1999 Conference Proceedings

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Digital Talking Books: Production and Implementation Plans

David Kozemchak

Abstract

In August of 1997, Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D) joined the DAISY Consortium to benefit from the collaborative efforts of libraries and organizations from around the world making the transition to digital technology to deliver talking books. This paper and presentation will review the business decisions made in the process of transition from a system of analog cassette to the next generation of information technology for persons with print disabilities.

Background

RFB&D is a national nonprofit organization, this year celebrating its 50th anniversary of service providing educational materials in accessible formats to people who are are blind or otherwise unable to read standard print. RFB&D was founded to provide recorded textbooks to veterans blinded in World War II who were attending college under the G.I. Bill. Today, RFB&D's services are also available to people who are visually impaired or who have dyslexia or another learning disability or a physical condition that prevents handling or turning the pages of a book. We serve people at all academic levels and into the workforce. In addition to recorded books, we provide educational materials on computer disk and are developing the new digital format described below for the future.

RFB&D operates a 77,000-title library at its headquarters facility and 32 recording studios around the country where 4,800 subject specialist volunteers produce recorded and computerized educational books for addition to the library. Our staff numbers 320. Last year, we distributed 233,253 books from this library to 55,042 people across the country.

RFB&D's production infrastructure is based upon analog tape recording and distribution technology developed in the 1970's. New books are produced in our recording studios by volunteer readers and monitors (the monitors' function, in part, is to operate the open reel tape recorder, and insure quality of the recording). The original recording is made on 4-track ,1/4" open reel tapes, and the average book is typically 30 hours or more in length. During the process of recording new books, RFB&D members may receive installment copies of the recording as it progresses. These installment copies are made by duplicating the contents of the materials from the open reel tape onto cassette. When all recording is completed, the tapes are sent to the Master Tape Library (MTL) located at our National Headquarters facility in Princeton, New Jersey.

Orders for books in our Master Tape Library are typically served within 2-5 days after receipt of order. High circulating books are housed in a special "Standby Library" consisting of over 60,000 copies of pre-duplicated books which can be shipped to students within 24 hours of receipt of order.

Digital Educational Talking Book Program

RFB&D's existing analog tape infrastructure has served well through the years, but is approaching the end of its effectiveness. As the market for new analog tape recording and duplicating equipment continues to shrink while costs begin to increase, the time to begin planning a transition out of analog tape technology is here. Over the next 4-5 years, RFB&D will complete a transition of its analog tape production and distribution infrastructure to digital. However, RFB&D will continue to provide books on the same analog 4-track cassette basis for some time to come, even as we begin offering materials in digital format.

Our program to convert our infrastructure to digital based technology will involve the efforts of all facets of our organization, the input and recommendations of our clients, and the support from our funders and friends. RFB&D is also a member of the DAISY Consortium. DAISY is made up of an international group of libraries who produce audio materials for the visually impaired community. DAISY is the worldwide coalition developing the open standards for the next generation of "digital talking books" (DTB). RFB&D is developing production processes that will allow us to create digital talking books based on the open standards developed by DAISY.

Benefits to our Clients

Digital audio technology will create enormous benefits for RFB&D's consumers. In addition to improved sound quality and increased access to information, the digital talking book will run on a standard personal computer, and on portable playback devices currently in test and evaluation phase by several manufacturers. Access to our books using a personal computer is under review. There is an array of options ranging from off the shelf browsers, to customized front-end interfaces. Since books will be stored digitally, distribution can be on any format that can be produced from the digital master, including CD-ROM, audio cassette and computer disk. In time, direct access via the internet will be realized. Books will have navigation markers that will enable a client to move from the table-of-contents to a desired point in the text. Much the way a sighted reader uses a print version of a book, readers now have more direct and instant access to specific pages and locations within a book. Our users will no longer be limited to a fixed and linear representation of a book. For the first time, true equal access to printed material can be offered.

In addition, by following open and international standards through DAISY, RFB&D and other DAISY members jointly provide an international library of accessible content and information.

Timeline

Over the next three years, RFB&D will be developing production systems for creating DAISY compliant digital talking books. We plan to develop and implement digital production equipment and processes at our studios. These systems will allow our studios to record new digital content. We also plan to develop and implement systems for conversion of analog tapes to digital format. By the end of this three year plan, we hope to create a digital library and open up digital services to our customers. To achieve our project goal and commitment to our customers, we must follow a tight project plan. The high level activities and goals of this plan are outlined here.

FY1999

Five of RFB&D's studios have been identified as Pilot Studios -- Northern California, Los Angeles, Arizona, Texas and New Jersey. These Pilot Studios will help in the design, testing, and implementation of the digital production tools and systems we will need to put in place over the next three years. In addition, we have opened a test site at our headquarters location in Princeton, New Jersey. This site will be our research and development test bed. The plan is to design and test components at HQ test site before rolling out to Pilot studios. The Pilot studios will then beta test the components and systems in a "real-life" environment in order to develop them further to meet the needs of all our production sites.

Earlier this year we began development of recording workstations. These workstations will be used by our volunteers to create digital content. During the design phase, we traveled to our five pilot studios and presented a workstation prototype to our volunteers and staff. During these presentations, our volunteers offered input on how best to design the workstation, drawing parallels from current production processes. We have incorporated this feedback into the design specifications and user requirements of the recording workstation. It is important that we design the workstations to allow for a smooth transition for our current volunteers. To design an efficient and user friendly process, we must plan not only for the integration of equipment into the process, but also for the integration of people into the process.

We have also been researching and developing methods and tools that will allow us to convert existing analog content into new digital formats. This conversion system is very important in our goal to create a digital library during the third year of our plan.

Later this year, we will be working with our five Pilot units in beta testing of our recording software. They will provide feedback to our development team on how the software is running, report bugs, and recommend improvements. By the end of this testing and feedback process, we hope to have created user friendly software to be used in the creation of the next generation of talking books.

FY 2000

As we move into the second year (FY 2000), we will review and analyze analog to digital conversion tools and prototypes. We will need to further our efforts in the creation and ramp up of a production system that will allow us to generate content from existing tapes.

Also, additional components of the recording workstation and digital production processes will be developed and rolled out to the Pilot studios for testing and implementation -- tools for audio post processing, quality control, and project management, to name a few.

Later in our second fiscal year, we hope to start into our roll-out schedule. A plan, specific to roll-out still will be created, based on what we learn during Pilot testing. This roll-out will include the full conversion of Pilot studios from analog to digital production. The roll-out plan will also include the introduction of digital production at additional units, not included in our Pilot program. Our existing pilots will help mentor new units as they move into active participation in the Digital Audio project.

FY2001

As we move into the third year, FY2001, we plan to have production systems in place to allow us to begin creation of a digital talking book library. Content will be created at our Pilot studios, as well as some additional content from other studios as we move through roll-out. Also, during the second and into the third year, we plan to begin the digitization of content from the existing tape library. A large percentage of our initial digital talking book library will be generated from tapes run through this conversion system. Also, as new analog recordings continue to be created, they too will be converted to digital formats. By the end of our third year, it is our goal to produce enough digital content to begin limited digital audio services to our customers.

Conclusion

RFB&D will work diligently over the next three years to implement digital technology. As systems our developed and technology implemented, we can slowly transition from analog to digital production. Ultimately, we hope to provide digital services to our consumers and all the benefits of this exciting technology provides. George Kerscher, Project Manager PM to the DAISY Consortium Recording For the Blind & Dyslexic Email: kerscher@montana.com Phone: 406/549-4687


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