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What I Think of RNIB Overdrive

Last Sunday evening I received details that the RNIB Overdrive service was up and running. This was quite a surprise because I did not think it was launching until the following day, 15 September.

RNIB Overdrive is a service UK citizens have been waiting for. It allows us to download Talking Books from the RNIB library so we can hear them off line, either using a computer, an iPhone or an alternative portable device, such as the Victor Reader Stream. The previous incarnation of this service, Bookstream, allowed a user to stream books over the internet in DAISY format or loan them on CD. The CD aspect of the library is still very much with us and is not going away.

Currently, the entire collection of 23,000 books from RNIB have not been uploaded. About half the collection is in place with the rest to follow in November.

As the name suggests, RNIB Overdrive uses the Overdrive library service which is commonplace among digital libraries in the world. They have a desktop player for your computer and an app for I O S as well.

I was very excited about being able to download books as I am an avid reader and get through several books a week. People living in America, Australia and Canada among others have this facility in place already so it is nice that we in the UK have now caught up.

I certainly am able to download books and listen to them on my victor Reader Stream. When you get the idea as to how the website functions, it can be done in just a few minutes. However, the website does need some improvement as I pointed out when working through RNIB's trial for this service. There is no way of easily and quickly being able to skip to the next result in a list of books you may have searched for. Certainly pressing the letter G to move to the next graphic using JAWS takes you close, then you can press Down Arrow. But if you are working through a lot of results this can take a while. I suspect RNIB cannot do a great deal about this as the Overdrive interface is probably standard throughout all libraries.

Probably the biggest disappointment relates to the audio itself.

In order to make it easier for people to play books from RNIB Overdrive on players which are not DAISY-compatible, the files are in MP3 format only with no DAISY structure. To some extent I understand why this approach has been adopted. It does make it possible for you to listen to books on devices such as the boombox Plus. This is a very straightforward, easy-to-use player capable of playing MP3 content, and it does retain the position within the book, although there are limits to this. But it is an excellent device and would do well int this context. Moreover if you are not a fan of the Overdrive desktop player, (which again does work well), you can use Winamp, Foobar2000 or any audio player on the computer of your choosing.

But the people involved in preparing the books have not paid too much attention to structure. Ideally, you would have thought each chapter should be in its own MP3 file. This is not always the case. You could potentially have three chapters or more in one file which makes navigating by chapter almost impossible. While as I say I understand the concept of pure audio so to speak, there are many disadvantages in "dumping DAISY".]

The other issue I have relates to the quality of the audio. As against the equivalent DAISY books available on CD, the audio of the Overdrive downloadable content sounds extremely compressed. Doubtless this is at least partly for the customers' benefit as each book does not take long to download. However, the sub-standard quality is very evident when listening on headphones. I have many books from the Audible.co.uk website, downloaded in their "format 4" audio quality. The reproduction from RNIB Overdrive titles is far poorer in my view than Audible's Format 4, and Audible books can even be available in a higher quality than that.

People may take the view that not many will notice. But I think as blind people, we are used to listening to audio and appreciating the very significant differences in quality. If you are familiar with audio production, and you know what you are listening for, this kind of reproduction and subsequent artefacts can usually be avoided.

In summary, it is probably a bit late to be concerned about this now given that half the collection is uploaded. But I just would like people to appreciate what they are likely to receive.

Now having said all that, to be positive, once you get used to the fact that you are listening to books with this kind of reproduction, there is no doubt that the concept of being able to download books does give visually impaired people in the UK a lot of flexibility. If you think that you would like to read a book by a specific author, you can be reading it in a few minutes, and you can't beat that spontaneity. So I would like to thank RNIB for giving us that service. If you enjoy reading, certainly despite my above comments I would recommend RNIB Overdrive, and I will be renewing my subscription again next September for sure.

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