batelle, HumanWare Canada, and the National Federation of the Blind to develop a player that would accommodate the new media and be reasonably easy to operate by the diverse population of patrons (representing a variety of ages, abilities, educational backgrounds, and the like). When the new books become available, each will be contained on a small flash cartridge that can be inserted into that player. Meanwhile, the books, digital files with DAISY markup, were placed on a test site to be evaluated as downloads. The Digital Talking Books download test was launched in September 2006. The selected 100 test participants were given access to a web site where the books were available for download and provided with specially adapted machines for playing those Talking Book files.
Let the Fun Begin
Describing the machine we were issued is somewhat moot, since its short life was intended for this test only. Put simply, it was an adapted Victor Reader Classic, a player from VisuAide, with an SD (secure digital) card slot in the back, a CD slot in the front, a telephone-style keypad, and an assortment of some 14 other keys for power and navigating the books.
For downloading the books, we were given an SD card reader (a device about the size of a USB flash drive with a USB connector to plug into the computer at one end and a slot for the SD card at the other). Each book is downloaded as a compressed file to be unzipped on the computer, and all the files are then copied to the SD card. In just a few minutes, a book can be planted on the SD card, popped into the machine, and ready to go. The most time-consuming aspect of this process has been, without a doubt, the hours a true book lover can spend browsing the constantly growing lists of mysteries, memoirs, magazines, classics, poetry, and essay collections and more to pick the next read.
If you are a borrower of NLS books, you already know the outstanding quality of narration and range of available material. What makes this newfound ability to download books on demand from the Digital Talking Book site exciting is certainly the joy of spontaneity—choosing a book to read when you want it, rather than waiting three or six weeks for it to arrive in the mail. But the real adventure begins in the process of reading itself.
Bear in mind that these digital recordings, both new books and those converted from cassettes, are read by the same narrators and produced in the same Talking Book production studios that thousands of NLS patrons have known and loved for years. Putting my book of choice on the SD card and pressing the play button, for example, the first words I heard were these: "All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists, by Terry Gross, DB63596, copyright 2004, Terry Gross and WHYY Inc. Read by Martha Harmon Pardee. This book contains 353 pages. Approximate reading time: 10 hours, 40 minutes."
Instead of the familiar announcement regarding the number of cassettes or sides and information about beep tones, the next statement I heard was this: "This book contains markers allowing direct access to the table of contents, introduction, chapters, and acknowledgment."
Enjoying a digital book from NLS is more akin to flipping the pages of a printed tome than any option that was previously available to people who are blind. The navigation elements that are available in each book depend somewhat on the nature of the book, how it is divided in the print edition, and the production studio that recorded it. Typically, however, books offer Level 1 markers at chapter headings, Level 2 markers at section headings, and sometimes Level 3 markers at subheadings. If you are reading Chapter 10, for example, and a reference prompts you to revisit a passage in Chapter 3, you simply press the Heading button and the number 3 on the telephone-style keypad to get there. If Chapter 3 is a longer chunk than you want to read to locate the desired passage, you can search within the chapter using Level 2 markings, if available, or the Time-jump feature that is available at any time in every book. Time-jump is a simple rewind and fast forward function that you can set to move at 1-minute, 5-minute, or 10-minute increments at a time.
If you hear a passage that you want to come back to later, you can set your own bookmark. In fact, you can set thousands of bookmarks, numbering them yourself by entering the number from the keypad or allowing the unit to set the bookmark for you by numbering them in sequence. My favorite bookmark feature is the Highlight Bookmark. Just as the reader of print may underline or highlight a particularly poignant sentence or significant fact, the Highlight Bookmark button can be pressed at the beginning of a passage to be highlighted and pressed again at the point where you want highlighting to end.
Some of the testers in the digital download group argued vehemently that page markers should also be present. DAISY standards do incorporate this feature, and it is used by some producers of digital books, such as RFB&D, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. With page markers on board, a listener could jump to the next or previous page or go to a particular page number. NLS chose not to include page markers at this time, reasoning that its collection is oriented more toward leisure reading.
