NLS Recording Studio: Center stage with digital development

Margie Goergen-Rood stands by her SAN. With the 2008 target date for the distribution of digital talking books and playback machines to NLS patrons fast approaching, the NLS Recording Studio has taken an increasingly important role in accomplishing a series of goals set out in the planning documents of the ten-year digital initiative. In keeping with its specified function not only of producing audio books for patrons but of researching and developing technologies for the digital future, the studio has worked closely with engineering, quality assurance, and automation staff to define the simplest and most and efficient process for producing digital talking books.

In fact, it was only a short five years ago that the NLS Recording Studio's first dedicated sound-format computer went online, marking the start of the complex transformation to digital technology. When the studio first opened in 1972, talking books were mastered on analog tape and released to patrons in the form of recorded disks. Record circulation was supplemented with open-reel magnetic tapes. In 1977, technology moved forward and NLS followed with the four-track 15/16-ips cassette tapes that patrons continue to receive and enjoy today. Through the years the actual form in which patrons have received recorded materials has gone through several major changes, but the process for creating the books has not. In the past five to six years the studio has been experimenting with new recording methods, testing equipment necessary for the transformation to a digital system and taking key steps toward producing digital talking books.

Massive transition

"This is the biggest transition we have made," says Margie Goergen-Rood, the studio's director for the past thirteen years. "It's much more complex than the change from record to tape." And that complexity is apparent in a visit to the NLS Recording Studio. Visitors finding their way through the stacks of music materials and down the stairs into the warren of cubicles and sound booths observe a cluster of computers, each with the capability to record, edit, and store digital master copies of talking books. For more than five years these master copies have been recorded directly into computer files using a program called ProTools 5.3.3. The staff found this program efficient, as it is compatible with their other software and produces quality recordings, but not as "user friendly" as they had hoped. Recently, they began testing a new program called the Low Complexity Mastering (LCM) system, which they have found to be just as compatible and much simpler to work with in the recording and editing phases.

Markup and clean-up

Once a book is recorded onto the LCM system, it is converted into a .wav file. The .wav file displays on a computer screen the precise tonal ranges and pitches of a narrator's voice, split seconds of noise or silence, and even the occasional sign of a breath or extraneous environmental sound. The LCM provides the ability to mark up a .wav file in preparation for its life as a digital talking book. Markers are inserted to highlight areas needing improvement, such as audible breathing, collateral sounds of the vocal apparatus, or the recurring mispronunciation of a name. Further, all of the cassette-specific language on a digital talking book file is marked so that it can be removed easily at a later date when announcements such as "end of side one" are no longer necessary. Navigational pointers are also inserted to identify specific points within a book such as chapters. These pointers, similar to an outline, will allow the reader to skip to a particular place within a book just as a music CD allows one to skip to a favorite song.

The most fascinating part of the process has been the development of storage for digital masters. At first, narrators were storing books on computer hard drives. But because audio recordings occupy so much space, this method proved inefficient. These hard drives are fragile, expensive, and limited in the amount of information they hold. Each drive is about the size of a child's shoe box and many books require more than one, which makes storing them on site almost impossible. Additionally, recalling the information from the hard drives for editing and review as well as transporting them to the Quality Assurance Section for approval was inconvenient and difficult. As a result, the digital master copies were instead recorded on a computer and then transferred back to cassette tape for easier handling and storage purposes and for distribution. Finally, with input from the Recording Studio and collaboration from Engineering and Automation staff, the Storage Area Network (SAN) was developed.

The SAN is set up in what is referred to as a star network. Each of thirteen computers, one in each of the three studios for recording and ten for editing and reviewing, are connected to the SAN exclusively. They are not connected to the Internet or to any other computer to protect the SAN from viruses or corrupt files that could compromise the quality of the final product. Talking books are recorded directly onto the SAN through a fibre channel. The SAN can hold up to four terabytes, which is 100 times larger than a local disk drive. Accessing recorded books is much easier, as all current digital master files of talking books are archived in the SAN.

