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A Profile of Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic
by B. T. Kimbrough
As if it were just last spring, I remember visiting Princeton, New Jersey in 1985 for a DIALOGUE feature on a focused organization with a dazzling, million-dollar automated system for assembling, copying, storing, retrieving and reusing well over 100,000 books on cassette in a year. At that time, Recording for the Blind was serving 17,000 users--about half of them visually impaired, almost all of them students--on an annual budget of $3.5 million. With that money, the organization was shipping just about 100,000 orders per year, with about 10,000 volunteer hours available each year for recording new books. They were opening new satellite studios as needed, they were working hard to learn how to get more feedback from their users, and they were trying to persuade former students to come back and find fresh ways to make use of RFB materials. In short, they had identified solutions for most of their challenges, and they were intently pursuing them with evident skill and enthusiasm.
But that was 23 years ago. Today, the challenges are amazingly more complex, and even the organization's name has changed to Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. These days RFB&D is using a combination of CDs and Internet downloads to serve around 190,000 users a year, only about 20 percent of them blind or visually impaired. The actual number of volumes circulated in a year approaches half a million, and the annual budget stands at about $32 million.
The cassettes, which were once the organization's pride and joy, are rapidly disappearing, partly because the players are growing ever harder to repair, and partly because books with much more precise navigation can now be stored and played electronically using disposable CDs or inexpensive portable players.
Making the conversion from tape recordings to digital computer files was a huge undertaking because it meant retraining thousands of volunteers, disposing of a once state-of-the-art automated cassette processing system, and deciding which existing titles in the vast library should be converted to digital media, and which ones should simply be removed from the shelves. The move to CDs also required RFB&D to become a vendor of CD players. This was necessary because copy protection software had to be installed in each player in order to reassure anxious publishers that their copyrights would not be casually violated. Contrary to what some may believe, the players are marked up from the original purchase price, and the sales do help fund some of the agency's budget.
But RFB&D's media plans go far beyond the CD. During an interview recorded on June 30, the organization's senior vice-president of operations, John Churchill, described a new venture which will offer books directly to users with broadband Internet access. "We're very excited that in August we're going to be launching online delivery service of our educational library, and our books will be available for download. The service is Windows-compatible, because we are using Microsoft DRM (digital rights management) technology for copyright protection.
"Our members will be able to move our books from their PC to a (portable) music device that is capable of hosting the Microsoft copyright software." Churchill said that RFB&D's Audio Access will work very much like the popular Unabridged service, which provides online audio book downloads in the Windows Media Audio format to patrons of many public libraries in the United States. Unabridged users download and install a piece of management software which allows them to play books directly on their computers, or move them to one of the players from an approved list supplied by companies such as Creative Labs, Sanyo and I-River. Such players have enough storage capacity to hold several average-sized books, and still leave room for music. However, Churchill said many students surveyed prior to the Audio Access project said they would carry a dedicated player just for books to avoid mix-ups with music files.
Churchill called the level of navigation offered through Audio Access "DAISY Lite," meaning that it offers basic page and simple heading access, but doesn't provide the greater variety of heading levels or extensive bookmarking facilities supported in DAISY's extended markup language.
Later this year, there are plans to roll out download access to the Audio Plus level of navigation currently offered on RFB&D's CDs. In order to play these full navigation Audio Plus downloads, users will need more secure portable hardware, perhaps similar to the Victor Reader Stream and the Icon/Braille Plus, which have been approved for Talking Book downloads offered by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.
Looking only at current output, it would be easy to categorize RFB&D as the narrated book service, as opposed to Bookshare, which provides electronic text without human narrators. In fact, RFB&D has ambitious goals involving combined formats. That is human narration with full electronic text, which can be scrolled in sync with the adjustable pace of the narration. If this medium sounds potentially complex for the user, imagine the complexities on the production side.
RFB&D's prime innovator and spokesman in this area is senior officer for accessible technology, George Kerscher, who also serves as secretary-general of the International DAISY Consortium. It was through Kerscher's pioneering work in the 1990s that RFB&D briefly offered some electronic text versions of dictionaries and other large reference works on floppy computer disks. Using what he learned from that project, Kerscher took the lead in that historic progression of inter-organizational discussions which eventually gave birth to the electronic navigational standard we now know as DAISY.
As he spoke about the navigational facilities available through DAISY, and their potential flexibility, he summarized the difficulties which must be overcome in order to present narration and text in a single product.
