Future Reflections          Fall 2007

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Talking Book Program Effectiveness Jeopardized

John ParéEditor’s Note: The following article is an abbreviated version of an article that appeared in the June 2007 issue of the Braille Monitor, a monthly publication of the National Federation of the Blind. However, since this is such an important issue facing blind people across the country, we urge you to take some time to read the full article. The title is “What Congress Doesn’t Know Could Damage the Talking Book Program” by Chris Danielsen and it can be accessed online at <www.nfb.org/nfb/Braille_Monitor.asp>. Jim McCarthy, NFB director of government affairs, adds that as we go to press, the House of Representatives has voted for an allocation of $12.5 million for the Talking Book Program, and the Senate Appropriations committee of the Senate has agreed to the same amount--two thirds of the requested amount of $19.1 million. It has yet to come before the full Senate for a vote, and the chair of the relevant subcommittee, Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana has pledged to seek additional funding. Therefore it is crucial for constituents, both blind and sighted, to contact members of Congress and ask them to fully fund the requested $19.1 million for the conversion to digital books and players. More on how to do so is located at the end of the article. Here begins Danielsen’s introduction:

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 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.

Because the Government Accountability Office (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.

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 following is an excerpt from that testimony and from a subsequent letter Mr. Paré sent to the committee to answer further questions.

John Paré, executive director for strategic initiatives, NFB:
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.

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.

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 sound technological footing for decades to come.

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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

[A few days later, after committee members voiced more questions, Mr. Paré felt compelled to respond. Excerpts from that letter are reprinted below:]

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.

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.

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.

How do I contact my Congress members?
To find contact information for your particular senator and representative, visit <www.senate.gov> and search by state, and <www.house.gov> and search by your nine-digit ZIP code. Due to terrorism concerns, you will have a much better chance of getting to your Congress member by phone, by e-mail, or by fax. Remember to identify yourself as a constituent of his or her district or state, and clearly refer to the necessary $19.1 million requested by the National Library Service for the conversion of its Talking Book program from analog to digital technology. The House of Representatives currently plans on adjourning on October 26, and while the Senate has not yet announced when it will adjourn, McCarthy urges constituents to contact their Congress members as early as possible to let them know that there are educated and concerned constituents following the events on the Hill.

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