Braille Monitor                                                         June 2007

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What Congress Doesn’t Know Could Damage the Talking Book Program

by Chris Danielsen

From the Editor: Chris Danielsen is editor of Voice of the Nation’s Blind, the official blog of the National Federation of the Blind, and works in public relations at the National Center for the Blind. If you use the Talking Book program conducted by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress or know people who depend upon it, you need to read the following article and then contact your senators and members of Congress to be sure that they understand how important it is and how great the catastrophe would be if our lawmakers pulled the plug on NLS’s carefully planned and long-awaited conversion to digital books and equipment. Here is the latest report on the struggle to educate members of Congress:

To the benefit of hundreds of thousands of blind Americans, Congress has always provided broad, bipartisan support for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress (NLS). Although the National Federation of the Blind has occasionally felt the need to press for adequate funding for the program or to protect that funding from raids by other programs within the Library of Congress, until now our elected representatives and senators have displayed unwavering support for the continuation of this important and popular service to blind Americans. For reasons which are not entirely clear, however, the NLS plan to convert the Talking Book component of its program from analog to digital technology has apparently garnered criticism from powerful Republicans and Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee and from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the entity that serves members of Congress by researching the effect of requests for appropriations. Although the NLS has been planning the conversion from audio cassettes to digital technology since 1990 and has documented the process of designing digital Talking Books and players in excruciating detail in newsletters and publications, only recently has Congress expressed any interest in the details of that conversion. The sudden scrutiny being brought to bear on the Talking Book program, however, comes late in the game, causing one to wonder why such logistically complex and demanding projects are not examined by Congress as they are being implemented rather than at the very point where funding to complete them is critical.

From what we have been able to gather, the GAO has raised the question of whether off-the-shelf technology could meet the needs of NLS patrons who use Talking Books, as opposed to the proprietary system designed by the service’s technical staff, and has even suggested that NLS cease the implementation of the planned conversion to digital Talking Books to study that question further. This sudden interest in the NLS program by the GAO is an extraordinary case of Monday morning quarterbacking. The NLS has spent years considering all of the technological options available for the next generation of Talking Books; has conducted nationwide usability testing among patrons of all ages, physical abilities, and degrees of technological sophistication; and has solicited endless input from network librarians, technical staff, and, most important, users of Talking Books. How much more study can the GAO believe is needed this late in the game?

Because the GAO and Congress are raising questions at a moment when the manufacture of the cassette players that have been used by Talking Book readers for years has ceased and parts for them are no longer available, putting the brakes on the digital conversion will almost certainly cause prolonged interruptions of service for many library patrons. For this reason it is incumbent upon the National Federation of the Blind to set the record straight and explain the very good reasons why NLS has pursued its current course of action.
It is unclear at this point whether the criticisms raised by the GAO come from a fundamental misunderstanding of how the NLS Talking Book program functions and the patrons it serves, or from malicious misrepresentation of the program because of some political agenda as yet unrevealed. To date the GAO report has received only limited circulation and has not been published, although an article in the May 3 issue of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call indicated that the report will be published in full in four to six weeks. It appears, however, that the report is having an effect on the deliberations of the members of Congress who will ultimately determine whether the planned conversion to digital Talking Books is funded.

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), the chairperson of the Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch of the House Appropriations Committee, which controls funding for NLS and other Library of Congress programs, first raised this question publicly at a hearing of that subcommittee held on March 22, 2007. As noted in the May issue of the Braille Monitor, fifty blind people stood in the hallway outside the tiny room allotted for this hearing, and only officials of the Library of Congress were permitted to speak to the questions posed by the three members of the subcommittee present. When one of those members, Congressman Ray Lahood (R-IL), asked if NFB President Marc Maurer could address the subcommittee, Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz informed the gathering that the National Federation of the Blind would have an opportunity to give public testimony at a later hearing.

As soon as we learned of the date of the public hearing promised by Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz, John Paré, the incoming executive director for strategic initiatives of the National Federation of the Blind, submitted written testimony. Mr. Paré summarized that written testimony at the actual hearing, which was held on Tuesday, May 1. The written testimony, which also supports our request from the same appropriations subcommittee for funding to continue NFB-NEWSLINE®, is reprinted here in full.

