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The librarians' quest: transforming the printed word so that all may read: through modern alchemy, we're making books more accessible to those with visual, physical, or learning disabilities.

In the never-ending quest to provide equitable access to information for everyone, librarians are like medieval knights. We of the info-warrior class now grasp within our ken and power the ability to make all books available to all readers in all formats--hardcovers, paperbacks, e-books, Braille, and digital talking books (DTBs). Young and old, the blind, dyslexic, visually impaired, and physically challenged will be able to partake of all written knowledge. As foretold by countless seers and soothsayers, the constellations of technology, creativity, economics, and telecommunications are lining up to produce the dawn of a momentous era. We are engaged in a digital quest to perfect the alchemy of access to the printed word.

Until now the traditional book and library have not been friendly environments for print-impaired individuals. The joy of reading was incomplete and limited. Now computer technology has become the librarians' stone, enabling us to transform text into a variety of formats and delivery modes to ensure access for all.

Librarians serving persons with disabilities ride along the leading edge of this quest. Their work however, often benefits the entire population. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), a division of the Library of Congress, provides talking books, audiobooks, and playback equipment free of charge to eligible individuals--readers who have a visual, physical, or learning disability that prevents them from comfortably reading regular print. NLS has been a leading force in the quest that all may read. An obscure but impressive fact is that in 1931 NLS first developed the 33 rpm record, at a time when the commercial music recording industry still relied on 78 rpm recordings (Anonymous, 2003). NLS also started recording and producing audiobooks on cassette long before commercial audiobooks became popular in public libraries.

In this saga we'll recount the first stage of our quest to provide digital talking books (DTBs, also known as audible e-books) on hand held players to the print-impaired population we serve. Compared to Braille books, books on disk, and books on tape, DTBs offer better sound quality. And the playback devices are smaller and lighter (thus more portable), and can hold more content. Today, the promise of DTBs is real, not chimerical.

Explaining Our Quest

In January 2003, the Mid-Illinois Talking Book Center (MITBC), administered by the Alliance Library System and one of four subregional libraries of the Illinois State Library Talking Book and Braille Service, undertook the eAudio Pilot Project to explore the demand for DTBs by blind, visually impaired, and physically challenged users. The primary goal of the pilot project was to introduce readers to audiobooks in digital format using digital audio playback devices--the eventual goal of the talking book program at the national level. We sought feedback on the service and on users' experiences with the Otis, a small, light-weight, portable device for playing audible e-books. Our band of librarians for this noble quest included Sharon Ruda, director of the Illinois State Library Talking Book and Braille Service; Lori Bell, director of the Mid-Illinois Talking Book Center; Tom Peters of TAP Information Services; and Lori Thorne of the Mid-Illinois Talking Book Center.

The goal of the quest was and is to provide great digital library services and abundant, timely digital content to the population we serve. We want to provide better sound quality and more functionality through a delivery system and end-user experience that exploit what digital media afford. This may involve delivering content and services in a variety of media and delivery modes to all evolving stable of playback devices.

The end user always needs seine sort of playback device, be it a PC, laptop, tablet PC, PDA, MP3 player, or some device specifically designed to meet the needs of this user population. Otis may have been one of the first, but other devices, such as the Victor Vibe and the Telex Scholar, show promise. Our quest is realistic as well as quixotic, in that we realize that NLS, the regional libraries, and the subregionals probably will not receive additional funding and resources. So the outcomes of the quest must be efficient and effective.

Our Kingdom's History

The Mid-Illinois Talking Book Center is a subregional library for the blind and physically handicapped, co-located in Pekin and Quincy, Ill. We serve approximately 5,000 print-impaired readers. Because many of our readers are homebound, most of our services are provided via mail, telephone, and, increasingly, the Internet. Out library is unique because not many people visit our facilities, and our entire collection is in audio format, currently primarily analog cassette recordings. Our library is part of a network that's coordinated at the state level of the Illinois State Library Talking Book and Braille Service, and at the national level by NLS.