After a talking book is recorded and then recalled from the SAN for extensive editing and review, it is sent to a separate file within the network where the Quality Assurance Section can access it for final approval.

The digital advantage

The NLS Recording Studio is currently operating on a 100 percent digitally based system. When digital talking book players and books are issued to patrons in 2008, the advantages will be obvious. The technology will produce the same range of high- quality talking books that patrons use today, but with improved sound quality and clarity, more navigational options, and greater accessibility.

Although the process by which talking books are produced in the NLS Recording Studio has undergone many changes, technology has not compromised the quality of the final product. "Digital technology is a tool, but what our narrators give to the book artistically is still the same," says Goergen-Rood. "The actual narration process is still based in telling the story the best way we can, and that's the most important part."

With all the talk of the SAN, ProTools, and the Low Complexity Mastering system, it would be easy to become lost in a whirlwind of digital jargon and buried under an array of program manuals, hard drives, and the technicalities of the digital world. But through frequent trial runs, daily experiments, and troubleshooting, the NLS Recording Studio is paving the way for an easy-to-use digital talking book system, and the end product continues to improve as new tools and technologies are acquired and mastered. "Developing this technology gives us the skills and experience we need to assist the network libraries in their transfer to a digital system," says Goergen-Rood. As the digital effort forges ahead, the NLS Recording Studio is setting the standard and diligently pressing on.

NLS recording studio, automation and engineering staff.

Photo Caption: NLS Recording Studio, Automation, and Engineering staff.

Back row (left to right): Brad Kormann, Lloyd Lewis, Michael Kramer, Bruce Nelson, John Hughes, Robin Beatty, Chuck Young, Bob McDermott, Celeste Lawson, and George Stockton.
Front row (left to right): technical support representative Tad Gambiza, Laura Giannarelli, Susan McInerney, Popsy Kanagaratnam, Helen Hedman, and Martinez Majors.)

Collection Development Advisory Group

NLS patron representatives and librarians gathered in Washington, D.C., on May 26-28, 2004, for the 2004 Collection Development Advisory Group meeting. After a morning of orientation to NLS collection development procedures and the changes likely to result once digital systems are implemented throughout NLS and its network of cooperating libraries, the group discussed collection building policy, ultimately producing a list of twenty recommendations. NLS staff were invited to a presentation of the recommendations during the concluding session of the meeting.

Committee members recommend that NLS continue to reissue and update the collection of classic books in braille and audio formats, including titles that are on school lists of required reading. They advise NLS to produce more titles on vocabulary building and writing skills for adults and young adults, in braille and audio formats, and to expand the special foreign library collection by purchasing more popular books and magazines for all ages, with an emphasis on materials in Spanish.

The committee urges NLS to continue to identify titles in series and produce them in the same format, as well as reissue older titles in series that are depleted. Members hope that NLS will attempt to reduce the selection of bestsellers that are likely to be outdated by the time they become available to patrons. They request that NLS increase the production of wholesome fiction for young adults dealing with contemporary problems and coming-of-age themes, and produce more high- interest, low-vocabulary titles in braille and audio formats for children and young adults. The committee also supports an increase in the production of African American adult and young adult titles, including biographies, mysteries, westerns, and romances.

2004 Collection Development Advisory Committee.

Photo Caption: 2004 Collection Development Advisory Group

Seated, from left: Sharon Strzalkowski, Patricia Shreck, Nancy Doering, Clyde Compton, Christopher Mulkin, Sheryl Nelson;
standing, from left: Linda Dunham, Ever Lee Hairston, Dori Middleton, Bonnie Farrier, Sue Walker, Oakley Pearson, and Deana Wallace.

In addition, the group recommended that NLS produce more of the following:

They also suggest that the "In Brief" section of Talking Book Topics explain how titles are selected and distributed and how readers can contact their regional libraries with suggestions.

