On a table in the library of Howard Community College sits what appears to be a desktop copier. Insert a document into this machine, however, and it begins to talk.

It's been known to startle people.

"Oh, say, can you see by the dawn's early light," asks a voice like that of the robot maid on "The Jetsons."

"What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming," the high-pitched monotone continues.

The voice belongs to "Beautiful Betty," one of nine characters who read aloud books, magazines or documents inserted into the Kurzweil/Xerox Personal Reader. While it probably will never be asked to sing at ball games, the device is making academic life easier for Howard Community College's visually impaired students, who use it to read textbooks, magazines and other material unavailable or difficult to obtain in Braille or on cassette.

"They can go up and pull a book off the shelf and 'read' it without waiting for someone to tape it for them," said Janice Marks, director of Student Support Services at the college.

Students with learning disabilities use the machine to improve their reading skills.

Laurel resident Victoria Gelman, who has cerebral palsy and is legally blind, said the $12,000 machine helped her study class handouts and other hard-to-read material. Gelman was so impressed by the Personal Reader that she now trains HCC students to use it even though she graduated from the college this spring.

Like a copier, the Personal Reader scans documents laid on a glass surface. A few seconds later, it reads aloud the material it has scanned. The user can select whichever of the machine's voices (five men's, three women's and a child's) best fit the material. "Perfect Paul," for example, is the calm, deliberate voice of a male college professor. The voice of "Huge Harry" is deep and strong, while "Whispering Wendy" has a raspy, slightly scary voice.

The machine mispronounces some words and reads page numbers or other miscellaneous information printed on material it scans. Its users don't seem to mind. "It's like an accent," Marks said. "The more you listen to it, the more you get used to it."

By adjusting the narrator's speed and tone, users create a fairly close approximation of a human voice.

Voice scanning technology has developed rapidly. Only a few years ago, the Personal Reader was larger, less sophisticated and cost about $50,000, Marks said. Now, a growing number of visually impaired people have them in their homes. Musician Stevie Wonder uses a portable version of the Personal Reader.

The device has a number of options. A tape recorder can be plugged into it to record narrations, letting visually impaired students review reading material at home. The machine can perform calculations. And with the right software it can narrate in German, French, Spanish and several other languages.

Since HCC acquired the reading machine earlier this year, Gelman has trained about 15 students to use it.

By freeing them from depending upon librarians or school staff members to tape a book or article, the Personal Reader grants visually impaired students more privacy, Marks said.

"If they wanted to read Playboy, they could come in here and read Playboy and not be embarrassed," she laughed.