In the summer of 2002, we became aware that a company called was working with libraries to provide DTBs on Otis players, small hand-held MP3 players with earbuds and 64 MB of memory.

They use two AAA batteries and have a cassette adaptor for playing in the car. For the initial stage of our quest we selected the Otis because of the reasonable price ($100), the small size (easily fits in the palm of your hand), and the sound quality. The Kalamazoo (Mich.) Public Library was the first library in the country to offer this service, and we soon discovered that a few others were offering similar programs with great success using Otis players. Audiobooks on cassette have increased in popularity in public libraries, and the provision of digital audiobooks in public libraries is proving to be popular too, especially with commuters. Because NLS has already formed a Long-Term Digital Planning Group and is planning to provide DTB services, our readers were curious to learn more about this new service.

Our First Jaunt

We originally tried to obtain funding for our quest by writing a grant application. We planned to build a collaborative digital audiobook collection with other area public libraries. Unfortunately, our application was not funded. Because we wanted to proceed with the service on a pilot basis, we used $2,000 in donations from a memorial fund in honor of former MITBC director Eileen Sheppard Meyer, as well as funds provided by the Illinois State Library Talking Book and Braille Service. So, during the first 6 months of 2003, these funds allowed us to offer access to 48 current popular titles--mainly works of fiction--in copyright-secure digital audio formats from The prices of these digital talking books ranged from $5 for some public domain works to $30 for current bestsellers.

We purchased eight Otis playback devices and made them available for loan. We advertised the service to our readers through our quarterly newsletter. Over 100 readers expressed interest in trying the service; we sent each person a list of available books. Then the devices--already loaded with the DTBs selected by individual readers--were mailed out. In the packages we included ear buds, instructions in large print, and a questionnaire developed to gather readers' feedback on their first experience with DTBs.

Measuring Initial Success

This is not a young population of users (87 percent of the respondents were 40 or older), so we weren't sure how they'd deal with the new technology. But our questionnaires told us that nearly three out of every four respondents were generally satisfied with their first experience with DTBs, even though two-thirds reported some problems or difficulties with the Otis playback devices, principally with the control buttons and the LCD screens. Over half of the respondents indicated that they preferred DTB technology over cassette tapes and players. Approximately half said they planned to listen to more DTBs, and about half expressed a willingness to purchase their own DTB players. This is impressive, because many of these patrons live on fixed incomes.

As a result of our pilot project, we've learned several things:

* DTB playback devices need to have larger, better-spaced control buttons.

* Users need audible clues to indicate when various functions have been executed.

* A DTB that provides variable-speed playback without the "chipmunk effect" will improve upon a functionality from the cassette player era that listeners really appreciate and use.

Manufacturers, content providers, and libraries serving this population should remember that most users do not differentiate between the main playback device, accessories, content, and service. Something as simple as uncomfortable ear buds can spoil the entire experience.

Two tentative conclusions emerged during this initial stage of the quest. First, there seems to be widespread interest in and willingness to experiment with DTBs among the print-impaired. Second, for these people, good sound quality and a large, diverse collection of current content seem to be much more important than the debate between cassettes and DTBs or any general sense of a technological imperative to migrate to the latest gadgets and file formats.

Next Stage in the Quest

We were buoyed by these early experiences. The next stage of the quest is already underway and we have increased the number of kingdoms involved. A yearlong, multi-state second phase known as the Lobe Library Project commenced on July 1, 2003, and will conclude on June 30, 2004. Libraries and users in Illinois, Hawaii, Mississippi, Montana, and New Jersey are participating. A collaboratively developed, shared collection of digital content is being acquired through funds contributed by each kingdom. The materials for the collaborative digital library are selected by a team with representation from each state. Each participating library handles its own publicity and circulation, with central circulation management performed by the Illinois State Library Talking Book and Braille Service. The project ream also is exploring recent developments in playback devices, as well as content management systems.

