Telecommunications:

Talking Books for the Blind

GAO-07-871R: Published: Jun 12, 2007. Publicly Released: Jun 12, 2007.

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The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), a part of the Library of Congress, operates a free national talking (audio) book program for qualified blind, visually impaired, or physically disabled residents of the United States and its territories, as well as qualified U.S. citizens residing abroad. NLS produces and distributes analog cassette players and talking books and periodicals recorded on audio cassettes to approximately 434,000 individual subscribers and 33,000 institutions through a network of 132 participating libraries and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). In the 1990s, NLS recognized that analog audio cassette technology was becoming outdated and nearing the end of its useful life and initiated efforts to plan for a new, digitally based talking book system. NLS analyzed three alternatives for the system--CD, hard drive, and flash based media--and chose to award a contract for the development of a digital talking book system based on flash memory media. The development phase is now nearing completion, and NLS is planning to award the manufacturing contract for the digital talking book system in August 2007. Under U.S. copyright law, NLS is authorized to reproduce and distribute talking books without copyright infringement as long as they are produced in a specialized format exclusively for use by blind or other persons with disabilities. The standard describing the specialized format for digital talking books is maintained by the Digital Audio-Based Information System (DAISY) consortium--an international organization established to develop specifications and tools for digital talking books--and accordingly is commonly known as the Daisy standard. The digital talking book project is a significant system development and acquisition investment. NLS estimates the 5-year (2007-2011) cost of the program, including the player and media acquisition, to be about $174 million. Over this same time period, NLS plans to continue the cassette-based talking book program, whose cost is estimated at about $44 million. The 5-year cost of the combined digital talking book and cassette programs is about $218 million. The Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Committee on Appropriations asked us to review NLS planning and management of its digital talking book development and acquisition project. Specifically, our objectives were to determine to what extent NLS (1) performed sufficient analyses to select technologies for the next generation of the talking book system and (2) effectively managed the development of the selected digital talking book technology and mode of distribution.

In summary, NLS analyzed various alternatives for the digital talking book program starting in 2000, but the analyses did not have the rigor recommended by library guidance and government and industry best practices to ensure that new assets are acquired through sound decision making. To its credit, NLS conducted market research and consulted with experts and stakeholders, including representatives from international organizations with similar programs, domestic groups representing people who are blind and physically disabled, and manufacturers. The agency identified and discussed numerous alternative technologies (including CD, flash memory, and miniature hard drives) and distribution mechanisms (such as Internet delivery via broadband channels and cable television channels). However, the agency's analysis of selected alternatives focused solely on the technology medium and the player and did not broadly consider the entire program and its underlying processes. NLS did not consider alternative ways to distribute players to the subscribers--such as direct shipment from the manufacturer to the patron--that could be less costly than the current process. NLS did not consider using commercial players designed specifically for people who are blind and physically disabled which include features such as tactile indicators and audio prompts and are compliant with the Daisy standard. For example, the agency had previously rejected commercial CD players based on its 2000 analysis, even though similar programs in other countries rely on such players to serve their subscribers. In addition, NLS did not consider using commercial services to distribute talking books to subscribers. NLS did not fully analyze the initial acquisition and life-cycle costs of each alternative--nor did it update its 2000 analysis of the CD and flash alternatives--as recommended by best practices. For example, the analysis stated that one-way mailing of CDs to subscribers--an approach that could significantly reduce the $40 million that NLS spends annually on mailing costs--would require highly automated equipment and technical staff to support it and concluded that few network libraries could provide such an environment. Because the analysis assumed that one-way mailing would continue to rely on network libraries for distribution (essentially mirroring the current distribution approach), NLS did not consider, for example, whether the use of commercial CD duplicating services or a centralized CD copying center that directly ships the media to the patron would be feasible. NLS did not provide documentation to support key technical conclusions, such as the advantages and disadvantages cited for each alternative. For example, its conclusion that repairs to CD and hard-drive-based players would be "relatively expensive for commercial repairers to perform" was not supported by technical studies or analysis. Without a rigorous analysis of alternatives, NLS, the Congress, and the public will have limited assurance that the selected solution is the optimal one for delivering audio content to people who are blind and physically disabled, and NLS may be missing an opportunity to select a solution that costs less and serves its subscribers better.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that the best solution is selected and effectively delivered to talking book subscribers, the Librarian of Congress should require the Director of NLS to develop and document analyses of alternatives, including technologies and distribution options, before continuing further work on the talking book modernization project. At a minimum, these analyses should (1) identify and consider alternatives for all aspects of the talking book program, (2) consider the use of commercial products and services, (3) fully analyze the initial acquisition and life-cycle costs of each alternative, (4) provide support for key technical conclusions, and (5) be consistent with library guidance. We also recommend that the Librarian of Congress require the Chief Information Officer to oversee these efforts and ensure that they are accomplished in accordance with library guidance.

    Agency Affected: Library of Congress

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: NLS did not conduct additional analyses consistent with our recommendation prior to proceeding with the talking book modernization project and subsequent acquisition of new digital talking book players. In comments on our report in 2007, the Librarian of Congress stated that the Library's most experienced system designer would be assigned to work with NLS staff and contractors to develop the analyses that we recommended. However, this action was not taken. Rather, the staff member, who is currently the Acting Director of NLS, stated that she reviewed the analyses previously conducted by NLS and found them sufficient.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the best solution is selected and effectively delivered to talking book subscribers, the Librarian of Congress should require the Director of NLS to strengthen NLS's capabilities for modernizing the talking book program by developing a concept of operations and project management and risk management plans consistent with the library's guidance and industry best practices. We also recommend that the Librarian of Congress require the Chief Information Officer to oversee these efforts and ensure that they are accomplished in accordance with library guidance.

    Agency Affected: Library of Congress

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NLS took actions toward addressing this recommendation. Specifically, in January 2008, NLS developed a concept of operations which describes how the digital talking books system will operate. NLS officials also increased oversight of the program by briefing the Director for Partnerships and Outreach on a weekly basis and briefing the Associate Librarian for Library Services on a quarterly basis. While NLS did not develop project and risk management plans, the actions taken should contribute to strengthening NLS's capabilities for modernizing the taking book program.

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