Library Takes 'Talking Books' Digital

Judith Dixon is helping the Library of Congress convert its
Judith Dixon is helping the Library of Congress convert its "talking books" from cassette tapes to more USB flash drives. Though the recorded book looks much like a cassette, it connects to a USB port on the machines, as shown at left. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
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By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Judith M. Dixon, a clinical psychologist by training and a sophisticated techie by avocation, is helping to lead the Library of Congress into the digital age.

Dixon, 55, who gave up university teaching 27 years ago to join the library's National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, is a key player on a team that has been working for the better part of a decade to create a new generation of audiobooks for the library's more than 700,000 registered blind and disabled users.

The goal is to make the digital format the backbone of the library's "talking book" program by transferring onto special digital flash drives the 60,000 titles that the library has on audiocassettes and giving patrons new machines on which to play them.

"The library system is here because free public library service is a basic tenet of our society," said Dixon, who is blind and navigates with the aid of a guide dog. "This program is providing access to people who would otherwise not have it."

Under the program, blind and disabled users may obtain audiobooks through the mail from any of the service's more than 130 regional libraries throughout the country. There is no charge for the books or the players, but to keep the machines, users must check out at least one book a year. The library plans to roll out the new machines and digital books by the end of the year.

One of the new digital cartridges can hold 46 hours of audio. In contrast, a single cassette tape holds six hours -- and then only when recorded at half-speed and on four tracks. Since the typical book is 15 hours long, the new format means all but the longest books can be contained on a single cartridge, Dixon said.

The transformation also is driven by necessity. The cassette tape belongs to a generation of technology whose time has passed. As the library-issued cassette players on which blind users play tapes fall into disrepair, finding spare parts grows harder and harder.

The Library of Congress and its users have been through technological revolutions before. The library began offering audiobooks on long-play records in 1934. It added books on cassettes in the late 1960s, but the vinyl era lasted well into the 1980s.

"This transition is probably going to have to happen a lot faster because cassettes just aren't going to be available much longer," said Dixon, who is a consumer relations officer for the library.

The new players resemble the flat, dictionary-size cassette machines of old, with large buttons and a single built-in speaker. The digital cartridge is about the same size as a cassette tape, but it connects to the player via a USB port rather than fitting over two rotating pegs.

Dixon and advocates for the blind say that relying on commercially available books on compact disc or in MP3 format is not an option. Many blind users have difficulty operating the tiny buttons of MP3 players, and the inventory of available books is usually limited to commercially popular titles.

Congress has approved $12.5 million annually for four years to help the program go digital, less than the $19.1 million that the library had sought. That means it will be able to make 3.5 million copies of audiobooks over four years instead of 4.8 million, officials said. The program's advocates plan to press their case for more money today at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the library's budget.

"The old players will start to break down and the new players will not be available yet, and a lot of patrons are going to experience a halt in service," said Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind. "The talking-book program is the primary source of reading material for most blind people. Imagine if someone told you, 'You know what, you just don't get to read anything for a while.' "

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