Thursday, May 22, 2008

Initial impressions of the pilot site for NLS digital talking book downloads

In case you missed it, a little while back, The excessive cheering I’ve noticed in the blind community got to be too much and I had to find out for myself what this hot, new, accessible media player was all about. I treated myself to a Victor Reader Stream so that I could see for myself if this product was worth all the hoopla.

But, this post isn’t about my affection for this powerful piece of assistive technology. What I want to share here today is news about the
digital talking book pilot program
of the
National Library Service for the Blind an Physically Handicapped.
After all, being able to play these books on the Stream was the final, convincing argument that prompted me to get mine.

This library service, or NLS, as it is commonly referred to, makes books available in an accessible, modified format to approved patrons who have a verified disability which keeps them from being able to read regular pring books. The NLS is a division of the United States Library of Congress, and is supported with federal funding.

For background, more than five years ago, I had quit ordering books from the state talking book library, which includes books from the NLS. The main reason for this was that I was discouraged about the slow speed with which they were adopting digital media. I was tired of fumbling around with those 4-track cassettes and keeping the tapes in sequence for each book I read while I saw digital audio springing up all over the web. It didn’t make sense to me that the patrons of the NLS library still had to fool with these tapes when the rest of the world was quickly making the switch to digital media. Another reason was that when traveling for extended length, I would often pack along three or four books just to ensure I didn’t run out of reading material. I felt it was excessively cumbersome to pack along all these plastic boxes of tapes in addition to the heavy HandiCassette player I had for playback. It just seemed that the digital age was leaving accessible media for the blind far behind.

Instead of the tapes, I chose to listen to books on CD. It wasn't that the CDs were any less of a hassle to tote and keep organized, but I would rip the CDs into mp3 format and listen to the books on my computer. Being that I use a home computer and not a laptop, though, this meant I was only able to listen to the books while on the computer. This was a little restrictive in that sense, but I liked it better than the 4-track tapes. It still didn't give me the portability I longed for, though. And, this is where I jump to the present, and also, to the Stream.

The Stream is one of a small group of authorized, accessible media players that will playback books from the NLS, which was one of the reasons I made the leap and purchased it. (For the other authorized players, read the comment left to this post by Wayne.) I had checked out the web site for the pilot digital talking book program and read that there were more than 10,000 titles already converted to digital format and available for download. That was enough to sway my decision and convince me to make the Stream purchase.

However, because the books will only play on one of these devices that the NLS doesn't issue, means that only people who have purchased one of these accessible media players can use this digital book program. That is true, at least for now. when the NLS goes fully digital and this is no longer a pilot program, to ensure access to all, the NLS will have to provide some form of digital book players to consumers for playing the protected audio files. But for now, they have this ever-growing collection of titles already in a digital format and there is an authorization process to validate the players, so this makes these digital talking book files available today to anybody with one of these players.

The authorization key is emailed to the owner and is specific to that one, unique player. This authorization process requires the NLS to coordinate communication by email with the manufacturer, as well as the user. Once authorized, that player can play any of the digital audio files from the NLS site, which includes magazines. Users are limited to 30 downloads in any 30-day period.

Initially, I must say I’m very impressed with the NLS pilot site. It is searchable by author, title, subject, or NLS catalog number. The entire process has run seamlessly for me and authorizing the Stream to play these files was a simple procedure.

The first book I downloaded from the NLS site was one I have wrote about here previously,
The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal
Jonathan Mooney.
(I’ll write more here later with my review of that book.)

Playback on the Stream was a breeze. Even the time when I didn’t lock the keys and accidently bumped some key that stopped the book while I was more than half way through the ten hour work. I pressed play again and it took me back to the beginning of the book. Within seconds, I was able to get right back to the spot I had previously been. The NLS books are designed to allow users to skip by sections or chapters. That is how I was able to move back to where I had been so easily.

There are some aspects of the digital book program that will seem comfortably familiar to anybody who has previously spent any time listening to NLS books on tape. They will quickly recognize the familiar names and voices of narrators from previous talking books. The NLS catalog numbers of these digital books are also numerically identical for these books as their recorded cassette brethren, except these are preceded by the designation DB instead of RC. That makes sense…these are digital books and the taped version are recorded cassettes. Keeping the numbers the same only serves to simplify the process.

I’ve got to hand it to the folks at the NLS; they’ve done something really good here. My former frustration with the outdated, analog 4-track cassettes is today supplanted with an immense joy generated by their digital talking book program. I am once again throwing myself into reading for pleasure.


Wayne said...

Ron: for information purposes, the other players currently out that can play the nLS digital talking books are the Icon from LevelStar and the Braille Plus Mobile Manager from the American Printing House. I've heard that the Book Courier from Springer Design, will also be able to play the NLS books, but I'm not sure that this device has been updated yet, or else I haven't heard of it. Other devices and note takers will likely be added as the service grows and gets more popular. I don't have any inside information here, but it makes sense. So, in theory, one day soon we may be able to listen to these digital books on our Pac Mates, Braille Notes, or other note takers. Won't that be grand? It is possible to get a loaner digital playback machine from a regional library for the blind. However, these machines are not as common currently as they likely will be when the digital program "officially" launches. I expect that there will be an update on the state of digital books at the summer conventions for the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind in July from the appropriate NLS people. Its also worth noting that one can download and listen to currently 27 different magazines formerly on cassette. More will be added through the remainder of the year so that all of their former taped based magazines will be in digital form. Two magazines that currently aren't, and likely won't be unless the American Printing House makes some changes, are Reader's Digest and News Week. I contacted the Printing House not too long ago and spoke with someone in their magazine department, and they didn't give any indication of when these two popular publications would be transferred into digital form. When they are though, they will make a lot of people happy. I long for the day when I can move easily through Reader's Digest as I can through Smart Computing, National Geographic, or any of the other current digital magazines from the NLS. One final note: it is also possible to search via narrator on the NLS digital download site. Those who love the work of a particular narrator can listen to all of the books that they have recorded.

Ron Graham said...

Thanks, Wayne.

I added a reference in the post to read your comment for the other players.