Statement of the National Federation of the Blind
Before the Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch
Committee on Appropriations
United States House of Representatives
Washington, D.C.
May 1, 2007

Madam Chair, my name is John G. Paré, Jr. I am the executive director for strategic initiatives at the National Federation of the Blind. My address is 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230; my telephone number is (410) 659-9314, extension 2371.

I am testifying here today on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind. I appreciate the opportunity to appear before this committee and to comment on the programs of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress (NLS). We strongly support the request of the Library for its annual appropriation to fund the Books for the Blind and Physically Handicapped program. We also support the Library’s request for funds to convert the analog audio playback technology to the more modern and flexible digital system. Finally, consistent with delivery of content through digital media, we are requesting that $650,000 be allocated to the National Federation of the Blind for telecommunications costs resulting from rapid dissemination of daily newspapers and magazines to blind and physically handicapped readers during fiscal year 2008.

The National Federation of the Blind is the largest organization of blind people in the United States. Founded in 1940, the Federation has over 50,000 members, representing a cross-section of the blind of America from all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. All of our leaders and the vast majority of our members are blind. We are consumers of the NLS program.

NLS is the only public library that serves the blind in the United States. In fact, it is more than a public library. If a public library in a given city closes down or cuts back on services due to funding concerns, sighted readers can visit another library, go online, or go to Barnes and Noble, Borders, or other booksellers. These are not realistic options for most blind people.

In 2006 731,460 blind and physically handicapped Americans relied on NLS as their primary source of reading materials. However, the program is at a point where the traditional medium by which books are delivered—audiocassette—is obsolete. In order to continue the service while protecting the rights of copyright holders and meeting the needs of a demographically diverse group of patrons, the library must update its technology so that books can be delivered and played in a digital format. Otherwise the service will cease to exist. The critical need for this conversion to digital Talking Books has driven the program’s budget request for fiscal year 2008.

NLS has a unique responsibility in serving the reading needs of blind people throughout the United States; it is our bookstore, our magazine stand, and much more. Imagine the situation you would face if you were blind. When blind people visit an ordinary bookstore or public library full of printed material, they can access only a few commercial audio books.

While commercial audio books have achieved popularity among sighted readers for reading while driving, purchasing these books is beyond the means of many unemployed or elderly blind people. Also many of these books are abridged and present only a portion of the original book. Finally, only a small fraction of all print books is available on audiocassette. For all of these reasons commercial audio books are simply not a suitable source of reading material for the blind. Therefore the funds provided by the United States Congress to support and maintain this vital service for the blind cannot be replaced by any bookstore or public library.

Thus 731,460 blind and physically handicapped people rely on the NLS program. These people include the blind student looking for course material, the blind mechanic seeking background documentation on the modern mechanisms in automobiles, the blind physicist trying to learn of recent scientific developments, the blind homemaker searching for recipes, and of course the newly blinded elderly person accessing information and entertainment that may no longer be accessed visually. These thousands of people, and more added each year, need the services of their National Library Service.

As you would expect, the realization that one will lose sight can be frightening and depressing at first. But blindness need not be a tragedy as long as the tools for full participation in society are available. Access to information is one of those tools, and as long as it remains available to us, blind people can be productive, educated, and informed citizens.

In the late nineties the National Library Service realized that eventually cassette tapes would become obsolete, and a new medium for delivery of Talking Books would be needed that would last for at least a generation. For this reason NLS began a deliberate, detailed, and painstaking process to identify the form that Talking Books would take in the twenty-first century.

NLS considered all potential digital technologies for the delivery of Talking Books. Wisely the service looked beyond the audio CD, which, as we speak, is becoming an outdated medium for digital audio. CD players have moving parts, which means that if distributed free to NLS readers, they would require considerably more maintenance than other technologies, thereby increasing the cost. Flash memory, which was a new technology at the time the National Library Service began the process of designing the next generation of Talking Books and players, is now ubiquitous and inexpensive, has more storage capacity than CDs, and requires no moving parts.

While there are off-the-shelf audio players that rely on flash memory, these devices are not designed with blind people in mind. A blind person, in fact, cannot use most of them independently, because they rely on the navigation of complex visual menus to issue commands and have tiny controls that cannot be manipulated by someone with a physical handicap. For this reason NLS spent approximately two years conducting usability tests across the United States with blind and physically handicapped consumers of all ages and varying degrees of technological prowess in order to design a Talking Book player that would meet the needs of all of the people that use its services.

