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Audio description adds value to digital images.

Imagine trying to enjoy browsing through a wonderful Web site that contains lots of digital images on a historical topic of interest to you without being able to view the photographs. There is nothing there for you, unless there is a scrap of a description or the name of the person or place in the picture is indicated in the file name or cursory metadata.



In the past 10 years, libraries and museums have digitized an impressive amount of valuable historical materials, including images and documents, and have made them accessible to the world on the Internet. Most of these items were previously inaccessible to the public except through a physical visit to the library. Few people may have even been aware of the existence of the materials. However, for the visually impaired population, these materials are not accessible in their native physical formats in the library. And, despite the inherent promise of the digital revolution to increase the accessibility of information for all, many of these digital images are not currently accessible on the Web.

Museums and theaters are leading the way in making their artifacts and plays accessible to visually impaired members of their audiences through a process called audio description. AD can be compared to closed-captioned TV for the hearing-impaired, where the text of what is being said is displayed in a small box on the screen. Many public libraries are purchasing copies of videos that have audio descriptions, and talking book centers also have a selection of them for patrons. There are more than 750,000 talking book readers in the U.S., a number that is far below what it could--and should--be when it is estimated that 10 percent of the population (30 million people) have some kind of visual impairment. So these services are not just for a select few.

In movies, audio descriptions describe what is happening via professional narration when there is no dialogue or loud sound effects to confuse the listener. Many grandparents order children's movies during the holidays so they can enjoy them with their sighted grandchildren. You might think that a voice in the background would be distracting, but the narrations are so well done that they can enhance the experience for sighted people too. For example, in the early 1990s a descriptive video of Fatal Attraction was released; amazingly, its narrator was able to describe what was occurring in some of that infamous movie's scenes very well.

Although most TV stations offer closed captioning now, the first major mainstream TV show to offer AD debuted during 2005. The show, Blind Justice, was about a blind policeman, and, although it enjoyed some success, it was not renewed. This initial foray into the field of television did a great job of educating people about AD and also highlighted its capabilities and limitations.

What Is Audio Description?

Here's how Audio Description International, a currently dormant organization that still maintains a Web site (, formed to support and promote the use of audio description in live cultural performances, movies, television, museums, libraries, and elsewhere, defines AD:</p> <pre> Audio Description (AD) is the descriptive narration of key visual elements of live theatre, television, movies, and other media to enhance their enjoyment by consumers who are blind or have low vision. AD is the insertion of audio explanations and descriptions of the settings, characters, and action taking place in such media, when such information about these visual elements is not offered in the regular audio presentation. Thanks to the work of dedicated organizations around the world, audio description is now offered in selected movie theaters, videos, live theatre, and television programming, and is making its presence felt in a variety of new venues. </pre> <p>Audio description was developed as an art and a system in 1981 by Margaret and Cody Pfanstiehl of the Metropolitan Washington Ear, Inc., an organization that provides "free services for blind, visually impaired, and physically disabled people who cannot effectively read print," along with Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

Illinois Alive! Project

Digital libraries, dedicated to providing and improving access to information for everyone, should be a hotbed of audio description activity. In 2004, we became curious to see if any library Web sites or digital archives were doing anything with AD to make digital images accessible to the visually impaired. We found sites with collections of oral histories, music, and other audio, but we did not find any libraries that were developing audio descriptions, recording them, and making the MP3 files or the texts of the descriptions available for a historical collection.

In the summer of 2004, the Alliance Library System wrote a successful grant to the Illinois State Library for a pilot project involving seven libraries to digitize images, learn how to create effective audio descriptions, professionally record audio descriptions in a human voice, and make those descriptions available on the Web site as MP3 files and also as texts. The result was Illinois Alive! Early Illinois Heroes and Heroines: A Multimedia Montage (

Writing the Descriptions

You might think, "What is there to writing audio descriptions beyond telling the person in a sentence or two what is in the picture?" Actually, it is a learned skill that requires training, practice, and thought. Tom and Channy Lyons were selected to write audio descriptions for selected images in Illinois Alive! They received two 90-minute online training sessions in AD from two experts: Kim Charlson, the librarian for Perkins Library for the Blind in Massachusetts, and Andrea Doane, who is involved in developing audio description.

