Braille Monitor                                                    March 2008

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Preserving Talking Books
For the Blind and Physically Handicapped

Purpose: To prevent devastating disruption in the distribution of books and magazines by the Talking Book program of the Library of Congress.

Background: In 1931 Congress passed the Pratt-Smoot Act, which authorized the distribution of books to blind and physically handicapped people in the United States through what is now known as the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress (NLS). Talking Books began to be produced in 1934 and were originally recorded on phonograph records; cassette books were produced beginning in 1971. Today recorded books and the equipment to play them are distributed through a network of cooperating libraries throughout the country. Books on all subjects and representing all literary genres, as well as a selection of popular magazines, are available to NLS patrons. From its inception the Talking Books program has used the most cost-effective technology that is accessible by its users and protects the rights of copyright holders. The program is universally praised for the quality of the Talking Books and for its efficient distribution to patrons across the country. The Talking Book service is the single most effective and popular program serving blind Americans, for whom it is often the only source of reading material.

Currently the service uses analog cassette tapes recorded at half speed to prevent copyright infringement, but cassette technology is now obsolete. Realizing that the days of the cassette tape were numbered, NLS developed a plan to transition from analog to digital technology. A digital Talking Book player was designed that can be used by patrons of all ages, abilities, and physical limitations, and digital flash cartridges have been developed to store the books. Just as NLS is about to put the digital transition plan into effect, however, Congress has withdrawn critically needed funds from the project, placing the Talking Book program in peril. Without the restoration of full funding to the program, NLS will not be able to deliver digital Talking Books and players to its patrons in accordance with the schedule originally planned.

The last analog cassette machine to play the specially formatted tapes was manufactured over a year ago, leaving NLS with only a very limited supply of new and refurbished players to serve its patrons who are still using the cassettes. Parts for these players are no longer available, and the machines are maintained primarily by volunteers. As these cassette machines reach the end of their useful life, and with the distribution of digital books and equipment slowed by the lack of funding, many NLS patrons will see their library service come to an abrupt halt.

Need for Congressional Action: The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped determined that it would take $76,400,000 to complete the conversion from analog cassettes to a digital format. Their goal was to obtain this funding over four fiscal years, $19.1 million per year, in order to ensure that the conversion project was completed before analog cassettes became completely obsolete and unavailable. In its fiscal year 2008 budget request, the Library of Congress asked for the first of these $19.1 million installments to begin the digital conversion. Because of budget concerns, the Legislative Branch subcommittees in both the House and the Senate did not provide the needed funds to keep this project on the four-year conversion schedule established by the NLS. Both House and Senate included only $12.5 million for this project, leaving $6.6 million unfunded.

Congress should fully fund the digital Talking Book project by allocating $19.1 million for this purpose in fiscal year 2009, as well as restoring the $6.6 million left out of the fiscal year 2008 request. This appropriation of $25.7 million will allow the NLS to remain on course for a successful conversion to ensure that blind users of the Talking Book program do not find themselves without access to books and magazines.

Requested Action: Please support blind Americans by voting for an appropriation of $25.7 million in fiscal year 2009 for the Library of Congress Talking Book program.

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