2004 Collection Development Advisory Group

Consumer organization representatives
Patricia Shreck, American Council of the Blind
Clyde Compton, Blinded Veterans Association
Ever Lee Hairston, National Federation of the Blind
Readers-at-large
Christopher Mulkin (Midlands)
Sharon Strzalkowski (Northern)
Deana Wallace (Southern)
Sheryl Nelson (Western)
Librarians
Dori Middleton (Midlands)
Bonnie Farrier (Northern)
Oakley Pearson (Southern)
Sue Walker (Western)
Nancy Doering (Children's/Young Adult)

NEA issues troubling survey of reading

Reading at Risk paints alarming picture of nation's declining habits

"Literary reading in America is not only declining rapidly among all groups, but the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young. The concerned citizen in search of good news about American literary culture will study the pages of this report in vain," writes Dana Gioia, chairman, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The report, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, was released by NEA in June 2004.

Reading at Risk shows that less than half of the adult American population reads literature. The data, from a U.S. Bureau of the Census survey of 17,000 Americans over age eighteen, shows a 10 percent decline since 1982 in the reading of plays, poetry, and literary fiction, representing a loss of 20 million potential readers. The decline in literary reading parallels a slightly less precipitous decline in reading of all types of books. The negative trend is evident in all population groups, whether identified by age, gender, race and ethnicity, or education level. The decline appears to be accelerating among all groups, with the steepest rate among young adults ages eighteen to twenty-four. The survey suggests that the decrease in literary reading correlates with diminished participation in other cultural and civic activities and increased recreational use of electronic media, including television, the Internet, video games, and portable video devices.

In a Network Bulletin (04-39, July 16, 2004), NLS director Frank Kurt Cylke urged librarians and staff of the NLS network of cooperating libraries to give the survey careful and attentive reading: "From a vantage unique in society, we librarians serving blind and physically handicapped readers have an obligation to translate the findings to our situation and to discuss the bleak assessment and solutions to the pending societal crisis in our libraries, conference meetings, and informal encounters."

Reading at Risk is available online at http://www.arts.gov.

NLS appoints digital coordinator

On July 25, 2004, Jean M. Moss was appointed digital projects coordinator for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress. Moss has held progressively responsible positions with the service since January 2000, when she became assistant head of the Production Control Section.

In her new role, Moss is charged with coordinating a range of current and future long-term projects that will transform the existing NLS analog cassette-based production and distribution system into an improved system based in digital technology. She will work closely with the director, deputy director, and technical and managerial staff to implement this major transition, which will benefit NLS's nearly 700,000 program users beginning with the phased introduction of digital talking book machines and media in 2008.

Ideal skill set

"Moss brings to the post a superb combination of technical and managerial skills, along with a profound understanding of the NLS mission and the requirements of patrons," says NLS director Frank Kurt Cylke. "Her abilities and personal qualities are ideally suited to the challenges of the complex digital transition that is under way."

Jean M. MossSpecifically, Moss is responsible for monitoring plans and projects--from conception through implementation--for the acquisition, production, distribution, storage, and preservation of digital book and magazine collections and equipment and the provision of digitally based services to more than 140 libraries and their patrons in the nationwide network. She will identify potential technical and logistic problems in cooperative NLS activities and devise solutions. She will also track, evaluate, and report on digital projects, tasks, schedules, and deadlines, while working closely with staff, contractors, patrons, and affiliated agencies.

Digital, business experience

Moss has been directly involved in digital planning since May 2003, when she was detailed from her post as assistant head of the NLS Production Control Section. In her production role, she assisted in planning, coordinating, and evaluating the annual production of more than 2,500 braille and recorded book and magazine titles. Supervising a staff of nine, she undertook statistical and contract performance analyses, prepared annual $20 million budgets, and developed business and management plans.

Moss came to NLS well prepared by her years in the private sector, where she worked first as a financial planner and investment counselor with the Prudential Insurance Company, then as circulation manager with Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal. Supervising a staff of sixty-five, she managed payroll, billing, fulfillment, and production activities and the distribution of publications in Virginia.

