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65th IFLA Council and General


Bangkok, Thailand, August 20 - August 28, 1999

Digital Talking Books: Delivery Systems and the Future

Chris Day
Assistant Director
TCS Division RNIB, UK


Virtual Libraries or what?

The Library question

All Libraries must deliver their product, or information about their product to the customers. This seems a fairly simple statement. It is not, however, as simple as it sounds.

Our libraries, for the most part administer objects.....tapes, audio files, discs, which we either have physically stored or are stored electronically on servers that we control.

We have purchased them in some form or other, catalogued them, promoted them and created statistics from them.

We may have objects on our shelves and/or servers that we do not own, other than having paid for a copy. Almost certainly we do not have control over the content. This usually resides in copyright. We administer without being able to create real profit or capital from these objects.

Recently the trend has been to reduce that dependency even further, we are now at the stage where we do not even own the object we may have purchased, we are only able to use or lend under licence.

A stage even more remote is that the information or book or object is not even under our hand as a licence. It is stored on some remote server, in another country perhaps. We may possibly not even know to whom the information, belongs, or where it resides.

All Libraries are changing

What about the library where the bulk of the content is stored electronically and is held in this form and only in this form? Is this a library where holdings are offered virtually?

What about the library that keeps track of holdings in other libraries where holdings are offered virtually as above, but also keeps track of items stored physically. Is this a library of virtual holdings? Is it a Library at all?

There is another bewildering turn to these categories. There is the case of the customer who we don?t know, is not registered with us and may not even be a regular user of our services, who has logged into our web-page or server and down-loaded an electronically stored item. Are we serving a virtual customer in this virtual world?

Finally, call centre technology has become so advanced that although we may know the location of the office from the prefix of the number that we are ringing, all we really know is that is where it seems to be. There is a strong likelihood that geographically it may not be there at all. For example organisations that operate a 24 hr. enquiry service may find it more convenient and, more to the point, cheaper, to employ staff in other countries to meet the need. So in effect you are always using staff in daylight hours, regardless of the time in the host country. Could our Libraries have virtual staff?

Our Libraries are different

Our Libraries are different, We do not attempt to get our customers to visit, we do not have the problems of additional staffing, extended opening or the problems that a too successful Public Library has. In an attempt to discourage too many visitors, many Public Libraries are now using methods which we, for entirely different reasons we have been using for years.

They are developing systems of book return by creating special computerised drop-off stations. They are using telephone systems; they are encouraging visitors to branches, rather than the central library.

This is all familiar ground to us, we have adopted telephone renewal of books, telephone enquiries, book return by post etc, as a result of the needs of our customer base.

Remember that we are still dealing with tapes, discs and things that, as mentioned before, are on a shelf somewhere.

Delivery is complex

How are we to manage?

In most cases just as we have before. The book may still be on tape, on disk or on some other electronic substrate and will be dropped into the mail or delivered by hand from a clearing station.

The Digital Talking Book, which we are all contemplating, will give many libraries the opportunity to revise their delivery systems.

Some large libraries will streamline their systems, at RNIB we will enclose our discs in a special caddy, with a special braille label and bar code to facilitate automatic addressing and to ensure that the correct disc is in the correct caddy. The caddy will have a distinctive tactile groove to enable our customers to be certain that they are loading the book correctly into the player.

The bar coding will also ensure that if our customer reads via computer or a caddyless player and inadvertently returns the disc in the caddy but upside-down or mixes books, the checking system will reject the disc from the line.

The postal envelope will in our case be a heavy-duty polythene wrapper. The disc will be enclosed automatically and at speed, using a commercially available high-speed wrappering machine of which there are numerous models on the market. The recipient's name and address will be generated from the delivery database and inkjet printed onto the wrapper. Our computer systems will be able to ensure that the customer's preference list is activated and if there is no selection database, then automatic selection will be made after profiling software selects what may be the type of book the customer likes to read.

Our Customers will be supplied with envelopes, return addressed and will be mailed back to us and automatically opened by the library.

Other libraries, notably the Japanese libraries, will employ a re-useable case which will make several journeys.

Around the world there are several designs for this, some secured with Velcro, some with elasticated straps etc. etc.

However the effectiveness and more importantly the cheapness of free post will no doubt be our main choice for some time yet but only for those Libraries where the postal service is efficient and there is a recognised and implemented `free post' concession.