The National Library Service solicited the input of consumers at every stage of the development of the new Talking Book players and the special flash memory cartridges that will store the Talking Books. NLS kept readers informed of developments at each stage of the process through a quarterly newsletter and updates in its regular publications. Representatives of NLS attended gatherings of consumer organizations and accessible technology trade shows and conducted extensive question-and-answer sessions at all of these gatherings. In short, every decision made by NLS about the design of new Talking Books and their players has been made with an extraordinary level of input from the people who will actually use the service and with careful attention to detail. The result of all of this diligence is that, once this conversion is completed, the service will be on a sound technological footing for decades to come.

It is incumbent upon NLS to protect the copyright of all distributed material. In order to accomplish this task, the National Library Service has always distributed material in a specialized format. With audiotapes that meant producing the cassettes at half normal speed. In the next generation of equipment, NLS will meet this goal with a proprietary flash memory cartridge developed especially for its digital Talking Books. In addition to storing the books on this special cartridge, the digital files themselves will be encrypted in such a manner as to be unavailable to other digital devices. Blind readers of books provided under this program support these efforts to give assurance to publishers and copyright holders that their intellectual property will be protected so that publishers will continue to support making their materials readily available to blind patrons of this service.

Consideration of the blind and physically handicapped children and adults who use the services provided by NLS was critical to the development of the new machines and book cartridges. The vast majority of those eligible for this service are elderly people, losing their sight as a part of the aging process. Of the estimated 1.3 million blind people in the United States eligible for the NLS program, one million are elderly. That number is predicted to increase as the baby-boom generation nears retirement. In recognition of this fact, NLS avoided use of a screen in the design of the new Talking Book machine, because these displays are often difficult for individuals with limited vision to read. Also several large buttons that can be easily identified both visually by their color and tactually by their shape and size are built into the new playback machine. Each of these buttons has a defined task. This interface is far simpler for elderly or newly blind individuals to access than the complex command structures common in off-the-shelf devices, which require visually navigating menus and switching between different modes of operation, all by the manipulation of tiny click wheels and buttons that cannot be identified by touch.

The players and cartridges designed for this program are extremely durable. Individuals qualified to receive materials under this program pay nothing for the books and their players. Therefore the library has sought to control the cost of replacement and repair of machines by making a solidly constructed Talking Book player intended to last for many years. As mentioned earlier, the player has virtually no moving parts, resulting in drastically reduced wear and tear on the player and consequently little need for continued repair and maintenance.

Products developed in the commercial electronics market are designed for planned obsolescence. In other words, manufacturers develop devices with limited durability and continually update available features, as with cell phones and PDAs. We are all familiar with the experience of purchasing a contract for a cell phone and discovering before the contract period ends that the phone is obsolete. These designs are meant to create the incentive for consumers to upgrade their technology regularly, thereby continuing a steady stream of profit and relevance for the company responsible for the particular product.

In contrast, players and cartridges designed for the NLS program are meant to last for years, and there is no expectation of new features for the playback machines and cartridges developed for this program. Features now offered are all that are necessary to navigate through the digital Talking Books. The National Library Service made a conscious and thoughtful decision to design a product customized to meet the needs of its community of users over a long period of time and did so with an unprecedented level of consumer input.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has recently criticized NLS for failing to consider alternatives for the delivery of Talking Books. NLS has responded to the GAO concerns in detail, and for your convenience that response is attached as an exhibit to this written testimony. In light of the detailed response of NLS to the concerns expressed by the GAO and the very specific reasons for the design of the Talking Book players and storage medium chosen by NLS that we have set forth in this testimony, it is clear that the GAO concerns are unfounded and that the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped has proceeded wisely and thoughtfully in preparing to deliver Talking Books in the twenty-first century.

The NLS program is regarded as a model of effective and efficient service to its consumers; however, unless Congress agrees to fund the request for purchase of next-generation machines and cartridges containing the digital Talking Books, this service cannot continue. The requested appropriation for 2008 is $19.1 million in addition to the usual NLS budget request of $55 million, a relatively small amount when the technology involved and the value of this service to consumers are considered.