A graduate of Wellesley College, where she studied political science and mathematics, Moss is currently pursuing an MBA at the University of Maryland. She is a member of the American Library Association and the Federal City Club of Washington, D.C., a nonpartisan organization of individuals keenly interested in public affairs and political thought.

Network welcomes three new regional librarians

Debbi MacLeod

Debbi McLeod In June 2004, Debbi MacLeod joined the Colorado Talking Book Library as the new director, bringing a variety of experience from the private sector. Early in her career, she taught history and remedial English to high school students in Maine, worked at the Colby College Library, and substituted in school media centers. She also has an entrepreneurial spirit from working in two family businesses, a manufacturing company, and an independent retail gift store.

Most recently, MacLeod spent fifteen years in the corporate world, first at Polaroid Corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then Hewlett Packard in Colorado and California. Her expertise is in market, competitive, and trend analysis, and at Polaroid she was responsible for the business library.

She received her MLIS from Simmons College, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, in Boston, Massachusetts, and her BA from Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, with a major in history and social science as well as a secondary education teaching certificate.

Bessie Oakes

Bessie OakesIn July 2004, after the retirement of Jerry Buttars, Bessie Oakes became the program manager for the Utah State Library for the Blind and Disabled. She received her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Utah. Before joining the Utah State Library in 1974, Oakes taught in a secondary school and served as library media specialist.

She began her NLS career as a reader's advisor librarian, a position that led to additional duties as an office manager, and then became assistant to the director. She has served on the NLS ad hoc collection development committee. She was also the president of the Keystone Library Automated System (KLAS) User Group and is currently the chair-elect for the Western Conference.

"This is an exciting time to begin this position, with digitization, new media, and new equipment," Oakes says. "There are many new and exciting changes coming, and I am looking forward to being part of those changes."

Philip Wong-Cross

Phil Wong-Cross"Actually, I am returning to the division, then known as the Special Services Division, at the District of Columbia Public Library, where I began my post-MLS library career," says Phil Wong-Cross, whom many may remember as head of the NLS Reference Section before he left the field to enter an Anglican Benedictine monastery.

At the D.C. library, the now renamed Adaptive Services Division has a broader mission than before. In addition to serving as the NLS network library for the District of Columbia, the division has a senior services librarian directing programs and a bookmobile service for older adults. It also has a librarian to the deaf community who presents cultural and informational programs of interest to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community and to the general public and teaches American Sign Language in venues throughout the city.

The division staff continues to deliver talking books and playback machines--with hands-on instruction to new readers--as well as recorded, standard, and large-print books to institutions and to persons with limited mobility at their homes. "It is very exciting for me to be back in the field of librarianship I love so well," notes Wong-Cross, "and to find so many old friends, not only at NLS but in the network as well. Very nice, indeed."

Perkins Braille & Talking Book Library delivers special "thank you" to mail carriers

Three outstanding mail carriers from Massachusetts received special recognition for dedicated service from the Perkins Braille & Talking Book Library (BTBL) and its patrons in a ceremony held at the library in Watertown, Massachusetts, on February 11.

The idea for this unique event was the brainchild of library director Kim Charlson, who wanted to acknowledge the cooperation of the U.S. Postal Service in delivering library materials and equipment to borrowers' homes. "The post office really is a vital partner in the successful operation of our library, and it just seemed natural to recognize them for this contribution," Charlson said.

As she began to plan the event, Charlson considered how best to recognize the mail carriers who deliver materials every day. The Perkins Library turned to its borrowers for their stories. An article appeared in the Perkins Library newsletter, Dots and Decibels, seeking nominations for the Outstanding Talking Book Mail Carrier. Anyone interested in nominating a mail carrier for exemplary service was asked to write a one-page letter outlining the service the carrier provides and giving examples of how he or she goes beyond simply delivering the mail to ensuring library materials are received promptly and in good condition.