"Long-term, we'd like to see our collection move to full text, with word searching and word spelling (plus) full audio with images--our wonderful volunteer figure descriptions. That's the Cadillac that we would like to deliver. But darn it, we're going to have to have cooperation from the publishing industry in the obtaining of text files in order to produce materials like that. Trying to go from a scanned image of a book to this rich XML markup is a lot of work. Our friends over at Bookshare do a wonderful job of trying to grab this content and make it available in the most useful way possible, but we have to have pretty richly marked up material in order to get the functionality that we want in our product."
Kerscher said that most publishers in the United States and elsewhere remain extremely cautious on the subject of making electronic files directly available to RFB&D and other members of the International DAISY Consortium. He added that these same publisher concerns also continue to obstruct international special media file sharing, so that Canadians and English readers in many other countries, for example, are not able at the moment to get access to DAISY books produced in the United States.
The one area of publisher access which figured to be a source of encouragement, has so far been something of a disappointment for RFB&D. Publishers of grades K-12 textbooks are now legally required to place a special set of their electronic files in the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Center in Louisville, Kentucky. Managed by American Printing House for the Blind, the NIMAC is legally permitted to release its files only to an Authorized Media Producer for the state in which the book will be used. As a result, RFB&D is not getting direct access to many of these textbook publisher files at the moment. Part of the cause may be a $32 million project involving the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Bookshare. This project was described in detail in the article, "The $32 Million Question," which appeared in the January-February 2008 issue of DIALOGUE. As for how this project has affected RFB&D, suffice it to say that they did compete for the lucrative five-year federal contract, offering a somewhat different solution than the eventually funded text-only approach proposed by Bookshare. According to Kerscher, RFB&D's solution would first convert the publisher files into audio using a speech engine of higher quality than typical screen-reader speech, then add full electronic text to allow spelling and searching, plus descriptions of pictures and other images executed by some of the organization's 7,000 volunteers.
In some respects, it is this army of extensively trained and dedicated volunteers which constitutes RFB&D's most valuable resource. In order to read and/or monitor a particular book, a volunteer must pass a test demonstrating an understanding of the subject area, and there are 68 separate knowledge categories in the RFB&D information universe. In addition to direct production work, some volunteers work directly with teachers or students who are having difficulty understanding how to use RFB&D materials for study. Other volunteers help with fundraising, and still others serve on one of a number of important working committees, such as the Technology Advisory Committee, which Churchill credited with a critical role in RFB&D planning.
There is an average of 250 volunteers for each of the organization's 29 satellite studios, and they donated close to 390,000 hours of work during 2007. In addition, RFB&D has a paid staff of nearly 400, about half of whom serve at the New Jersey headquarters.
Last year, the estimated 185,000 borrowers put in 285,000 telephone and Internet requests for service. In the process, just over 6,000 new titles were added to the library containing about 143,000 hours of recorded narration.
Perhaps the only number to diminish significantly over the past year was the total of titles in the library, which went from 115,359 to 37,668. This reflected a large number of titles which exist only on cassette, for which there are no current digital conversion plans. Having removed these titles from the educational library, RFB&D can now make the entire library available for downloads.
For some, the most significant RFB&D number these days is 60, which is the number of years which have passed since Anne T. Macdonald started the Committee on Recording for the Blind within the New York City Public Library in 1948. Moved by the plight of newly-blinded soldiers returning from the Second World War with no access to textbooks Ms. Macdonald said, "Education is a right not a privilege," and she went on to persuade fellow members of the Library Women's Auxiliary to begin recording activities in the library's attic. She later traveled the country extensively persuading others to open, operate and raise money for satellite recording studios as she went. No one seems to know the grand total of veterans and civilians who have benefited in some way from what she started, but that number would almost certainly have at least six digits. And speaking of numbers, Kerscher told me that one of RFB&D's challenging future project relates to the Herculean task of figuring out how to produce books containing lots of mathematical and scientific notation.
"RFB&D has committed resources to the development of the specification that was recently adopted by DAISY. I'm really proud of it. It incorporates math ML (markup language) into the DAISY standard. So we've got the spec now; but we have to start getting the content in math ML. I think this is going to provide wonderful opportunities for students who are in the sciences. I think most of us admit that listening to mathematics is extremely difficult, and having audio and text synchronized with the ability to move through mathematical equations is going to make all the difference in the world.
"But I have to say, if you think making text is hard, making math ML is extremely difficult. But I'm hoping to see that come over the next two or three years."
For more information, contact Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, 20 Roszel Road, Princeton, NJ 08540; Phone: 800-221-4792; Web site: www.rfbd.org.