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"Towards a New Generation of Books for the Blind"

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Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) is the leading national organisation providing advocacy and practical services for blind and partially sighted people in the United Kingdom. It is governed by an executive council, who the majority are blind or partially sighted, elected from organisations of and for blind people.

Ce texte est tiré des actes du Colloque international sur les nouvelles technologies du livre adapté (1er : 1997 : Salon du livre de Montréal). Vers une nouvelle génération de livres pour les personnes aveugles : [textes des conférenciers] / Premier colloque international sur les nouvelles technologies du livre adapté ; Institut Nazareth et Louis-Braille en collab. avec le Forum des pays francophones de l'Union Mondiale des Aveugles. -- Longueuil : Institut Nazareth et Louis-Braille ; Longueuil : Union mondiale des aveugles, Forum des pays francophones, 1998.

International Conference, Friday 21 November 1997, Montreal

organised by Institute Nazareth et Louis-Braille et le Forum des Pays Francophones de L'union Mondiale des Aveugles

in collaboration with The Forum of French-speaking Countries of the World Blind Union

Library Services for Print Disabled People: The Future

Stephen P King
Director: RNIB, Technical and Consumer Services Division
Chair: EBU Talking Book Expert Group
Member: DAISY Consortium


1 About RNIB

1.1 RNIB: Who We Are

Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) is the leading national organisation providing advocacy and practical services for blind and partially sighted people in the United Kingdom. It is governed by an executive council, who the majority are blind or partially sighted, elected from organisations of and for blind people.

1.2 RNIB: International Activities

RNIB plays an active part in the international arena. We are active members of European Blind Union (EBU). RNIB's Chair, John Wall is president of EBU and a member of World Blind Union (WBU) board. Through these organisations we advocate the welfare of blind people. As a service provider RNIB also plays an active role in international professional bodies such as the International Federation of Library Associates - Section of Libraries for the Blind (IFLA/SLB).

1.3 RNIB: Services We Provide Ϊ

RNIB has more than 2,000 employees and over 100,000 volunteers working for our aims. RNIB campaigns (advocates in US English) for changes in legislation. We also provide practical services: supporting parents of visually impaired children; education services and schools; higher education support; employment training and support; leisure support; hotels; homes for older people and information services. With a total population of 55 million, we believe there are 1 million blind and partially sighted people in the UK. We reach around 300,000 of them with our services.

1.4 RNIB: Library and Information Services

Of interest to this seminar is RNIB's Library and Information Services. We provide a full range of library and information services supporting education, employment and leisure, in braille, large print, electronic and talking books. Through a programme called Share the Vision we work in partnership with other organisations - public libraries, the National Library for the Blind, Calibre and the Talking Newspaper Association of the UK. Every day we loan 13,000 books; this equates to approximately 3 million a year. Every day we record 100 hours of material onto tape; that's 26,000 hours a year. Every day we print 100,000 pages of braille or large print; that's 26 million pages a year. Every day we transcribe 1,000 original pages into braille, large print or electronic versions.

1.5 RNIB Public Library Services: our Talking Book Service

RNIB's Talking Book Service tries to provide the equivalent of a public library service - but home delivered. It is tailored specifically to the needs of people who have lost their sight late in life and want to continue with the pleasure of reading. It is very similar to the US Library of Congress NLS programme. The aim is simplicity - ease of use - and recognises that most of our users have other disabilities related to age: hearing loss; arthritis and mobility problems. 60,000 users are supported by a network of 3,000 volunteers - our aim is to allow people to continue theΠsimple pleasure of reading. Many of the recordings we make are also sold in the commercial market under the ISIS, ONSIS and Chivers brands.

1.6 RNIB Education and Employment Support Library Services

RNIB's aim is to provide in-depth support in braille, electronic text and tape formats. In this market, speed of response is our quality measure. Some 2,000 clients give us specific requests and we fulfill them - quickly. Examples are a text book for a student; a job application for a personnel manager; a trial transcript for a judge or machine instructions for an employee. We use more than 3,000 volunteers to help us deliver these services. RNIB's services are similar to those provided by Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFBD), but includes braille and large print in addition to tape and electronic text.

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2 Next Generation of Talking Books: The History

2.1 RNIB's Perspective

RNIB has been thinking about the future of talking books for more than 10 years. We have anticipated the end to the compact cassette and the benefits of digital technology. 8 years ago we developed the first prototype CD based talking book. 5 years ago we built a second prototype based on CD-ROM and tested it with hundreds of clients. This made it clear to us that there were significant benefits to users. However, we also realised that the world of information was not national. People wanted to read information from all over the world. In addition the development costs of new technology pointed to sharing with other organisations. International co-operation and agreeing standards seemed to RNIB the best way forward. RNIB plans had to be in line with international plans. Since then RNIB has worked with EBU, WBU, IFLA/SLB, the DAISY Consortium and NISO (National Information Standards Organisation) to promote a vision of a world wide library of alternate format materials.

