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The old way of doing audio: Unhappy Pat poses with box of assorted tape cassettes. Each one holds only a portion of an audio book.
The new way: Smiling Pat holds up a single Library of Congress digital cartridge. Each new digital cartridge holds thousands of DAISY book pages or many hundreds of audio files.
Well, don't say you didn't know this was coming. Learning Ally and the Library of Congress have both made the switch to digital audio. Bookshare has been digital for a long time already. Now it is time to announce the final stage in the life cycle of the Handiham tape cassette service, one of the few remaining analog special format services that is still active.
Over the last decade digital audio has steadily overtaken analog tape cassettes in commercial applications. The old cassette format is no longer supported as it once was in boom boxes, portable players, and automobile audio systems. The tapes themselves are harder to find and many households no longer even have equipment to play cassettes. Anticipating the need for a digital system to replace this old technology that was also used by people who could not read regular print, the DAISY Consortium has developed the DAISY format book system that can couple audio files read by humans to specific sections and subsections of books. DAISY can also generate computer speech from computer text of a book, then arrange it all on a DAISY book that includes spoken word audio and all of the text, complete with headings for sections and subsections. Now that the Library of Congress has completed its distribution of the new DAISY-capable digital players to replace the aging 4-track tape cassette players, we feel confident that Handiham members, even those without computers, will still have access to the new digital cartridges.
Make no mistake; the digital audio is far better than the old cassette tape audio. If you are still using tape cassettes, now is the time to check out that new digital player. With the new player you can navigate using audio prompts and find the exact thing in a book that you want. You could never do that with tapes. In the bad old days of taped instruction manuals, it was nearly impossible to find that part about setting the memories on your new radio! With the new digital system, that is an easy task. In the old days, your audio had to come by postal mail. Today you can download it via the Internet and put it on your digital player with a small adapter cable. Even Handiham members without computers can still receive their new digital cartridges in the mail, in special mailers similar to the old Library of Congress tape mailers. The new system is designed to seem familiar to tape users, so that they can more easily learn it and make the transition.
The digital cartridges themselves are just a bit smaller than the old tape cassettes. They have a hole in one end to facilitate grasping the correct end of the cartridge, even by a person with some mobility limitations. The other end of the cartridge has a small USB connector that plugs into the digital player. It slips into the new player only one way, and the experience feels much like putting a cassette tape into the old player. The USB plug is protected by extensions of the plastic cartridge to protect it from damage. This format also keeps it from plugging directly into a standard computer's USB ports. That is why blind users who receive their audio from Library of Congress digital downloads must use an adapter cable between their computers and their digital cartridges. We can also use such a cable to put Handiham digital audio onto the new cartridges.
There is a cost difference between a tape cassette and the new digital cartridge. Tape cassettes usually ran under a dollar, and because they are falling out of use they are available virtually free from people who are simply getting rid of old technology. The new digital NLS cartridges are around $10 to $12 each, but remember that each one holds the equivalent of hundreds and hundreds of tapes. And because the new digital cartridge has a different form factor than a tape cassette, it requires a new specialized NLS mailer. These run about $2.50 each.
The way the Handiham monthly digest audio program will operate takes into account the cost of these two items. In the old system, we bought tapes and mailers and sent them to our members. The members were responsible for returning the tapes and mailers when they had listened to the audio. The return rate was never 100%, so some tapes and mailers were lost to attrition each month.
In the new system, we will ask our members who want to have digital audio mailed to them by free matter postal mail to purchase their own digital cartridge and mailer, mark them with their callsign or identification, and send them to us for processing each month. We will fill the cartridge and return it. That way each individual has a vested interest in their own cartridge and mailer. This will make the program easier to manage because we won't have to maintain a supply of our own cartridges and mailers. It also spreads the cost among those users who don't have computers or Internet services. It has really become labor-intensive to support a smaller and smaller number of Handiham members who use the old tape cassette technology. As our tape duplicators get older, they are more likely to make recording errors. It has gotten to the point where tapes are sometimes custom-produced for a single member who needs something like one of our license courses but who has no computer. So serving that single member can get quite expensive, while hundreds of other members simply download their audio from our website with no staff assistance. The digital cartridge provides a means of still serving that single member with good quality audio, even if they do not have a computer.
So what is the plan?
We will continue to support tape cassettes through the end of 2012, but not for new members, beginning immediately. All new members will be told about the new digital cartridge plan. They will have a choice of either simply downloading the digital audio they need from our website or providing their own digital cartridge and mailer. Members who are currently using the old tape system will be notified of the new cartridge plan and they will be given some options about where to purchase the cartridges and mailers. Members who get their audio via the website will not be affected.
For Handiham World, I'm...
Patrick Tice, email@example.com