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NLS: That All May Read

Audio book distribution system design

For: Digital talking book distribution analysis. Task 2 - System design (Final report : June 29, 2006)

Section 1 - Introduction

1.1 Background

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) of the Library of Congress (LOC) administers a free library service to approximately 525,000 eligible residents of the US and US citizens living overseas who cannot read, hold or handle print media because of visual and/or physical disabilities. Under a special exemption of the US copyright laws and with the cooperation of authors and publishers who grant permission to use non-covered copyrighted works in the program, NLS selects and produces annually about 2,000 full-length audio book titles and 45 audio magazines in a specialized 4-Track, 15/16 ips recorded cassette (RC) format. NLS also produces annually about 42,000 specially-designed Cassette Book Machines (CBM) which enable readers in the program to play the recorded cassette books and magazines produced in specialized format.

A cooperating nationwide network of 57 regional (RL) and 75 subregional (SRL) libraries currently store approximately 19,400,000 and loan about 19,000,000 RC copies per year to readers in the program, while about 3,500,000 copies of cassette magazines are provided annually from manufacturers on a one-way, disposable circulation basis. Operations in network libraries are supported by a combination of federal, state, local and private funding, while NLS contracts with manufacturers for the provision of direct circulation magazines. Virtually all circulation of books, and all circulation of magazines, is on a mail-order basis which is performed by the US Postal Service (USPS) and the costs of which are covered under a special Congressional appropriation for the same ("Free Matter for the Blind").

While cassette technology has been the backbone of the program for almost 30 years, it is outdated in several respects and is nearing the end of its useful life. Compared to cassette-based technology, digital audio technology offers significant improvements to readers in the program, network libraries, and NLS. Furthermore, the impending obsolescence of key elements of RC and CBM technology also warrants the conversion of the system to an appropriate alternative technology. NLS has therefore determined to implement digital audio technology as the framework of the future system. Following extensive research, NLS has established a digital audio book standard (ANSI/NISO Z39.86) and has selected a digital file compression algorithm (AMR WB+) to be used to compress the size of files required for audio books yet retain acceptable audio quality.

While NLS anticipates that ultimately most patrons of the program will download digital reading materials from the Internet using a variety of broadband channels, and store and read books and magazines on portable playback machines designed specifically for use with such a delivery system, several major technological and economic impediments related to the provision of broadband Internet access to patrons of the program are expected to continue for some time. Therefore, NLS has decided that reliance upon such a delivery system must be postponed until technological advances make it economically feasible for most patrons in the program.

NLS has performed extensive research and determined that the first digital audio book distribution system will be based upon a high-density, solid-state, Flash Memory medium, using a "one-book, one-object" circulation protocol (i.e., as is currently used), with books being delivered to readers and returned from readers via the USPS. This distribution system, the design of which is the subject of this report, is planned to begin in 2008 and will require approximately four or five years to fully implement.

In addition, the entire collection of digital audio books will be available for download by patrons and libraries, probably in 2007, and certainly by the time digital audio book distribution from libraries is begun. This will allow "early adopter" readers who strongly wish access to a book to obtain it directly from the download site, or Digital Asset Management System (DAMS). Libraries will also be able to download books for which they are not provided copies (e.g., probably most of the 20,000 "retrospective" (those already produced on cassette) book titles, planned to be available by 2008), and make copies if necessary.

The Digital Talking Book (DTB), Digital Talking Book Machine (DTBM), and DTB container for the future system are currently being designed, and prequalifications of potential mass-producers are being evaluated. All new audio book titles are being produced in digital format, as have all titles beginning in FY 2004 (with some produced as early as FY 2002), and an additional 10,000 titles in cassette format are being converted to digital format via analog-to-digital conversion; as noted, a total of 20,000 titles are planned to be available in digital format by FY 2008. The specifics of the encryption schema required to provide copyright protection for program materials are being developed. A pilot test for Internet-delivery of digital audio magazines has been completed, and a similar pilot test for digital audio books is currently ongoing.

In September, 2005, the ManTech project team completed Phase 1 of the DTB Distribution study, which was a feasibility analysis in which three digital book distribution systems were formulated and evaluated, taking into account both NLS and network library-incurred costs, and both economic and non-economic considerations. It was first concluded that the system in which NLS would provide all audio book distribution from contracted Duplication-on-Demand (DOD) Centers is not economically feasible. It was then determined that a "Hybrid" distribution system - in which audio books with the greatest anticipated demand would be mass-duplicated, allocated to libraries, and loaned to patrons as is currently done, and in which books with relatively low anticipated demand would instead be provided by DOD Centers – would be more economically efficient from the perspective of both NLS and network libraries than would a system in which all DTB titles are mass-duplicated. In terms of non-economic considerations, a comparison of the two systems resulted effectively in a "draw."

However, while mass production of Flash Drives is a mature technology, mass-duplication of Flash Drive DTBs is currently only in a formative stage, while duplication-on-demand of Flash Drive DTBs is non-existent. DOD on a mass-scale will be an inherently more complex process than mass-duplication, requiring greater capital investment, set-up time, and extent of automation of operations. Also, libraries will have to make certain minimum enhancements to their information systems in order to function properly in the future system, especially with regard to working with DOD Centers. For all three reasons, ManTech recommended that DTB distribution begin with the All Mass-Duplication system, probably for the first two or three years of the transition period, but then evolve into a Hybrid system thereafter.

1.2 Objectives

The objective of Phase 2 of this project is to develop the design of the selected audio book distribution system, Statements of Work for operations that would be contractor-performed, and a transition plan to effect implementation. NLS generally intends to implement the recommendations from Phase 1 of the project, but it is possible that NLS may not implement DOD Centers and that DTB distribution may be performed exclusively via mass-duplication and library-based distribution. However, because the Hybrid system includes a mass-duplication with library-based distribution component (which will account for approximately 80% of total book circulation), the All Mass-Duplication system can be considered effectively an extension of the mass-duplication portion of the Hybrid, and both are addressed.

This final report for Task 2 of the project describes the future audio book distribution system including: operating procedures and general functional specifications for book distribution and duplication at network libraries and DOD Centers; estimated resource requirements and costs for DOD Center operations, and estimated costs for mass-duplicated DTBs; functional specifications for changes to library information systems and functional specifications for the DOD Center information system required to implement the future distribution system, including the exchange of information via data telecommunications between the libraries and Centers and operations within the Centers; and, service standards and policies which influence audio book distribution operations.

1.3       Scope, Assumptions and Limitations

Several points regarding the scope of this report, major assumptions used in analyses, and limitations encountered are listed below.


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Posted on 2006-12-05