2.2 EBU and WBU

Other organisations were having similar thoughts. AfterΠdiscussion by the EBU board, EBU decided that it was important for organisations of blind people to consider what they wanted from the next generation of talking books. In 1994 an expert group on the next generation of talking books (EBU-TBEG) was set up. I was asked to chair it. Contributions came from many of the 43 member states of EBU. After extensive consultation the group published "Reaching Forward to the 21st Century: User Requirements for the Next Generation of Talking Books". Copies in English and French are being distributed by the conference organisers. Since its publication the group have been seeking to influence talking book producers with this document. WBU is now taking this document and considering it particularly from the point of view of developing countries. WBU Vice President, William Rowland, for South Africa is chairing this task group.

2.3 Talking Book Libraries

Throughout this time producers of talking books were also having discussions. Through IFLA/SLB it emerged that many countries felt the need for international co-operation and standards. There was a meeting here in Canada (Toronto) in April 1995, hosted by CNIB, convened by US Library of Congress and attended by organisations from many countries and language groups. Here it was resolved that the next generation of talking books should be developed by international co-operation. It should take account of the needs of all language groups, libraries should seek to establish technological standards and presentation guidelines.

2.4 The DAISY (Digital Audio Information System) Consortium

Out of that meeting in Toronto came the DAISY Consortium. This is a group of libraries for the print disabled from 10 countries who agreed to work together to promote a world standard for the next generation of talking books; to share information, and development costs. In each country (or group of countries) there is a co-ordinating member of the consortium. The current full members who steer the activities are:

  • Australia/New Zealand
  • Australia/New Zealand Blind Agencies:
    • Association for the Blind, Victoria
    • National Federation of Blind Citizens of Australia
    • Royal Blind Society of New South WalesŒ Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind
    • Royal Society for the Blind of South Australia
    • Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind
  • Germany
    • Association of Talking Book Libraries
  • Denmark
    • The Danish National Library for the Blind
  • Japan
    • The Japanese Association of Libraries for the Blind
    • Japanese Society for Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons
  • Spain
    • Spanish National Organization of the Blind
  • USA
    • Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic
  • UK
    • Royal National Institute for the Blind
  • Switzerland
    • Swiss Library for the Blind and Visually Impaired
  • Netherlands
    • The Dutch Library for Visually and Print Handicapped Students and Professionals
  • Sweden
    • The Swedish Library of Talking Books and Braille
    • The Swedish Association of the Visually Impaired

There are associate members who participate in many activities:

  • Sweden
    • The Swedish Library Service Ltd
  • Canada
    • The Canadian National Institute for the Blind, CNIB The Library
  • Finland
    • Finnish Association of the Visually Impaired
    • Finnish Library for the Visually Handicapped
  • Netherlands
    • Dutch Library for Audio and Braille
  • Norway
    • Norwegian Library for Talking Books and Braille

One of the features of the DAISY Consortium is the importance of incorporating the needs of different language groups, and commitment to incorporating what is needed in design of standards. Though Switzerland does try and represent the needs of French speakers, a strong Francophone voice would be welcomed by the Consortium.

2.5 The World Field Trials of DAISY and Plextor

During January to July 1997 thousands of users from over 30 countries took part in a trial of a new type of talking book system. Based on recordings using the prototype DAISY recorder, readers were able to read books in a new way. Readers were able to: move from a table of contents to the relevant section of the book; move quickly by phrase, by section, by page and by chapter. All this added functionality but retaining the simplicity of an ordinary tape recording. The results of these field trials have been published and are being used to inform the design of DAISY compliant components for next generation talking book systems: players, recorders, book design, training etc. The current conclusion of the DAISY Consortium is that next generation talking book systems should be built using industry standard components and based on ISO (International Standard Organisation) standard file formats from the world wide web community.

2.6 WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative)

To ensure that the World Wide Web standards can be used for next generation talking books, the DAISY Consortium is engaging with the US White House sponsored WAI. We believe that the next standards of HTML v4 published by the WWW Consortium (W3C) will incorporate everything needed to use them as the technical basis for talking books. This would mean technical standards used by thousands of industries meaning that tools and systems needed should be readily available in the future.

2.7 NISO (National Information Standards Organisation)

Complementing the practical work of the DAISY Consortium the US Library of Congress (LOC) asked NISO to co-ordinate the creation of US standards for what a next generation talking book system might deliver. By consulting with many organisations a picture is emerging of user needs and technical standards. ThisΠwill help manufacturers and designers of systems, and might be used as the basis of International (ISO) Standards.

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3 Why Should Library Services for Print Disabled People Work Together?