The service provided by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped to its consumers is indispensable. NLS supplies readers with books ranging from nonfiction titles on specialized areas of knowledge to the latest bestsellers along with many popular magazines. Despite this exemplary record of service, however, the National Library Service, unlike other public libraries, has never been able to provide blind and physically handicapped readers with access to their local daily newspaper. Until recently there simply was not a technically feasible way for newspapers to be produced in an accessible format suitable for blind and physically handicapped readers in time for them still to be relevant when the reader received them. For this reason in 2001 Congress provided funds to the National Federation of the Blind to create an audio newspaper service for blind and physically handicapped Americans. The service, known as NFB-NEWSLINE®, currently delivers 250 newspapers to blind and physically handicapped Americans on the day of publication via touch-tone telephone. Readers can access the newspapers at the same time the print editions are being dropped on the doorsteps of homes and offices. Titles include national publications such as USA Today, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Wall Street Journal and publications of local interest such as the Miami Herald and the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

At the time NFB-NEWSLINE® was created, the telephone was the most effective method of delivery because virtually everyone had one. However, the future of this service depends on a new method of delivery. Currently the new NLS Talking Book player has a USB port through which material that has been downloaded to a computer can be transferred to the unit. In the future library patrons may be able to load their local daily newspaper to read on their Talking Book player, just as they read their selection of titles from the NLS collection. While we are designing and implementing this new delivery method, the telephone service must continue. Part of the costs of the NFB-NEWSLINE® service is paid by our partners, such as state libraries for the blind that are also part of the NLS network, rehabilitation agencies, and private companies or foundations. We are requesting an appropriation of $650,000 in order to pay the remaining telecommunications costs associated with this critical digital newspaper service for blind and physically handicapped Americans.

In summation, Madam Chair, access to information is critical to success and productivity in today’s information economy. The requests I am making of you today speak directly to the need for blind people to have that critical access to information. If this committee denies the NLS request to fund the conversion to digital Talking Books, blind people will have access to virtually no reading material. Present content delivery methods simply cannot continue because the parts for playback machines and the cassette tapes used to store the books are no longer available. If this committee denies our request to continue funding for the telecommunications costs of providing digital newspapers to the blind and physically handicapped, blind Americans will no longer have access to critical information on current events, business news and trends, and other time-sensitive information. On behalf of all blind Americans, I urge this committee to support these critically important programs to ensure that the blind and physically handicapped continue to have the opportunities created by broad and timely access to information. Thank you.

Despite this extensive written testimony, Representative Wasserman Schultz raised the same question of commercial technology at the public witness hearing after Mr. Paré had given his oral summary of the contents of his written testimony. Representative Zach Wamp (R.-TN), the ranking minority member of the subcommittee, also asked a question, wondering whether the full $19.1 million requested by NLS for fiscal 2008 was necessary to begin the conversion to digital Talking Books, or whether the funding could be stretched out over a longer period of time. John Paré answered these questions and submitted a letter to these members of Congress following the hearing to expand further upon his answers. Here is the letter:

May 4, 2007

The Honorable Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Chair
The Honorable Zach Wamp, Ranking Minority Member
Committee on Appropriations
Subcommittee on Legislative Branch
United States House of Representatives
Washington, D.C.

Dear Representative Wasserman Schultz and Representative Wamp:

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify before the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee regarding the programs of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) of the Library of Congress at the hearing held on May 1, 2007.

I want to elaborate briefly on questions you posed at the hearing, and I respectfully request that this correspondence be added to the record.

Representative Wasserman Schultz posed a question following my testimony on Tuesday, essentially as follows: “In light of the availability of a commercial Talking Book product, is it necessary for funds to be appropriated for a proprietary solution created by NLS?” This is a fair question, and one that I would ask if I were the member of Congress chairing this subcommittee. The question can be interpreted in two different ways. My answer at the hearing reflected one interpretation, which I will explain in further detail later in this letter.