Nominations flood in

Dozens of nominations were received from all across New England. Input was then sought from staff and volunteers, and the final decision was made by Perkins library administration in collaboration with the Boston area U.S. Postal Service Public Affairs Division. Phillip Lenzi, Billy Proctor, and Denise Duffy were chosen for recognition at the Outstanding Talking Book Mail Carrier awards ceremony based on the letters of nomination sent in by BTBL patrons.

One of the most compelling letters came from Andrea Bloch of Winchester, who nominated Phillip Lenzi, who delivers children's books on tape and books with braille overlays to her son, Jack. "At nine months of age, Jack was diagnosed with cancer and at ten months he was completely blind," she wrote. "It has been a long three years, but Jack has won his battle with cancer. Now as a very curious three-and-a-half-year-old, he is eager to learn about his world. In order to help Jack understand what a mail carrier looks like and how mail is delivered, I remember one day Phil took the time to show Jack his truck, his mail bag, and how mail is bundled together with a rubber band. Just the other day, Jack had a rubber band in his hand and asked me, 'Is this from Postman Phil?'"

Hearts and flowers

At the February 11 ceremony, Jack presented his favorite mail carrier with a giant valentine in both print and braille, expressing thanks on behalf of Perkins BTBL patrons. A plaque engraved in both print and braille was also presented to each of the three outstanding postal carriers who were recognized at the event. In addition, Valentine's Day bouquets, chocolate roses, and other tokens of appreciation were given to the mail carriers and the patrons who nominated them.

"This event recognizes the vital role of the U.S. Postal Service and individual mail carriers who deliver braille, recorded books and magazines, and described videos to 18,000 children, adults, and seniors with visual or physical impairments throughout New England who cannot read traditional print," said Charlson.

In a letter nominating mail carrier Billy Proctor, Edith Rockwell of Lexington, wrote: "He brings in my tapes and typically shakes his head with a sad 'no Danielle Steel today,' but then sometimes he arrives with a bright smile waving a new tape by my favorite author. . . . I hope Bill knows how much his visits mean to me and how important my audio tapes are to me. My macular degeneration has created serious limitations in my activities, and my audio tapes and their 'messenger' bring great pleasure to me."

Billy Proctor receives certificate.

Photo caption:
Lexington patron Edith Rockwell, left, with her mail carrier Billy Proctor and Perkins BTBL director Kim Charlson.)

"I really depend on books on tape and listen to them every day, all day," said Matilda Nelson, a senior citizen from West Newton, who nominated mail carrier Denise Duffy. "Denise deserves this special award because she is special! She brings my talking books to my door, rings my bell, and makes sure that I have taken them inside. She is always ready to take my returns and any outgoing mail. . . . Her pleasant and courteous manner make for a cheerful day."

"We're enormously grateful to the Perkins Braille & Talking Book Library for recognizing in so special a way the role Postal Service employees play in providing such a crucial service to the library's constituents," said Charles Lynch, U.S. Postal Service Boston District Manager. "We're tremendously proud of Phil, Denise, and Bill as well as literally thousands of their colleagues who, in handling and delivering the talking books every day help to fulfill the library's mission of educating, enlightening, and entertaining its patrons."

Presidential gratitude

The appreciation of Perkins library patrons and staff were echoed by Steven M. Rothstein, president of Perkins School for the Blind. "We'd like to thank the U.S. Postal Service, especially the staff of the Boston General Mail Facility and the Watertown Branch Post Office who provide such great service to Perkins Braille & Talking Book Library, and each of the dedicated mail carriers who make a difference in the lives of our patrons by delivering some 2,000 talking books a day all across Massachusetts. Every mail carrier helps bring access to information and the pleasure of reading into the lives of so many visually impaired and disabled individuals, and we are very grateful for your support."

Following the brief recognition ceremony, tours of the Perkins Braille & Talking Book Library were provided. Participants had the opportunity to visit the recording studio and the shipping room with its many bins full of green cassette boxes being inspected and rewound before being sent out to other borrowers.

