by Robert Dizard, Jr.
From the Editor: The Library of Congress has long been an important provider of books and magazines readable by the blind by transcribing them into Braille, making audio recordings, and generating computer-readable files that can be used with audio or Braille. But the Library of Congress does more than distribute books; it can help to establish new directions in the development of technology and bring resources to encourage the use of Braille and making more of it available.
Robert Dizard is the deputy librarian of Congress. Here are the remarks he made to the convention following President Maurer’s Presidential Report:
It's a pleasure to be here, and I thank Dr. Marc Maurer and the National Federation of the Blind board of directors for this opportunity to report to you. I have been invited to speak to you today primarily about Braille as the standard of literacy for blind people and the actions the Library of Congress might take to encourage the learning and use of Braille.
The National Federation of the Blind has long been a close working partner of the Library of Congress, and we are grateful for its consistent support of NLS—our National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Many National Federation of the Blind members are users of the Library's collections and are often involved with our network institutions. I want to thank those of you who help us distribute and expand awareness of our materials and who provide us with counsel and insights into the needs and priorities of the blind community. We value your voice and your continued commitment to our services.
Free and accessible library services to the blind and physically handicapped have been an important part of the Library's mission for more than a century. Our national network began with nineteen libraries across the country. It is now expanded to ten cooperating federal, state, and local institutions. NLS today provides services to more than 640,000 individuals through this national network.
Before I talk more specifically about Braille, I would like to briefly provide you an update on four principal areas of our work since your last convention.
First, we expanded our Braille and Audio Reading Download—or BARD—service to include Braille holdings such as music materials, foreign-language materials, and materials produced by network libraries. We now have more than 50,000 titles available for download. Almost 12 million audio books and magazines have been downloaded on BARD. We had more than 157,000 Braille books and magazine downloads last year, for a total of almost 300,000 downloads since Braille was added to BARD two years ago.
BARD is a key instrument in the overall movement toward enhancing Braille literacy and use. Schools, for example, can use this system because it allows everyone in a class to access the same book at the same time.
Our biggest and most anticipated advance with BARD was the release of the BARD Mobile app for iOS devices. This was developed in response to demand from our borrowers. Nearly five thousand patrons downloaded and registered for the new app the first weekend of its release. Through this app audio users are now able to use their device's built-in accessibility features and speakers to read audiobooks and magazines, and Braille readers are able to use displays that connect through Bluetooth. We are halfway through the process of developing an app for Android devices, and we expect to release it later this year.
Second, last year we completed our transition of audio magazines from cassettes to digital cartridges. Over the next three to four years, all cassette-based talking books will be phased out and increasingly provided on digital cartridge or by download. Our goal is to accomplish 4,800 analog to digital conversions each year. By the end of 2013 we had available over 6.1 million books on flash cartridge. However, we expect the demand for cartridges to decrease as more patrons use BARD. Of course, technology will continue to impact the types of materials we produce and serve.
Third, last year we conducted a survey of program users and eligible non-users to better understand the population and their needs. Recommendations focused on public education and outreach initiatives to publicize NLS services, especially BARD and the new mobile apps. The survey recommends a social media presence for NLS, and, in fact, in May we launched our first blog—NLS Music Notes. We hope to follow this with more of a social media presence within the next year. We have also started the redesign of our website as part of this effort.
The survey results also detail increasing levels of technology use among individuals, but acknowledge as well the continued need for basic talking book and Braille service to a significant portion of current and future NLS readers. We are using these survey results to direct our programming and public education efforts.
Fourth, we signed agreements with four major commercial audio producers, including Hachette, Audible, Scholastic, and Penguin Random House to provide copies of their audiobooks for use in the NLS program at no cost. We consider these agreements a milestone—not only will we be able to get their best-sellers and other popular books to our patrons faster, but we will be able to devote some of the resources we've saved to expanding the scope of the collection, adding some of the books we had to pass over in the past. We hope these agreements will set the stage for future agreements with publishers.
Now: on Braille. Last year we held a Braille Summit to help us chart the future of the NLS Braille program.
Together with the Perkins School for the Blind, we organized this summit—themed "The Future of Braille"—to determine the best ways for libraries to promote and support Braille literacy. The two-and-a-half-day event can perhaps be the most impactful recent development for the future of Braille. The summit brought together approximately one hundred readers, instructors, librarians, stakeholders, and supporters of Braille for a national discussion about Braille books, literacy, and production. The summit covered topics including federal policy issues; the role of Braille literacy in employment, education, and community life; collection development and production; and Braille technology. Speakers explored the present state of Braille literacy, technology, and access. Participants divided into breakout groups for discussions with their peers, where they identified strategic issues and recommended solutions for Braille policies, products, and services. These are helping us shape NLS's future Braille program.
Today we are releasing the report of the summit's presentations and outcomes. This report highlights general issues facing the broader Braille community, including the high cost of Braille production, the availability of skilled Braille instructors, the need for improved technology, and the necessity of improving the public perception of Braille.
Recommendations to NLS from the summit fall into two broad areas:
One, increasing our emphasis on the importance of Braille and Braille literacy; and two, expanding our Braille collections and access to Braille materials.