Toward a Fairy Tale Ending

To advance significantly in our quest, we'd like a few "minor" things, such as widely accepted standards, flexible file formats, multifunctional playback devices that scoff at obsolescence, easier content delivery, devices with more storage space, more digital talking books, and a transition strategy that will provide the greatest good to the greatest number of our users. If our quest holds any hope for a fairy tale ending, we need to think outside the book.

While the introduction of e-books to the general public has been arduous, per haps it's primarily because they were being asked to migrate from a non-electronic technology to an electronic one. The transition from books on analog cassette tapes to DTBs may be easier, because this group of readers already knows the pleasures and heartaches of working with cassette players. Some critics may berate us for what, like the pursuit of the philosophers' stone, is only a ridiculous race for fool's gold. Nevertheless, although the methods and technology used may be questionable, we feel the basic mission is irrefutable. The librarians' stone will not transform base elements into gold, but rather books into eminently, universally accessible and infinitely malleable information chalices.


Anonymous. 2003. High hopes for new technology behind James Patterson's first audio e-book release. AFB News (Summer): 3. Available online at

Kerscher, George, and J. Fruchterman. 2002. The soundproof book: Exploration of rights conflict and access to committal eBooks for people with disabilities. First Monday 7 (6): no pagination. Available online at

Noring, Jon. 2003. OEBPS: The Universal Consumer Ebook Format? Posted to the Electronic Book Web on May 20, 2003. Available online at ebookweb/OEBPSstandard.

RELATED ARTICLE: Dragons we can't slay alone.

How Can We Make Distribution Easier and More Affordable? We want to offer a self-service digital library where readers with computers can download their own content. Through, subscribers can download books to MP3 players, hand-held devices, or their computers. offered a plan where we could pay $10, then issue a reader a coupon he could use to download any book he desired. But since libraries serving the blind often pay only $2 per circ transaction, this plan was not economically feasible. is reconsidering this model and pricing structure. But generally, it is not distributors that are limiting this effort, but the publishers.

Which Device Is Best? The Otis can hold two or three audiobooks and can play non-proprietary MP3 files. The Apple Ipod boasts a 10-gigabyte drive that can store hundreds of books, but at $299 or more, the price is prohibitive for library loaning. Personal digital assistants offer a variety of other applications beyond playing audiobooks and MP3 files, but do libraries want to get into the business of loaning personal devices? Small, high-capacity flash memory devices are attractive, but they still are devices that must be shunted about. Part of our quest is to provide only the content and service, while leaving ownership and care of the physical devices to the end users. In 2004 we should see affordable playback devices fur audiobooks with copyright protections, including automatic timeout.

Where's Our Digital Management System? There is a definite need for an effective library management system for digital content that can also handle audio and video. We approached about a system such as OverDrive or Libwise from Fictionwise, and talked with and Libwise. They responded that the technology is not yet ready to work with both types of files. OverDrive, which offers content management systems for e-books in many other formats, has developed a digital content management system that handles audio and video formats. This type of system is especially needed fur shared digital libraries. The future of our quest will involve a pilot study of OverDrive's content management system that enables audiobooks to automatically time out.

When Will We See a Universal Format bit All Types of Digital Books? Kersher and Fruchterman (2002) state the promise well: "If you have the structure and content encoded in XML with sufficiently rich semantics, there is no reason why the presentation of the information can not be tailored to meet each person's needs. This is true for all people and at all times; this is the promise that ePublishing holds for persons who are blind and print disabled." Noring (2003) also exhorts us In continue pursuing the dream of a universal e-book format.

Lori Bell is director of the Mid-Illinois Talking Book Center and has an M.S. in library and information science from the University of Illinois. Her e-mail address is Sharon Ruda is director of the Illinois State Library Talking Book and Braille Service. She has an M.S. in library and information science from Northern Illinois University, and her e-mail address is Tom Peters is a consultant with TAP Information Services, located in Blue Springs, Mo. He holds an M.A. in library and information science from the University of Iowa and an M.A. in English from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. You can reach him at
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Author:Bell, Lori; Ruda, Sharon; Peters, Thomas J.
Publication:Computers in Libraries
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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