Library for the blind takes books on tape into digital age

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The Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped will begin to make the switch from analog books on audiocassette tape to digital cartridges next month.

The changeover of a library of more than 60,000 books and dozens of magazine titles has been years in the making and is far from done.

"We have 65,000 titles and 20,000 of them already have been digitally remastered," CLBPH Director Kathleen Kappel said. Those texts can work as cassettes, digital cartridges or be downloaded to a computer, she explained. "Over the next five-year period we'll have more and more digitals and fewer cassettes."

Digital cartridges are the size of a cassette and plug into a digital player, 6 inches by 9 inches by 2 inches, that weighs about 2 pounds.

Some texts on cassette tapes may not be redone, but Ms. Kappel said all new best sellers are being recorded digitally by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped at the Library of Congress.

Pittsburgh staff and volunteers, meanwhile, are re-recording digitally the library's Pennsylvania Collection on digital recording and duplication equipment purchased through a $28,500 grant from the Western Pennsylvania Medical Eye Bank Foundation.

Who can borrow new digitized books

You are eligible to use the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped if:

• Your visual limitation prevents you from reading standard-size print.
• Your physical limitation keeps you from holding a book or turning pages.
• Your reading disability is physically based.•

The library mails directly to your home and back free each way the following material:

• Audio books
• Large-print books
• Braille books
• Described videos

Questions: 1-800-242-0586
Web site:
• Armed forces veterans have first preference on any waiting lists.

"We have worked with the Lions and given some money to sponsor research," said John Wisnoski, chairman and president of the Eye Bank Foundation. "But mainly we help people like the library and several other areas to purchase enough material to teach people how to make a living while they're blind [or] how they can care for themselves or how they can cook."

The Pennsylvania Collection includes books on Pennsylvania history and folklore, fiction by Pennsylvania authors and stories set in Pennsylvania.

The effort and time that has been poured into the digital audio book production will mean text that is clearer, easier to listen to and maneuver through -- as well as digital talking book players that are lighter in weight and more durable -- for CLBPH's 10,000 customers in 36 Western Pennsylvania counties.

Easy to use

"You don't have to change cassettes; the quality is very good; and the ability to jump from page to page or chapter to chapter you couldn't do on a cassette," said longtime CLBPH member Kathryn Wassermann of Oakland, 75, a retired social worker who has downloaded digitized books onto her computer. "With cassettes you had to rewind if you were looking for something. With digital, it's wonderful to find what you're looking for."

Thomas Galante, 57, a banker from Mt. Lebanon, has used the library since he attended the University of Pittsburgh in the early 1970s but he also has been using his own digital player for a couple years.

"You can do so much more [with them]," he said. "You can find things easier, mark things, and so on." He's also excited about the possibility of being able to download the digital cartridges onto his own player. "I can read it on the T going home; I can read in the shower."

The initial distribution of the state-of-the-art players and newly digitized national books and magazines is the result of years of research and design by National Library Services.

The effort to update from cassettes was started in 1996, but CDs were found unable to withstand the rigors of shipping to customers. The NLS went to the next level, flash memory, but at the time it was too expensive.

While the price slowly came down and the general public became acquainted with digitized data in other venues, the NLS accepted suggestions on what features a digital player and cartridges for the blind and physically handicapped should include.

"NLS listened to us out in the field, both customers and staff," Ms. Kappel said. "Five hundred data points were studied for this machine. They listened to all of us and tried to put all of it into it ... It took a long time because of the steps they had to do."

One of the special features on the digital player is an internal membrane that protects the parts from spilled liquids. The player and the cartridges were designed so that customers with limited use of their hands can insert the cartridge comfortably.

Staff and members alike are looking forward to their arrival.

"The library will be getting 125 digital players from the national library a month," Ms. Kappel said. "Eventually there'll be enough for everyone who wants one."

Pohla Smith can be reached at or 412-263-1228.


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