Over the past decade the NLS Braille program might have taken a bit of a back seat while we developed and transitioned to the digital talking book. Today the digital talking book program is stable and meeting the needs of our patrons, with continuing plans for expansion and improvements. The time is right to bring our Braille program fully into the twenty-first century, increasing our emphasis on a program that has always been part of NLS. We recognize Braille as the fundamental medium of literacy for the blind—the key to education and secure employment for those who cannot use print effectively. We want to identify how the Library of Congress can take a leading role in advancing opportunities for Braille literacy for all blind Americans.
Studies have suggested that but a small percentage of people who are legally blind in the United States can read Braille, and there are many, young and old, who are blind and have either no opportunity or even desire to learn it. As leading providers of Braille reading materials, the Library and its network partners are in a strategic position to reverse this trend.
Our NLS director, Karen Keninger, has made Braille literacy a priority right from the start of her tenure. She has been—and she will continue to be—a very effective advocate in this area. I have seen this up close.
Since the summit we have taken steps to address the first area—increasing our emphasis on the importance of Braille and Braille literacy—by hiring a Braille development officer at NLS who will advocate for Braille production, literacy, and Braille's use in print and digital forms.
We are also expanding collaborations with our network libraries in marketing and campaigning for Braille. Again, network libraries are valuable avenues to reach many communities.
The second area of priority—expanding our Braille collections and access to Braille materials—calls for us to respond to and embrace changes in technology. Current and emerging digital Braille technology is opening a vast array of information and literature never before available to a Braille reader. With this improved access to information and current literature, blind individuals can enjoy the same fruits of literacy through Braille access that sighted people enjoy through the print medium, whether that print is on paper or on a screen.
Exploring and implementing new technologies and methods will enable us to expand our Braille materials and means of access. To accomplish this, there are four sub-areas that we are examining:
First, we recognize that hard-copy Braille will always be needed, but that the future form of access, delivery, and storage may increasingly lie in electronic Braille. That technology, however, remains expensive. The Library's Federal Research Program is currently conducting a study to evaluate the feasibility, costs, and development of refreshable Braille readers. We will have the results of the study by the end of August and will begin examining those results to determine our future options. If we do move forward with this technology, NLS may explore issuing a technology challenge to develop refreshable Braille e-reader technology that is inexpensive to produce, is robust, reliable and functional, and inexpensive to maintain.
Second, we are exploring the production and implementation of international Braille standards, including DAISY Braille formats for digital Braille, and the Unified English Braille Standard.
Third, with the amount of qualified vendors in Braille production waning, we are considering changes in our contracting practices to divide our production work between transcribers and embossers. There are many organizations that are able to transcribe print into electronic Braille files but do not have the equipment to produce hard copies according to NLS specifications. Dividing these tasks will maximize production and introduce an expanded pool of transcribers. In addition, we are considering developing a training program aimed at Braille-translation transcribers, which will broaden the field of certified Braille transcribers and increase the quantity of Braille products for the NLS program.
Lastly, we need to research options for producing tactile elements for Braille materials and identify contractors who can produce them in a cost-effective and acceptable manner for inclusion in publications. We are just beginning our exploration here.
In addition to these efforts in Braille, before concluding let me mention a few of our other priorities going forward. We are focusing on expanding all collections on BARD. Fifteen percent of NLS patrons use the BARD service now, and we expect usership to increase dramatically in coming years. We will work on an expansion of the infrastructure needed to support and enhance the BARD download system for users. Our next project will be to improve the system's search capabilities. We're also taking steps to ensure maximum download speeds no matter where you live.
Presently, we are producing more than two thousand new talking book titles on flash cartridges. We have 545,000 playback devices available—a quantity we believe is sufficient to meet future demands. We are currently exploring updates to the talking book machines and planning for the future development of a redesigned machine with added features. Components may include updated text-to-speech capabilities, as well as the addition of other features such as Wi-Fi connectivity for the delivery of books and magazines, and Bluetooth connectivity for use with auxiliary devices, including future Braille e-readers.
We are continuing to be recognized and looked to for our leadership and voice in national and international conferences and meetings focused on better serving the blind and visually impaired. Recently NLS sponsored the 2014 National Conference of Librarians Serving Blind and Physically Handicapped Individuals in Oklahoma City. There, Director Keninger spoke on Braille in the twenty-first century, a continuation of the conversation begun at our Braille Summit last year. The conference also focused on a number of other programs, including BARD, BARD Mobile, audiobook production, and broader initiatives from the World Intellectual Property Organization and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions—forums in which we also participate.
A new partnership for NLS, launched at this convention, is an initiative that will assist the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in distributing assistive currency readers, utilizing our network libraries. An interagency agreement was signed last September, and we have hired a full-time program manager to oversee our part of the program. If you are interested in obtaining a currency reader, you can talk to staff at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Suite 255.
In closing, I want to express again the Library's commitment to users of NLS. Serving blind and physically handicapped Americans will remain an important part of the Library's mission and one we are very proud to fulfill.
I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you today. On Sunday at 12:15, Director Keninger will hold an open forum to hear about and discuss issues concerning NLS. Please join Karen if you have suggestions or recommendations for us.
I thank you again for the opportunity to be here, and happy Fourth of July.