Every mail carrier nominated for the award received a certificate of appreciation that was presented in his or her local branch post office. Every patron who took the time to send in a nomination was also notified that his or her carrier received a certificate and a thank you letter from the library and the Public Affairs Division of the U.S. Postal Service. Press releases were also distributed to media and local newspapers of the city or town in which the carriers lived or worked.

"The positive benefits and the relationship-building that has taken place between the Perkins Library and the U.S. Postal Service has been absolutely tremendous," stated Charlson. "If any mail-related difficulties should arise, we can contact people we met and receive immediate results. We now have real people--names and faces--we can associate with the post office, and they now know the people who make up the Perkins library and how to reach us if something comes up. It really has been a 'win-win' experience for all of us!"

John Kelly named head of RFB&D

After two decades of service with Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), John Kelly accepted the position of president and CEO effective October 23, 2004. "Having built his career at RFB&D, John is intimately familiar with every facet of this wonderful organization. He steps into this job with a deep understanding of the needs of those with print disabilities whom we seek to serve," said outgoing CEO Richard O. Scribner.

Kelly has been a part of the RFB&D team since 1985. His dedication to the organization earned him a number of promotions, most recently to the position of executive vice president of programs and services. In the course of his career with the organization, Kelly has improved the quality of service, increased the overall membership, and expanded RFB&D's profile among educators and the network of partners. He also created the educational outreach program that is utilized by 7,000 schools in the United States. "It's a distinct privilege to work among colleagues and volunteers whose every task and decision is directly influenced by our collective commitment to help students experience educational success," Kelly said.

Kelly received his undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1981 and holds a master's degree in library and information science from Drexel University. He is a member of the American Library Association, the International Federation of Library Associations, and the Special Library Association.

Network exchange

Daytona Beach, Florida

What do the ocarina, mouth bow, and sweet potato have in common? All are traditional folk instruments featured in Roots of American Music, a concert/lecture presented by Jon Kay at a seventy-third birthday party for the talking book program on March 3, 2004. The Bureau of Braille and Talking Book Library Services hosted the free public program with support from the Florida Humanities Council and Friends of Library Access, Inc.

An audience of seventy marveled as Kay--opening with voice, "the oldest instrument"--plucked, clacked, and strummed through a survey of musical influences from ancient Africa and the British Isles. Renowned as a dulcimer virtuoso, Kay also played bones, Jew's harp, gourd banjo, and other fascinating instruments. Each story and sing-along imparted a fresh appreciation for music that sustained slaves, Civil War soldiers, and the '49ers of the California Gold Rush.

Folksinger John Kay Folk songs had practical applications, too. One of Kay's mournful ballads doubled as a "warning song." A mother or grandmother might launch into a verse when a younger woman displayed affections for a dubious suitor.

Stephen Foster received special attention as America's first great composer and Florida icon. Kay, who works as folklorist at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center, noted that the composer of "Old Folks at Home" and "Camptown Races" was born on July 4, 1826. That day was also the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the day John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died. "Foster represented and expressed in song a nation at adolescence," Kay said.

The program concluded with a rousing chorus of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," a fitting choice, since transmission of folk music and allied cultural traditions are threatened in the media age.

The crowd remained following the program to enjoy birthday cake and refreshments. Thematic braille, cassette, and large-type scores and instructional guides, courtesy of the NLS Music Section, supplemented library volunteer and services displays.

Special March 3 Talking Books Day cancellation As a birthday bonus, the Daytona Beach postmaster authorized stamping all outgoing mail at the city's main post office with a unique March 3 pictorial cancellation.

Decatur, Georgia

On Friday, April 16, Carrie Bruce and Beth Bryant from Georgia Tech's Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access presented a three-hour workshop on existing and emerging technology that can assist physically challenged individuals to cope better with their disabilities. The workshop took place at the Decatur County Gilbert H. Gragg Library in Bainbridge, Georgia. The workshop was developed in collaboration with Susan S. Whittle, Director of the Bainbridge Subregional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, which strives to meet the needs of blind and physically handicapped individuals in eleven Georgia counties: Baker, Brooks, Colquitt, Decatur, Early, Grady, Miller, Mitchell, Seminole, Thomas, and Worth. Whittle is also the Executive Director of the Southwest Georgia Regional Library System.