The Future, what does it hold?

Technology is developing at a pace that few would imagine even a year or so ago.

The Internet and systems that have been developed to exploit the inter-connectivity of this global phenomenon, are making choices more difficult, not technically but more to do with the capital costs. Capital costs are still falling, but they are still capital costs.

The choice of a system now will almost certainly mean that six months or so later you could have, either bought a better system or halved the price for the one that you have chosen!

Digital TV

There are some major world developments that talking book libraries should consider.

The advent of digital television and what is known as the set-top box, actually a de-coder to convert digital signals to analogue signals, will open up new possibilities for our libraries. This set-top box is an interim measure, soon the new televisions will have this decoder incorporated within the TV. There will be other `computer-like' functions included. There will be more development in digital radio broadcasting too.

New TV's will have some form of storage device, initially, according to trends, it will be recordable digital versatile disc, DVD drives. A natural follow-up to the Video tape recorder that we are familiar with. These devices will have the capacity to store compressed digital broadcast data. This will no doubt be audio and video and one would think, have the capacity to store four or more hours of information. Certainly in the region of 5 gigabytes.

It is not too great a leap to consider a more advanced system to that which at one time enabled some of RNIB's customers to receive the text of a national daily newspaper. The newspaper text was broadcast off peak and received at night, stored and then read via a voice synthesiser, later the same morning. Dedicated software gave the customer they navigation that was needed to browse the text. This delivery method was only discontinued when the competition for analogue channels forced the price up and forced us to change over to modem delivery.

Digital broadcasting is not capacity restricted in this way and there is every reason to think that Talking Books could be delivered by this method particularly if the audio files are compressed.

It still could not deliver a book of choice, the service would almost emulate the programmes we watch on TV, particular programmes/books on a specified night/afternoon. Explained in another way, take it or leave it!

Up to now we have been talking about technological advances which will enable our customers to listen to a broadcast, the very name means that it cannot be tailored to the individual recipient, it is not an "on demand" service.

On Demand

Further study shows that selective information can be delivered.

The suggestion some years ago that books can be delivered down the telephone line, has always foundered on cost to the individual. The fastest links are still too slow to be cost effective. A 12 hr. book comprises roughly 3,700 mg. Even compressed at 6 times we have a 600 or so, mg file. The fastest lines we have currently are 128 kbsec, so a 600 mg file would take 10 hrs. to load. This will not remain static, the transfer speed at which information can be shifted, albeit via satellite, fibre optic cable, even the humble twisted pair (ordinary telephone lines) will increase at an exponential rate.

In some countries the cost of a local call is only the charge levied when the connection is made, the duration of the call makes no difference to the cost. It may be worthwhile for a Talking Book library to consider large servers in different local public libraries, a dispersed service, which could work on rotation of digital talking books to various centres, i.e. each library would not have to carry all the titles that a central Talking Book library may hold.

Solid State

What does it mean.........the advance in memory chips or `flash memory cards' currently able to hold 144 megabytes of data will continue, with the capacity going up and the price going down.

DAISY talking book player manufacturers are already developing new ideas in order to exploit this.

At this moment they are too expensive, but...............

It is quite logical to expect that in a year or two a customer of our libraries will have two or even three of these cards, each of which can hold, say, a 14 hour book, the book may contain text, multimedia, sound files, some of which may be accessed via the player and all via a PC.

The operation will be simple, our customers will telephone the local library and tell the librarian what they need, or take advice. The current holding of the library will be held on a database which can be accessed using the digital TV, digital radio, portable Internet browser, minitel and other public access services.

The card will be sent in to the library or taken in by our customer or a volunteer and the new title can be down-loaded at the library. There could be an automatic system for generating a small invoice. This again could be of advantage to Talking Book libraries who wishing to further reduce their overheads, wish to dispense with the annual charge and go to a `pay per listen' following on from the pay per view which will be widespread by this time.

So with a TV, portable digital radio or cell or satellite phone which will enable you to connect to the Internet, pay for goods as advertised, vote on social or other issues, eventually to select representatives for local and national government and a host of other things that we can't yet think of; the things that our customers will be able to do, will not be far short of what everybody else does. Once this arrives our customers will be able to select titles on demand, and within the cost range that they can afford.

I conclude, and suggest, that there will soon be no need for librarians.

Did you all hear about the paperless office?


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