DAISY playing: Sharing digital audio books using international standards

A Plextalk DAISY player sitting on a desk with a CD next to it

What do you do if you are an online digital library, and that even with assistive technology, you clients will struggle to select and read your books? A user base for an online service where only 50% of patrons have an email address and would struggle to use a web browser. CELA, the Centre for Equitable Library Access is that library, and I’m its web developer.

Even if the patrons have the technical skills to get online and select books, how do you make the books accessible on mobile devices like iPhones and iPads?

Because those are significant segments of CELA’s clients.

There are a number of architectural decision that we had to make to support those patrons and there is not space in this article to give them all the time they deserve, so I’m going to cherry pick a little here.

First let’s talk about the practicalities of listening to talking books if you aren’t comfortable or don’t have the technical skills to easily use a computer to search for a book and play it.

One solution that we offer at CELA is a regular phone number where someone will help you place a hold on a book for you. A hold is library speak for selecting a book that the library will deliver to you at some point in the future. It’s kind of a prioritized waiting list. It also means that it helps if you alread know what you want when you phone up.

Wouldn’t it be better if the system could help you with that, if it could recommend books to you, place them in your holds list so that you can try listening to them? CELA provides that service.

When you sign up to CELA, we call you and offer a profiling option where we take you through possible genres and ask about your favourite authors. We also ask things like whether you prefer male or female narration, how much bad language you can tolerate, and whether you will accept synthetic speech (sometimes our patrons do not).

From all those questions, we build a digital profile that an algorithm can use to select books for you. The system then selects books at a rate the patron requsts, for example one per week, and then automatically delivers the material to the patron at that rate, ensuring that they never get the same book twice, or a series out of order. With physical material such as braille and DVDs, it also handles queuing issues.

So as an example, a patron can ask for 4 books a week that are a selection of murder mysteries, romance, and biographies, with Ian Rankin the preferred author. They can then phone in, or use our website to add additional specific titles to the head of the queue.

That helps find the books.

DAISY Consortium logoThe picture above demonstrates one of the ways patrons get to listen to books. The picture is of Plextalk DAISY player. DAISY is the international standard for accessible talking books. It is MP3 audio files plus meta-data in XML format. Meta-data is information that describes the content of the book. The title, the authors, the table of contents, how far into the book in seconds is the start of each chapter. And sometimes the actual text of the book too, fragment by fragment synchronized to the audio track so that the text can be displayed as the book is played.

And one of the ways to listen and read a DAISY book is the kind of player in the picture. The player is a large plastic box with a small number of tactile buttons. Older players like the one in the picture take DAISY CDs, which CELA will burn and post to you. We mail millions of them. Newer players can automatically download the books directly from us over the internet using the DODP (DAISY Online Delivery Protocol) protocol.

The concept is a bookshelf that takes usually 12 books. As you select them from CELA’s collection, the books are automatically queued to download to your bookshelf when there is space. The profiling system also queues up in this way. As you finish a book on your virtual bookshelf and delete it, it is replaced with the next in the queue so that you always have up to 12 books waiting for you to read. You move between books with the “next book” button on the player. So if you can handle those few buttons then you can listen to as many books as you like, you can even load the payer up with books and take it away on holiday to read offline. Or, some more tech savvy public libraries have DAISY players that they will load up with books for you to borrow.

The player connects to CELA using the DAISY Online Direct to Player protocol. If you have a CELA account then any DAISY player can connect for you. And that API is open, you don’t require a key from us to use it, just a CELA patron account.

E-book reading apps

Screenshot from Direct to Player app

So what about patrons who are a little more tech savvy, how do they listen?

In addition to downloading e-books to PCs and mobile devices, we also directly support mobile apps that use the same DAISY online protocol that the Plextalk player uses. Again, any DAISY Online app can only connect if you have a patron account at CELA. We also provide our own free app on the App Store and Google Play; the app was written for CELA by a company in the Netherlands. Of the two platforms, it is the iPhone that gets the traffic.

We provided our own app to ensure basic accessibility of CELA’s content, and it’s functionality is limited to audio books. There are much more sophisticaed accessible readers out there. We needed to ensure that the screen-reading technology on mobile phones played well for our patrons, and our app was specially constructed and optimized to work well with Apple’s VoiceOver and Google’s TalkBack screen-readers.

It’s important to note though, that the app follows uses the same protocol, and the same bookshelf metaphor as the physical players, and is not designed to search for books. That is only possible currently through our website and via the patron helpline. A future blog post will begin to describe the websites.

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