Elke Dittmer

Understanding the importance of international cooperation and foresight lead Elke Dittmer to the realization that DAISY was the way to go for talking book libraries in Germany.

Elke Dittmer, speaking at the opening ceremony of the DAISY2009 Technical Conference, Leipzig, GermanyElke Dittmer is no ordinary woman. She is intelligent and kind (in themselves not totally extraordinary characteristics). When Elke finished high school she spent 3 years in a traditional "man's profession". (This was a number of years before the distinction between men's and women's employment options was less blurred than it is today.)

I was born in a small village about one hundred kilometers from Hamburg. When I finished high school there was an initiative in Germany to bring females into the technical manufacturing world. My dad repaired farming equipment, tractors, etc. I had learned to work with my hands when I was young. Elke Dittmer, 5 years old, with her functioning eye bandaged by doctors to strengthen her other eye (it did not work) And so, for three years after graduating I was a tool smith/tool maker creating metal molds for plastic bottles. We were 'girls in a man's profession'. Because only one of my eyes works, my mom was uncomfortable with me going into a field such as this. But for me it was a wonderful experience to learn more about my talents and work for a big industry in the commercial market.

Those years were beneficial but were nonetheless a career detour - I still wanted to go to university. In the late 1980's I left my home to attend university in Hannover. This was the beginning of my personal computer phase. It was the first time librarians and others could learn how to use computers in library cataloguing systems, and it was the beginning of the Internet. I became a librarian because I liked to read, but cataloguing and some other aspects of library science are of course about organizing books, not about reading them. All technical devices and computers interested me and at university I combined computers, technical devices and books. My two main interests, things technical and books came together.

After graduating my first job as a librarian was at the university library in Bielefeld (a new university established in the 1970's which had a modern computer system, a modern library and the first computers in the public area of a library. Bielefeld was at the forefront of new technology. There were two open positions, one in cataloguing, the other in IT. I didn't even consider the cataloguing position. I took the position in the IT department, and so was in IT from early on and had PC at home. It was not at all common then for people to have their own PC. But that area of Germany was never really my home.

North German Library of Talking Books, Hamburg, GermanyAt that time people often changed jobs after a few years. I saw a job offer in Hamburg at the library for the blind. They were looking for a person interested in computer technology, who was a librarian, and who was also able to take care of and manage an historic building (replacement of windows and new cables, etc.). I was still quite young, 26 years old, but felt I had all of the requirements. There was another candidate a bit older, female, who could read braille. The library is an association of the blind in North Germany, and was made up of blind representatives of the association of the blind, plus directors from public services such as public libraries and the Ministry of Culture and people who were 'war blind'. There were twenty people who had to decide who would get the position. I was selected because of my IT background. Braille reading was a political issue more than anything, and I could and would learn basic braille. On June 1st, 1989, I began working as the Director for the North German Library of Talking Books and Braille.

I was mentored by a man who had been blinded in the war. He helped me to learn about the library, the issues and the people, and helped me to be accepted by the others. He was about sixty when computers became available; he understood the challenge and what they could mean to a blind person, for communication and for braille production. He had a vision of what computers meant for the world generally and the blind specifically. He even learned to write programs in the early computer languages.

In libraries for the blind, talking book and braille departments were very separate, now they work together. Years ago in Germany, there was a great deal of cooperation between the libraries and the publishers association. However, the publishers didn't want to work with multiple libraries; they wanted one legal body to make contracts with, etc. This contributed to the merger of the libraries and library associations in 2004. MEDIBUS logo In 1994 I was elected as chair of the Association of Talking Book Libraries in German Speaking Libraries (now named MEDIBUS, Media Association for Blind and Vision Impaired People). German libraries for the blind tried to coordinate their work from the beginning, when they were established in the late 1950's. Today publishers and MEDIBUS are happy they are working together. Copyright law has changed, but for our relationship with publishers it is good to have one name, one association.

Rainer Witte at his retirement celebration In Germany international work was not a top priority, however Rainer Witte understood that the international network is essential and also understood the importance of being in the IFLA community as part of libraries world wide. My connections with both IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions) and DAISY were through Rainer who had been active in IFLA since the early 1980's, before the section for the blind was even formed; he was in fact involved in its creation. Rainer reported to the Association on both IFLA and the idea of DAISY.

People in IFLA understood the analogue tape problem, that the end of analogue was coming, and that something had to be developed to replace it. They knew they had to work together to find a solution for digital age talking books - what would become DAISY. A few IFLA colleagues, working together understood that under IFLA it was not possible to go forward - there was no software, no products, but something had to be done. A legal body able to sign contracts etc. was needed. It would be necessary to form a legal entity to move forward, and it was clear that the interested organisations would have to contribute funds and develop the structure to do this. The DAISY Consortium was formed in 1996 and the Association of German Libraries joined DAISY in 1997. As the chair of the Association (now MEDIBUS) I have been the DAISY Board representative since we joined. I have seen many, many changes in the DAISY Consortium during these twelve years.

Elke Dittmer and Arne Kyrkjebø, DAISY Board representative for the Norwegian DAISY Consortium, at a Board dinner in London, 2007My work with both IFLA and the DAISY Consortium has provided me with opportunities to meet many wonderful people and to visit many different places. It is important to be able to meet people face to face, in their own countries, in their own libraries. You can learn a great deal about their culture, about things such as differences in the status of women. I feel I am privileged; in many countries it is unusual for a woman to be a director of a library. When you travel you learn more about your own country, you can compare and appreciate what you have. In Germany, we are free. As a woman you can choose what you wish to do.

The Ministry of Justice in Germany is supportive of our work; since 2003 we have a legal exception to produce books in accessible format. We pay a fee to the publishers for this. German readers in Australia, Israel, Denmark, Canada and the USA borrow internationally from us. The number is small, about 100 or so people abroad are served. The publishers are an important part of our industry.

We know that DAISY is the best format for reading, better than anything else; everyone producing talking books should be using the DAISY Standard. The critical point is that we never forget to support our group - those who are blind and people who are visually impaired. There is more and more an understanding of producing books that can be republished in a different format, not just print. In Germany, Argon is the first commercial publisher producing DAISY books. They have more than 120 books in DAISY format.

When I am not working (and my work is fun) for entertainment I enjoy reading, photography and working on my homepage. I also like gardening and travel. DAISY, the Consortium, not the garden variety, is an association of the world: both the industrialized and developing world.

Editor's Note: MEDIBUS has very recently completed a set of guidelines for their member organizations to ensure that all DAISY books in Germany are produced in a consistent manner. This means that for the end user every MEDIBUS DAISY will have the same quality and approach to structuring. The guidelines "Leitfaden für Medibus-ok-Bücher" (Guidelines for Medibus-ok-books) are for DAISY books with audio and headings (NCC). Information about dealing with print book structure and 'transferring' that into the DAISY version, about metadata, and general information for producers is also included.