Channy and Tom learned about the guiding principles of AD, key elements in a photograph that are important to include in the description (style, setting, focus, period, dress, facial features, objects, aesthetics, etc.), and to try and objectively describe a photo without passing judgment or conveying reactions to an image. The entire process changed the way they, sighted individuals, viewed photographs. Something that surprised them was the length of time it took to write an audio description. You need to choose every word carefully and to be concise. They noticed things about the pictures they would not have normally noticed and found it was not an easy task to objectively describe the picture in detail (but not in too much detail).

Getting Our ADs on the Web and Trying Them Out

The next step was to work with librarians involved in the project to select images for AD. We focused on historical characters from 19th-century Illinois, and some of the photographs of the individuals we found were similar. We felt we did not have the time or the resources to create ADs for every photograph, so we selected five to seven images on each person and Tom and Channy wrote the descriptions. At first, it could take them up to 30 minutes to write one description. As they gained more experience, that amount of time dropped, but not by a lot.

After Tom and Channy finished writing the descriptions, we were ready to record them. We hired an audio professional who had a great deal of radio experience. We did this so that the audio files would be high-quality and professional. He recorded and edited the files and provided them to us as MP3s.

Next, we uploaded the digital images and audio descriptions to the Web site and organized them by person or community. We conducted some early testing to make sure that the site and the navigation were working well for the visually impaired. None of the testers--neither the librarians nor the visually impaired--had experienced a similar site, but they had had various experiences with AD. One individual had tried it in a museum, and several had tried it with videos. All preferred the recorded human voice to a synthetic screen reader voice. Some felt that even sighted individuals would enjoy audio descriptions of images because they bring more details to the eyes' attention. A few testers were librarians who were interested in learning how a digitization site could be made more accessible.

A visually impaired librarian who tried the site had this reaction:</p> <pre> Not only does the audio description enhance my enjoyment of the site, but it allows me to have basic access to the site. The only descriptive narration I have been familiar with is in regard to videos and I have enjoyed them. I have never visited a Web site with described information. Although my library is doing a digitization

project, none of the software they are using is accessible. Your site seems more accessible and modifiable. When given a choice of the human voice for audio description or a screen reader, I would select the human voice. </pre> <p>After asking visually impaired users to test and navigate an initial design, we decided to place one image per page with text and audio description in MP3 and to also include a link to the next AD. This enables users to browse through a collection of images on the Web as if they were in a museum. We also included an index of images and audio descriptions for each historical person, in case users are interested only in a particular person.

Challenges and Barriers

There will be challenges for librarians who want to add audio description to their online services. Because writing the descriptions is a learned skill and is time-consuming, adding them will increase the overall costs of digital imaging projects. It is important to get high-quality audio, which can also be costly if you have to hire a professional audio technician and recording studio. MP3 files, like most audio files, are very large and, even for short descriptions, can be an arduous download on a dial-up connection.

Although an overwhelming majority of people--sighted and visually impaired alike--currently prefer to listen to natural narration with a real human voice, synthetic, computer-generated voices are improving rapidly and the cost of text-to-speech software is dropping. You could create audio descriptions using a synthetic voice, saving the costs associated with hiring an audio professional and a reader.

Improve Access for All

Audio description can improve the experience of browsing through digital photos, even for the sighted. Making digital libraries and archives accessible to the blind and visually impaired through audio description provides additional features that improve the access to and enrich the experience of these collections for everyone.

If you would like to join an online discussion group on audio description in library imaging projects, go to

Lori Bell is director of innovation at the Alliance Library System, a regional multitype library system located in East Peoria, Ill. Her responsibilities include working on grants and special projects with member libraries. Her e-mail address is Tom Peters is the founder of TAP Information Services in Blue Springs, Mo., which provides project development, management, and evaluation services to libraries and other information-intensive organizations. For example, he coordinates, a downloadable digital audiobook service for blind and visually impaired library users in five states. His e-mail address is
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Title Annotation:accessibleIT
Author:Peters, Tom; Bell, Lori
Publication:Computers in Libraries
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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