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GAO Report Criticizes Plan for LOC’s ‘Talking Books’

As expected, a Government Accountability Office report released last week was critical of how the Library of Congress vetted commercial alternatives and thought through distribution options in preparing for a major overhaul of its “talking book” program for the blind and physically handicapped.

While marking up the fiscal 2008 legislative branch spending bill on Tuesday, House appropriators cited the GAO report as a key reason the program’s transition effort was not funded at requested levels this year.

The GAO is recommending the Library take a second look at possible off-the-shelf alternatives before moving ahead with plans to replace the current analog talking book system with a proprietary digital alternative.

“Without a rigorous analysis of alternatives, [the LOC’s National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped], 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,” the report states.

Currently NLS produces and distributes analog cassette players and recordings of books and periodicals to approximately 434,000 individual subscribers through a network of more than 130 libraries and the U.S. Postal Service.

Since 1990, the National Library Service has planned to transfer the program away from cassette tapes to newer digital players and, in 2000, began analyzing alternatives including CD, hard drive and flash memory technology.

NLS eventually decided to develop a new system based on flash technology, and according to Librarian of Congress James Billington’s testimony before appropriators earlier this year, making that change will cost $76.4 million over the next four years. The Library requested slightly more than $19 million for the program in fiscal 2008 so the shift could begin before the older cassettes and players become obsolete.

But the GAO report said the plan developed by NLS neither fully studied commercial alternatives for the digital project nor provided the proper analysis of operational costs such as mailing fees.

The report notes the weaknesses in NLS’ development plan were partly caused “because NLS was not required to adhere to the Library of Congress’s system development guidance, which would have provided a structure for performing an alternatives analysis and managing the project.”

The House Appropriations Committee approved $12.5 million for the digital talking book program during a markup last week. The bill also includes language that allows the Librarian of Congress to transfer additional funds to the program with the approval of Congress.

In a letter responding to the report, Billington agreed to undertake the additional analyses called for by the GAO and have the Library’s chief information officer review the program to ensure NLS operates within established Library development guidelines.

But, Billington noted, time is of the essence when it comes to overhauling the program.

“The Digital Talking Book program has been in the planning stage for nearly a decade, and the blind community has high expectations for its implementation,” Billington said in his letter. In making the analyses called for in the GAO report a top priority “we expect to work quickly” to resolve all of the outstanding issues.

“We believe that the probable long-term solutions will be possible within the budget we have proposed for the Digital Talking Books program and that adjustments to the original plan can be accommodated,” he added. “We are confident that the analyses need not unduly affect the timing of the overall program. Our goal is the same as GAO’s: to make certain that government-provided services are of the highest quality to the user community at the least cost to the taxpayers.”

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