I thought this article might be of interest to this group,
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
From: * EASI: Equal Access to Software & Information
[mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of Catherine Alfieri
Sent: Thursday, December 09, 2004 8:22 AM
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Subject: CURR: NYTimes.com Article: Upgrade for Blind Borrowers of
Upgrade for Blind Borrowers of Audiobooks
December 9, 2004
By IAN AUSTEN
LIKE many Americans who are blind, when Lucille Uttermohlen
doesn't feel like curling up with a bulky book in Braille,
she turns to audiobooks that come from the National Library
Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, part of
the Library of Congress.
"When I lost my vision when I was 16, I was so happy to
find out that there was a program that still allowed me to
read," said Ms. Uttermohlen, who is now 50 and practices
family law in Monticello, Ind.
But the technology used by the National Library Service for
people like Ms. Uttermohlen has more in common with the era
of "Starsky and Hutch" than it does with the age of
downloaded digital information. Most of the service's
600,000 users rely on four-track cassette tape players that
were designed in the 1970's. While advanced for their time,
the players are bulky (they're deliberately rugged to help
them withstand repeated trips through the mail), have
finicky rechargeable batteries and often vary in sound
Terri Uttermohlen of Baltimore, Lucille Uttermohlen's
younger sister, who is also sightless, abandoned the system
about a year and a half ago.
"I found the tapes frustrating at times," Terri Uttermohlen
said. "The sound quality isn't consistent. And I also found
myself getting all excited at the end of Side 4 but
forgetting where I set down the box containing Side 5."
The library service has been frustrated, too. But now,
thanks in part to the changing economics of the electronics
industry, it has decided to switch to a digital system over
the next four years.
"We wanted something that's really tough, something that's
really easy to handle and something we can afford," said
Michael Moodie, the National Library Service's deputy
director. "We really didn't have that until this summer."
That, Mr. Moodie said, was when price predictions for flash
memory reached a point that fit with the library's budget.
"Flash is wonderful," Mr. Moodie said. "It had all the
requirements we need for the last four or five years except
Mr. Moodie said the service, which was established in 1931,
has a long history of technology innovations.
Its first audiobook, issued in 1934, was also the world's
first 33 1/3 r.p.m. long-playing record. (The service has a
special exemption from copyright laws that allows it to
record books and periodicals without royalty payments.)
Columbia records did not introduce the first LP for musical
recordings, using a slightly different technology, until
1948. But because the Library of Congress distributed 98
percent of the recordings through the mail, the bulk and
weight of even LP technology was a problem. A user wanting
to hear "Gone With the Wind," for example, was confronted
with 80 records. In 1958, that stack was reduced by the
introduction of 16 2/3 r.p.m. records. The last gasp of
records came in 1973 with 8 1/3 r.p.m.
In the 1980's the service avoided a digital technology that
most of the world adopted, compact discs. "CD's would have
been a step backward," Mr. Moodie said.
The first strike against CD's, he said, was that they are
limited to 74 minutes of audio. Because the library's mono
tapes contain four completely separate audio tracks and
play at a slower speed than conventional cassette players,
they hold up to six hours. Handling CD's without scratching
them or loading them into a player the right way could be
difficult for some blind people.
The next steps in converting to flash memory will be
designing a player and setting technical standards. Unlike
most digital audio players, the library's device must have
controls that can be easily manipulated by users with
arthritis. Because data representing voice recordings can
be compressed more than music, Mr. Moodie said the new
flash memory cards, which will use a standard U.S.B.
connection, will easily hold a single book regardless of
Terri Uttermohlen said that when the library service's new
system is available, she will give it a try. In the
meantime she gets her digital audiobooks through a
different method. She downloads text, either from the
Library of Congress Web Braille server or from Bookshare, a
subscription Web site for disabled people that offers books
in a variety of formats, including a digital form of
Braille. She then uses a speech synthesis program in a
hand-held computer to play the books back as audio.
One advantage to this approach, she said, is that the
computer can read at a very rapid, if mechanical, pace.
"I often find the human readers are too slow," she said.
One drawback, however, is that many of the publications in
Bookshare are scanned from print editions using computers,
leading to problems with unusual book designs or
typography. Cookbooks, in particular, can be a challenge.
"When it says 'Bake at 2,500 degrees,' you know that it has
read the degree symbol as a zero," she said.
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