Keep the Books Talking
Congress should fund the digitization of a vital audio library for the blind.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
A HALF-MILLION Americans stand in danger of losing their public library. They are
the nation’s blind, and their library is Talking Books, through which the National
Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress
(NLS) provides 500,000 Americans with free audio recordings of about as many books.
Unlike the “books on tape” that are sold at retail bookstores, these recordings are unabridged, extensive and diverse — and are designed for people who have no other
way of reading print.
Unfortunately, today’s Talking Books technology is ready to meet its maker. The program currently uses half-speed audiotapes that patrons listen to on special devices. These tape players, like the Talking Books record players that preceded them, are obsolete, and are no longer even being manufactured. To bring the program into the 21st century, the NLS hopes to digitize its entire library and create new players. It has spent 17 years researching, building and testing new products, and it is ready to manufacture a fully accessible flash-drive player. The Library of Congress has asked Congress
to appropriate about $76.4 million to produce the players and digitize thousands more books.
A forthcoming Government Accountability Office report, however, may derail the NLS’s plans. In a draft version of the report completed several weeks ago, the GAO faulted the NLS for not considering existing commercial products such as CD players and iPods instead of creating a new device. This sounds like a reasonable concern, given tales of exorbitant government spending on $792 doormats and $400 hammers. But creating special, noncommercial players is crucial to the continued existence of Talking Books.
Commercially available products, which often use visual screens and are not labeled in Braille, are not accessible to the visually impaired. More important, to comply with U.S. copyright law, Talking Books can record and distribute only audio books that cannot be played by commercial devices.
Should the GAO keep this misguided criticism in its final report, lawmakers should not be swayed by it. Instead, Congress should fully fund Talking Books’ digital upgrade, a project that will grant many disabled Americans the same literary access afforded to the sighted.
SOURCE: Washington Post