Braille Monitor                                                           May 2007

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Could Politics Damage the Talking Book Program?

From the Editor: Itís no secret in the blindness community that the single most broadly used and passionately loved program serving blind Americans is the Talking Book program, operated by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) of the Library of Congress. Nothing else comes close in general usefulness and popularity. Moreover, as the population ages, the incidence of blindness will rise, and the demand for the program will inevitably increase sharply.

For several years now at our annual conventions we have heard NLS Director Frank Kurt Cylke and his staff describe the technologically complex, logistically demanding project of designing, developing, and producing the next generation of Talking Book delivery systems. As cassettes followed flexible disks and 8 1/3, 16 2/3, 33 1/3, and 78-RPM records into the attic or the museum, the compelling question has been what technology can NLS develop to protect copyrighted material, be simple to use, and offer todayís range of text manipulation features at a reasonable cost. Since seven hundred thousand machines must be built and tens of thousands of books and periodicals placed on the gadget chosen, itís essential that NLS get the solution right the first time. Not surprisingly the development process has been long and very careful. The conversion will also be very costly, regardless of how responsible the planning has been.

In recent weeks the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has prepared a study of the NLS conversion program. The report is apparently critical and clearly demonstrates that those assessing it neither understand the program nor appreciate the challenges to be overcome. Though the study has been circulated among those who will determine NLS funding in future budgets, it is not being published, which would enable interested parties outside government to comment on it and assess its merits.

On March 22 the Subcommittee on Legislative Branch Appropriations of the House Committee on Appropriations conducted a hearing. The NLS is requesting nineteen million dollars of additional funding in each of the next four years to cover the cost of the transition to digital recordings and equipment for the Talking Book program. When we learned about the hearing, we called on local Federationists to rally outside the hearing room to make sure that members of Congress got the message that this program is essential to the blind community. Fifty blind men and women gathered in the hallway to deliver that message, and President Maurer was in the hearing room to observe the proceedings of the subcommittee. James Billington, the librarian of Congress, made comments of support, and of course Frank Kurt Cylke argued strenuously for the appropriation.

We can only hope that Mr. Billington is as supportive behind the scenes as he was in public. He has not always been zealous in protecting the NLS program. Moreover, the Library of Congress has recently lost out on acquiring forty-eight million dollars in funding for its efforts to digitize library programs in general, and some have wondered if the critical GAO report might have been influenced, at least in part, by the Library of Congressís need for additional funding.

Following the subcommittee hearing, President Maurer wrote a letter to the staff members of the subcommittee, transmitting to them a draft document prepared by staff members of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped responding to the allegations contained in the GAO study. We can only hope that they will read and understand this document and protect the funding necessary to bring the Talking Book program into the twenty-first century. Here is President Maurerís letter:


March 28, 2007

Dear_____:

Marc MaurerSeveral weeks ago I received a call from a man who identified himself as Mr. Dolak of the Government Accountability Office. He said he wanted to ask me about the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). Inasmuch as this is the first time the Government Accountability Office has ever asked me about the National Library Service, I expressed considerable curiosity about the purpose for the inquiry. Mr. Dolak said that he would give me a report about the matter but that he was not free to do so at the moment. To date I have not received any report from the Government Accountability Office. However, I have set about seeking to determine the reason for the inquiry. My search for substantial background and detail about the GAO inquiry has provided quite a lot of information. What I have learned causes me to feel that what has occurred is potentially alarming and perhaps even more serious than that. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped has been doing a very creditable job in conducting its ongoing programs and planning for its future needs. Somebody appears to want to discredit this program either through a failure to comprehend the elements of it or through a deliberate wish to misrepresent it.
The NLS is the primary source of reading matter for the blind of the United States. It is virtually the only source of Braille material, and it is the only really substantial source of recorded books and magazines. Some small collections of recorded material may be obtained from commercial entities or from nonprofit organizations, but the only truly large, widely diversified collection of literature is maintained by the NLS. This means that literacy for the blind is dependent on this program and that any interruption or suspension of the service provided by it would be devastating.

I have learned from individuals within the Library of Congress that a report from the Government Accountability Office has been created. The report is sixty-five pages long. It contains statements that clearly indicate fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the program and of the planning that has been conducted in seeking to modernize the Talking Book portion of it. Presently books are distributed to blind people on cassette. Cassettes are ceasing to be a readily-available medium for distributing recorded material. Another medium must be adopted soon. The NLS has conducted a multi-year program of study to devise a new system. Part of the problem addressed by the NLS is the need to protect the intellectual property of the copyright holders. Another element of the puzzle addressed by the NLS is that many, many of its patrons are blind people who have not had training in blindness-related techniques or in the use of high-tech electronic equipment. The NLS distributes material to more than 600,000 blind people a year. I estimate that well over 50 percent of this population has not had the kind of training that would be required for using high-tech, complex playback equipment. Consequently, the book delivery system must be not only robust but simple to use. Apparently the Government Accountability Office did not consider the nature of the population to be served when drafting its report.

In the last few hours I have obtained a draft response prepared by staff members of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped to the Government Accountability report. I think that the response to the report is accurate. I am providing you a copy of it, and I would be available to respond to questions about it if you wish. I have participated in the planning for the modernization of the Talking Book program, and I believe I have sufficient background and knowledge to offer an informed opinion about what has happened in the effort to create this new Talking Book delivery system.

Sincerely,
Marc Maurer, President
NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND

cc: Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Chair
Subcommittee on Legislative Branch Appropriations, House Committee on Appropriations

Congressman David Obey, Chairman
House Committee on Appropriations, United States House of Representatives

Ms. Carrie Apostolou, Professional Staff Member, Committee on Appropriations

Mr. Chuck Turner, Staff member, Committee on Appropriations

Dr. James Billington, Librarian of Congress
Library of Congress

Dr. Deanna Marcum, Associate Librarian for Library Services
Library of Congress

Mr. Frank Kurt Cylke, Director, National Library Service for the Blind
and Physically Handicapped
Library of Congress

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