Georgia technology workshop.Photo caption:
During a break, Georgia Tech instructor Carrie Bruce answers questions from Bainbridge, Georgia residents Janice Whitehead and Tom Brown.

The fifty-eight attendees, many with learning and sight disorders, were shown the latest in wheelchairs and devices to assist the blind and people with low vision, as well as equipment to help people with learning disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) was also discussed in detail. The spirited attendees showed their enthusiasm by their questions and active involvement in the workshop.

The library's videotape of the workshop will be available to the public as part of its videotape collection. For more information, contact Kathy Hutchins at (229) 248-2680.

International briefs

West Bengal, India

Webel Mediatronics has launched a pioneering computerized braille transcription system offering a comprehensive solution for the visually impaired in areas of reading, writing, teaching, learning, and printing and for communication and rehabilitation. Comprising hardware and software, the system improves upon conventional braille printing in terms of speed, convenience, and cost.

It covers transcription in twelve Indian languages--Hindi, Assamese, Oriya, Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Nepali, and Bengali--as well as English, the company stated in a release.

The system was being installed in over one hundred schools for the blind throughout India, covering twenty-two states. West Bengal has equipped two libraries and twenty-seven special schools with the system.

Nearly five hundred teachers have already been trained in the fundamentals of the hardware and software. They, in turn, have trained another 3,600 people. The department of information technology, the government of West Bengal, and the central ministry of communications and information technology sponsored the project.

"TextBraille, MathBraille, EasyBraille, BrailleExam, Interface Software, BrailleWriter and Braille Keyboard (BKB), Tact Braille, Automatic Braille Embosser, and DirectBraille are among the software and hardware developed as a part of the computerized braille transcription system. This system is intended to substantially augment the literacy level among the visually impaired in the country and also assist in their communication with sighted people and rehabilitation," observed Shankar N. Goswami, director of Webel Mediatronics.

China

In late March at the headquarters of Retina Hong Kong, a non-governmental organization that assists visually impaired people, computer expert Ha See-hung unveiled a software package that reads aloud in Cantonese and English from a computer screen. Named Window Lights, the package will be made available to users free of charge.

The software runs on Windows XP and earlier versions (down to Windows 98) and is compatible with Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Word Pad, Note Pad, Internet Explorer, and Outlook Express. It can identify icons by name, enabling users to choose which ones they want, and can read Microsoft Word and Excel documents, as well as English and Chinese web sites and e-mails via Outlook Express.

Ha, who lost his vision at age two, created the software in his free time over the past few years while working for a master's degree in information technology at the University of Hong Kong. He concedes that his product is not perfect, and that reading whole screens word-by-word is time consuming. But Ha maintains the software is user-friendly and, above all, free--a huge advantage compared with two other current packages that read Cantonese on computer screens, one compatible only with Windows 98 and costing more than $6,000 and the other costing between $18,000 and $35,000.

According to government figures, there are 70,000 visually impaired people in Hong Kong. Peter Wu Kwok-ming, information technology officer of the Hong Kong Blind Union, believes less than half of them are active computer users. "Not many people are willing to develop software for the blind in Hong Kong because the market is too small," he explained, and "the software tends to be very expensive." But with free software now available, he is confident that "many will benefit."

Argentina

An Internet library started a few years ago by a group of young Argentinians for visually impaired Spanish speakers is growing fast. From its beginning in 1999 as an e-mail book exchange list, Tiflolibros has now expanded into an electronic archive of some 7,200 books used by approximately nine hundred people in thirty countries.