3.1 Fulfilling our Visions

We all share the same visions and the same problems. Working together allows us to move further and faster towards the achievement of five visions that we all share:

  • Equality of Access to Print Information Print disabled people getting the same experience and information with the same convenience as everyone else.
  • Global Library of Accessible Format Materials Print disabled people getting convenient access to the vast range of special format material being produced and in libraries across the globe, wherever it was produced, in whatever language.
  • Customised Service Providing services designed more closely round the need of the individual. Fast or slow audio; e-text with braille index; jumbo braille; 101 designs of large print for example.
  • More for Less Libraries and producers being able to provide convenient access to more culture and information to more people using less resources.
  • In the Mainstream of Technology Our services being based on technologies that will be supported and provide cost effective tools and services for decades.

3.2 Benefits of Next Generation Talking Books to Users

The EBU document sets out clearly both the shortcomings of tape and potential benefits of new technology. Giving a reader a book on tape is like printing it on a series of toilet rolls - perhaps with an index roll. Imagine reading that. Imagine looking up a recipe for chocolate cake - winding and winding. New technology can bring significant benefits: the ability to read books, magazines, reports and other documents just like everyone else. Finding the interesting bits, skipping the boringΠbits. The quality of sound the user hears can be so much better with new technology. And with many readers with significant hearing loss, this is important. We owe it to our readers to bring those benefits to them as soon as it is possible.

There are benefits to the libraries too. To put a book on a single CD, or to send it over the Internet is potentially much cheaper than all the handling, storage and postal costs of tape.

RNIB studies indicate that distribution costs can be cut by a factor of 30-50% using CD type technology.

3.3 The Challenges

To change to a new format of talking book system however is a huge undertaking. Our shared visions will not be achieved by us working in isolation. To achieve our vision we need to overcome 5 significant challenges.

(1) Agreement on Technological and Presentational Standards Through the NISO initiative, the DAISY consortium, the WAI and IFLA SLB we are well on our way towards some basic agreements on file formats for audio and text/audio books. We need to do similar work on text/braille. Now we have the platforms for experimentation some work is already going into presentational standards.

(2) Changing the Skills of Our Staff and Volunteers Libraries for the blind employ tens of thousands of skilled staff and volunteers. They consider themselves braillists, or audio narrators etc. We need to develop new skills of information design, database management, IT skills etc whilst retaining the specialist format design and presentation skills of braille and audio. The new skills we need are likely to be very rare and sought after by other richer industries.

(3) Changing the Copyright Framework Intellectual property rights are becoming more complex and hot political issues between countries. The challenges of integrated digital production of special format materials to the existing frameworks that allow us to produce braille and (closed format) tape are considerable. We could conclude that it is "too difficult"Πto deal with on anything but a local level. This would stop us achieving our goal of simple access to the global library.

(4) Funding the Changes On the face of it the change to new system is prohibitively expensive. The investment required to replace the entire painfully built up infrastructure on which our current systems are based is massive. But actually the more we look at it the less frightening the sums become. We can continue to use much of what we already have. There are potentially significant operational savings to be made. If we are radical and challenge the status quo there are potentially enormous savings to be made. So for example in the Netherlands the government is questioning whether four separate libraries now make sense. And in Australia three previously separate state based organisations have already created a single virtual braille library covering much of the country. Saving money and improving service.

But we must not underestimate the size of the financial challenges that we face.

(5) Courage to Make the Change The challenge to us however is daunting. The pace of technological change is seemingly accelerating and the costs of making "the wrong decision" are frightening. It is too easy to do nothing and deny equality of access to information to another generation.

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4 Recommendation to Francophone Countries

I do not know enough about the situation in Francophone countries: French-speaking Canada, France, West Africa or other areas to make any particular recommendations. But I would suggest a number of things:

Use the EBU recommendations as a basis for discussing user needs and considering any proposals. "Reaching Forward to the 21st Century - Next Generation of Talking Books" was published in 1995 in French, as well as 6 other languages. Copies ar here for you in print, and braille versions courtesy of AVH France.

Particularly here in North America, participate in the NISO initiative. Ensure standards take account of the particular needs of Francophone speakers.

Participate in the DAISY Consortium. Either as full members, which is a substantial investment in time and money, but pays dividends in deep understanding of the technical issues. Or as associate members, which enables you to get information and participate in activities.

Plan to introduce new technology, but integrate this into an overall plan not just for talking books, but for braille, large print and other formats. The complete digital library.

Co-operate to develop a distinct Francophone part of the vision of the global library of accessible format materials. A French speaker from anywhere in the world being able to find out what's available from any library in the world. And be able to get acopy in a form he or she can read.

That means:

Co-operate on Open Access Public Catalogues (OPAC) Interlending agreements Using standards

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5 Demonstration

Now ladies and gentlemen I am going to demonstrate to you a talking book recorded in DAISY format, played on a sample player. It is a tour guide of Venice and Turin. Though it is in English, it contains a lot of Italian. This would defeat most speech synthesisers and demonstrates the simple power of this system. This book could be played equally well on a computer, like the demonstration you saw earlier from George Kerscher. They are both DAISY compliant recordings so you can read in the way you want: on a simple player or on a computer.

Stephen P King

13 November 1997

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