Of course, some books require no highlighting, no reviewing of facts, and no moving back and forth among chapters. If you simply want to enjoy a book from start to finish, that, too, is more pleasant with the NLS Digital Talking Books. There are no audiocassettes to eject or tracks to change. The clarity, incidentally, is far superior to that of audiocassettes.
At this writing, nearly 7,000 books are available for download on the Digital Talking Books site, and the collection is growing steadily. All new Talking Books that have been recorded are added, since all titles are now recorded digitally. In addition, many older titles are being converted. NLS is also working in concert with commercial publishers to make some commercially recorded books available through the NLS network.
Not Only Virtual
For those who still love the little green boxes that are delivered by the U.S. Postal Service (containing audiocassettes with braille and print labels on them), do not despair. Digital Talking Books will indeed continue to be distributed through the mail just as their various predecessors—from heavy long-playing records to flexible discs to audiocassettes—have been. The new containers will be blue, not green, and slightly smaller. The books themselves will be contained on flash cartridges—imagine a single cartridge for an entire book! The cartridges will be inserted into a new player that is designed for digital books and distributed, eventually, to all NLS patrons, and all the same navigation features described earlier will be available.
The strategic plan that NLS has widely distributed orally, in publications, and online states that new players that are capable of playing Digital Talking Books will begin to be released in late 2008. In April 2007, however, congressional budget proceedings took a less-than-favorable turn. The Talking Book program was in jeopardy, and advocates from around the country called and wrote their legislators in a frenzy. At this writing, the allocation is still unclear, but it will most likely be less than the original $19 million that was anticipated. What this budget cut will mean for the timetable for releasing the new NLS players and books is not yet certain, but the download site is thriving.
In early July 2007, just in time for dazzling revelations at summer conventions, the stars aligned in a way that has had many book lovers who are blind or have low vision dancing metaphorically (and perhaps literally) for joy. For the past year, there has been a group of 100 happy testers in the NLS digital download project. But we are, of course, only a tiny segment of the entire population who depend on Talking Books. The player that we used for the test was adapted by HumanWare Canada. The player that will eventually be distributed by NLS to all patrons was also produced by HumanWare Canada. This company, in other words, was in a prime position to develop a player for the commercial market.
At the conventions of the National Federation of the Blind and American Council of the Blind in July 2007, HumanWare introduced its new handheld player, the Victor Reader Stream. Among its other attractive attributes—small size, built-in text-to-speech, and MP3 capability—was the announcement (made with no small amount of fanfare and welcomed by resounding cheers) that NLS and HumanWare were collaborating to render the Victor Reader Stream ready to accept the Digital Talking Books downloaded from NLS. At that time, NLS director Frank Kurt Cylke announced that the site would go "public"—that is, in September 2007, it would be expanded to include any NLS patron with a player that is capable of playing the NLS Digital Talking Books.
In the Library at Last
The Victor Reader Stream (which will be reviewed in the next issue of AccessWorld) sells for $329 and began shipping in early September 2007. As promised, the NLS Digital Talking Book site was moved and expanded beyond the small testing group. In mid-September, the new site began registering any verified NLS patron who had a player to register that is capable of playing the NLS files.
At this point, HumanWare's new Victor Reader Stream is the only player that patrons can purchase for playing these books, but it is only a matter of time—and probably not much time—before other commercial venues will offer NLS-enabled players as well.
For those who are enjoying downloading these books so far, "enraptured" is an apt description. "I feel like I've entered the library for the first time in my life," commented one delighted customer after just one week. To paraphrase another, more seasoned NLS patron, "Commercial sources like Audible.com are great, but to be able to browse and download books from our own beloved Talking Book program is remarkable." Anyone who has been an NLS borrower of Talking Books knows exactly what she means.
For information on the Victor Reader Stream, visit the web site <www.humanware.com>. If you already own a Victor Reader Stream and would like to participate in the NLS digital download pilot project, visit <https://www.nlstalkingbooks.org/dtb>.