The interpretation of the question that I did not address at the hearing is perhaps the most obvious, and runs something like this: “In light of the many commercial audio technologies available, such as compact disc players and iPods, why should Congress fund a proprietary digital Talking Book player and special digital Talking Book cartridges as requested by NLS?” The answer to this question lies in the provisions of 17 U.S.C. §121, as amended by this subcommittee in 1996. This provision of the U.S. Copyright Act authorizes NLS to reproduce any printed book or magazine without seeking the specific permission of the copyright holder, provided that the printed material is reproduced in a specialized format and distributed only to NLS patrons who are blind or physically handicapped. The “specialized format” language means that Talking Books produced by NLS cannot be produced in a format that makes them playable by commercially available audio devices. The cassette books currently being produced by NLS are recorded at half normal speed; they are unintelligible if played on a cassette player purchased from a commercial electronics supplier. They can be played only on the special cassette players that are loaned to patrons of the network of libraries affiliated with NLS or on similar players sold by vendors specializing in products for the blind. If NLS uses commercial technology to produce Talking Books, it will quickly find itself swamped with claims of copyright violation by angry authors and publishers, resulting in costly litigation and probably in the ultimate loss of the exception to the copyright laws that make the production of these Talking Books possible. In other words, compliance with the letter and spirit of the Copyright Act makes it absolutely necessary for the NLS program to use proprietary rather than open-source media and technology.

It is also important to note that the range of subjects and literary genres provided by NLS Talking Books is unmatched in the selection of commercially available audio books. NLS Talking Books are audio recordings, but they are not like commercial audio books, most of which are abridged and intended primarily for busy commuters. The NLS Talking Book program provides unabridged books that range from popular bestsellers to nonfiction works on specialized subjects and works of fiction that are critically acclaimed but not necessarily aimed at mass markets.
The second possible interpretation of the question posed above, and the version which I attempted to answer at the hearing, runs this way: “Why should money be appropriated for NLS to have special Talking Book players and cartridges manufactured, instead of the service simply purchasing technology from a third party that is already making it?” This question contemplates the production of devices that can play Talking Books by third parties engaged in the manufacture and sale of products for the blind. It is true that companies that sell their products directly to blind consumers carry devices that can play NLS cassette books, and this will probably continue to be the case when the service rolls out digital Talking Books next year. These after-market devices are richer in features than the basic NLS Talking Book player that is loaned for free to library patrons, and they tend to be more portable. Because they have more features, such as AM/FM radio tuners and the ability to record as well as play back audio, these devices tend to be more expensive, so the federal government would not save money by purchasing them. The devices go beyond the scope of the purpose of the NLS program, which is to provide devices for its patrons to borrow for the sole purpose of playing its books. Furthermore, most of these after-market devices are not physically configured for the needs of many NLS patrons who have physical limitations that prevent them from operating the types of controls found on most consumer electronic devices and who are not used to operating feature-rich consumer technology. As I indicated at the hearing, it is likely that after-market players capable of playing NLS digital Talking Books will be aimed at and used only by approximately 5 percent of the blind consumers eligible to receive the books. Finally, because they are intended for loan to multiple users, NLS Talking Book players are built to last for many years so that their life cycle cost is substantially less than that of other consumer products. For this reason they are the best investment of federal dollars.

Representative Wamp also posed a question at the hearing: “Is the full appropriation of $19.1 million for digital Talking Books requested by NLS absolutely essential to the continuity of the program?” The answer to this question is yes. The manufacture of the cassette machines currently used by NLS has ended, and parts for these players are no longer available. If this subcommittee declines to provide the NLS with the full $19.1 million requested, thereby stretching out the distribution of digital Talking Books and players over a longer period of time than currently contemplated in the NLS strategic plan, then patrons will experience long waiting periods when no books or players are available to them. The vast majority of NLS patrons will be cut off from their only source of information and leisure reading.
Thank you again for the opportunity to be heard before the subcommittee. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have further questions or concerns.

John G. Paré Jr.
Executive Director for Strategic Initiatives

If the arguments set forth in the above statements seem tediously repetitive, bear in mind that over several months and two hearings the same questions continue to be raised despite our repeated reiteration of our support for the conversion to digital Talking Books as planned by NLS. It is imperative that members of Congress understand why NLS has designed the new digital Talking Book program in the way that it has if the conversion to digital Talking Books is to be funded. Making sure federal funds are not spent wastefully is a legitimate function of government, but the zeal to save tax dollars must not put a critical program serving the blind population in jeopardy. Over the next few months members of the National Federation of the Blind should take every opportunity to contact our members of Congress and make sure they understand the critical importance of fully funding the NLS appropriation request for fiscal 2008. The continuation of the Talking Book program and that program’s viability in the twenty-first century depend on our vigilance.

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