‘Talking Book’ Program Faces New Roadblock

Posted May 2, 2007 at 6:29pm

Library of Congress officials and advocates for the blind community are worried that a yet-to-be-released Government Accountability Office report is undercutting efforts to obtain funding this year for a long-awaited transformation of the Library’s “talking book” program.

Since 1990, the LOC’s National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped has been planning a major shift that would transfer its talking book collection away from analog cassette technology to newer digital players.

After years of research into how best to make this shift, the NLS has developed a proprietary digital format that would cost $76.4 million over the next four years to implement. The Library requested $19.1 million for the program in fiscal 2008 so the shift can begin before the older cassettes and players become obsolete.

But in September, the House Appropriations Committee — specifically then-Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and then-ranking member David Obey (D-Wis.) —asked the GAO to study the Library’s plan and specifically review how well the LOC looked into commercial alternatives that already may be available or in development.

Some library officials have said they were surprised by the appropriators’ move.

“Committee staff were informed regularly over the many years this project has been in the works,” one Library official said.

Drafts of the report indicate the GAO is recommending that Congress put the breaks on the project until the Library conducts further reviews of alternative technology and distribution options. The GAO wants the Library to review whether an “off-the-shelf” system might be more cost-effective and better for the end users than a proprietary system.

In fiscal 2006, more than 794,000 blind and physically handicapped people made use of the free reading program offered by the Library. A network of 131 regional and local libraries distributes the machines and materials provided by the LOC, and the U.S. Postal Service receives an appropriation to allow the reading materials and machines to be mailed postage-free.

For now, appropriators haven’t said what the fate of the digital talking book transition effort will be in the final 2008 spending bill, but Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, asked Librarian of Congress James Billington to defend his $19.1 million request when he appeared before her panel in late March.

And when Billington goes before Senate appropriators today he’ll face the same line of questioning.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, said her boss intends to ask about the program to “make sure that the needs of the blind community are met, that the digital transformation takes place with the best technology available and that the interests of the taxpayer are also taken into account.”

Library spokesman Matt Raymond defended the request Wednesday.

“I think that the funding request speaks for itself and the statements that the Librarian has made in support [of the digital talking books program] still stands,” he said. “It’s tough to say this request is more important than the others, for instance, but the Library gives its full-throated support to all the major priorities that were spelled out in the Librarian’s testimony before the House and he will continue to do so in the Senate.”

The GAO’s full report on the talking book program is expected to be released sometime in the next six weeks, but in a response to a draft of that report, Deanna Marcum, the LOC’s associate librarian for library services, wrote that “any possible benefits from this GAO recommendation at this stage of the technology conversion program are far outweighed by the costs of its implementation.”

Marcum wrote that as the GAO-recommended review takes place, cassette machine parts will become increasingly unavailable because manufacturers are phasing out the devices.

“At minimum, the comprehensive analysis called for would delay the program by one year, which would stretch the network’s ability to sustain service to its limit,” she wrote.

Marcum added that “there is no evidence” to indicate that a better digital medium would be identified through the type of re-evaluation the GAO is seeking.

The possibility that the Library’s effort might get pushed back a year or longer has struck a chord with advocates in the blind community who have worked closely with the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in developing the proprietary talking book system that the LOC is pushing for.

In testimony before House appropriators earlier this week, John Paré, the executive director for strategic initiatives at the National Federation of the Blind, said that “NLS considered all potential digital technologies for the delivery of talking books.”

Paré said that using a digital machine with flash memory is a “ubiquitous and inexpensive” technology alternative that has more storage capacity than audio CD technology.

“While there are off-the-shelf audio players that rely on flash memory, these devices are not designed with blind persons in mind,” he wrote. He noted that blind persons can’t use those machines independently because they rely on complex visual menus.

“For this reason, NLS spent approximately two years conducting usability tests across the United States with blind and physically handicapped consumers of all ages and varying degrees of technological prowess in order to design a talking book player that would meet the needs of all of the people that use its services.”

He added that “the result of all of this diligence is that, once this conversion is completed, the service will be on a sound technological footing for decades to come.”