Don't Hold Up the Talking Books

Our elected officials are, of course, just humans like the rest of us, sometimes wise and sometimes not. Sometimes they make a decision based on the information available and later change their mind

May 16, 2007 at 2:06 pm

Our elected officials are, of course, just humans like the rest of us, sometimes wise and sometimes not. Sometimes they make a decision based on the information available and later change their minds. Sometimes, being human, one might suddenly become a self-appointed expert on a topic in which — well, he should keep his nose out of things he doesn't really understand.

I'm not naming any names. I'm not even sure who started the trouble at hand. What I do know is that perhaps the best and brightest program our Congress has ever launched to benefit people with disabilities is very suddenly in grave danger — and for the dumbest of reasons.

In 1931 the Smoot-Pratt Act established what is now the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) as a division of the Library of Congress. To me, this is not some remote historical fact but a virtual information lifeline that was influential in my accessing required reading in high school, college, graduate school and the decades since for professional and recreational enrichment. The program produces books in braille, but the current crisis has to do with its much more widely distributed materials, talking books.

Through a network of 56 regional libraries — two of them here in Ohio, and one of those right here in the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County — recorded books are distributed, mostly through the mail, to anyone whose eligibility has been established by either the inability to read print visually or the physical inability to hold and/or manipulate printed materials.

I received my first machine in the second grade. It was pretty ugly, weighed about 30 pounds and said "Property of the Library of Congress" on it. The records it played were large, too.

NLS has always been pretty much ahead of the curve in terms of technology.

In 1933 the first phonograph records were made — spoken-word recordings for the blind — and the NLS talking book program was launched. The first records held 15 minutes of reading; they later held 30. Over the decades the records grew smaller and lighter, as did the machines that played them. In the 1960s NLS seized the technology of first open-reel tapes and then cassettes as a more portable medium for their talking books, and it had special machines built to play four-track half-speed tapes.

It would be another 10 to 15 years before audio books on cassette hit the commercial marketplace, and many of the narrators hired to record those commercially produced books had learned their trade in NLS studios, recording books for the blind.

Recognizing the revolutionary advances in audio technology, NLS began studying its next move a decade ago, when the inevitable demise of audiocassettes occurred. Because these books circulate through the mail and are handled by countless patrons, the players and books need to be durable. Because they are used by people of all ages and by those of varying levels of physical ability, they need to be user friendly to all.

The conclusion after exhaustive studies has been to produce books on flash memory cartridges, smaller than a cassette but with no moving parts and producing a sound far superior to the current cassettes. Even more exciting, the digital books will play on a machine that NLS has designed and built specifically for them, machines that will allow the listener to press a button and move forward or back by chapter or phrase or other designated segment — in other words, to enjoy the same flexibility with the material that those holding printed tomes in their hands take for granted.

Thousands of the digital talking books are ready to go, and the rollout of the machines and books is scheduled for late 2008.

But then a few weeks ago, as time for determining appropriations for the next year approached, some congressperson started wondering aloud why CDs couldn't be used and whether NLS might do a bit of studying before launch.

Compact disc technology will be obsolete in another five years and would never hold up to the rigorous use NLS materials receive. CDs wouldn't offer the marvelous flexibility that NLS has planned in its new digital talking books.

But the point is, really, that NLS has run a wildly popular and beneficial program for years. They know what they're doing. Most of the work for the 2008 rollout has been done.

Anyone who lives past the age of 55 might well one day benefit from the NLS Talking Book program. If appropriations don't designate the needed funds in the next few weeks, the program's history of excellence will be over and millions will be without books.

I'm glad the self-appointed expert who stirred up this nonsense wasn't one of our Ohio legislators. I hope ours can be among those smart enough to ignore the diversion and get the funding appropriated to carry on this wonderful service.

contact Deborah Kendrick: letters(at)