The collection has been built up through user contributions and donations from writers and publishing houses. Paper books are digitized, scanned with an optic reader, and then fed into a screen-reading program that makes the text audible through a robot voice. To protect the authors' copyrights, two early participants in the project--blind programmers Andre Dure and Guillermo Ramirez--created a special software program, dubbed Tiflolector, to prevent the text from appearing on the screen or being copied and printed. Yet, according to Tiflolibros founder Pablo Lecuona, the program allows users to scroll through text, make summaries, place bookmarks, and underline--just as sighted persons can.

The project, which takes its name from a mythological Greek island to which blind people were supposedly banished, is currently financed by voluntary annual contributions (equivalent to the cost of two books) from approximately one-third of the library's users. Lecuona stresses the need for more financing to continue the library's growth.

In April 2003 Tiflolibros was awarded a $2,500 prize by the South African-based Association for Progressive Communications for its efforts on behalf of people who are blind.

Open-reel tape rolls into history

On June 1, 2004, the NLS Quality Assurance Section (QA) gave its seal of approval to the last open-reel narration tape submitted for review, in compliance with contract specifications. Henceforth, all narration must be provided in digital format. Analog tape has been progressively phased out as a mastering medium over a period of three years.

Veteran quality assurance specialist Tom Bickford reviewed the book with remembrance of the thousands of reels he has loaded on his reel-to-reel machines over the course of thirty-seven years.

Bickford awarded QA approval to the book at 10:15 a.m. Harry Sylvester's The Legacy of the Blue Heron: Living with Learning Disabilities (RC 56359) represented the end of decades of almost exclusive use of the seven-inch reels for contractor submissions. Bickford made a few thumbnail calculations and reckoned that the section might have reviewed about 75,000 miles of tape since 1974, when the Quality Assurance Section came into being.

The digital masters now being processed have already produced a cleaner sound, with audible tape-hiss significantly reduced in cassette books. The digital talking book of the future will profit from other advantages of the new technology, including the nearly complete elimination of noise, greater efficiency in editing and mass production, and vastly diminished physical storage requirements.

Review last open-reel tape. Photo caption:
NLS QA specialists Tom Bickford and Lee Probasco review the last open-reel narration tape.

"The talking book program has used open-reel tape masters for forty-five years and more, but technology moves on apace and it is time to move with it," says Bickford. "Good-bye, open-reel tapes, old friends. You have served us well."

The Program

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress publishes books and magazines in braille and in recorded form on discs and cassettes for readers who cannot hold, handle, or see well enough to read conventional print because of a temporary or permanent visual or physical handicap.

Through a national network of state and local libraries, the materials are loaned free to eligible readers in the United States and to U.S. citizens living abroad. Materials are sent to readers and returned by postage-free mail.

Books and Magazines

Readers may borrow all types of popular-interest books including bestsellers, classics, mysteries, westerns, poetry, history, biographies, religious literature, children's books, and foreign-language materials. Readers may also subscribe to more than seventy popular magazines in braille and recorded formats.

Special Equipment

Special equipment needed to play the discs and cassettes, which are recorded at slower than conventional speeds, is loaned indefinitely to readers. An amplifier with headphone is available for blind and physically handicapped readers who are also certified as hearing impaired. Other devices are provided to aid readers with mobility impairments in using playback machines.

Eligibility

You are eligible for the Library of Congress program if:

  1. You are legally blind--your vision in the better eye is 20/200 or less with correcting glasses, or your widest diameter of visual field is no greater than 20 degrees;
  2. You cannot see well enough or focus long enough to read standard print, although you wear glasses to correct your vision;
  3. You are unable to handle print books or turn pages because of a physical handicap; or
  4. You are certified by a medical doctor as having a reading disability, due to an organic dysfunction, which is of sufficient severity to prevent reading in a normal manner.

How to Apply

You may request an application by writing NLS or calling toll-free 1-800-424-9100, and your name will be referred to your cooperating library.

News is published quarterly by:

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Library of Congress
Washington, DC 20542

All correspondence should be addressed to the attention of Publications and Media Section.

Editor: Ed O'Reilly

Writers: Paula Higgins, Sarah Sackett