Mary Schnackenberg

I want it all, I want it now

Mary Schnackenberg is Divisional Manager Adaptive Support at the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind. She is responsible for a library that serves some 5,500 borrowers, accessible information production and Volunteer Services including 2,200 volunteers.

I guess I am a little unusual in the blindness agency world. Few of my management colleagues are also totally blind - end users of their services. I am encouraged because I am a beneficiary of what I do, but challenged because I am blind 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and continue to ponder on what to do next to improve on things. My head is constantly in a tug of war between the ideal and the pragmatic and I have no doubt I make the wrong call on occasions. But life is never dull!

Aukland Skyline from the ferryI grew up in a family of five, with four sighted brothers and sisters. My sighted parents, both professionals and avid readers, gave us a love of learning and the drive to do our best. Each of us has contributed to the society around us. My older brother, Tom, for example, is rather well known in international yachting circles. Tom had an early developmental hand in something recently in the news - a kite built for the German container vessel which used wind assistance to significantly reduce fuel consumption on long voyages.

While studying at the University of Auckland I went in search of accessible formats of my textbooks and came to know more about the British and American sources of braille and audio than the staff at the Foundation of the Blind. The manager of the Foundation's library hired me when I graduated in 1973 and I set about acquiring qualifications in library science.

New Zealand mapNew Zealand is a very small country, just four million people down here in the South Pacific. The Foundation is the only rehabilitation agency for the blind in New Zealand which includes a library and accessible format production service. As we are the only national blindness service provider here, the only way to learn was to travel overseas. I have been hugely privileged to visit some 14 countries in quest of better ways to produce and distribute accessible information.

With Clive Lansink as the software developer, I oversaw what was two decades ago, the most cost-effective automated library management system in the blindness library arena. More recently, I helped create the first trans-national book purchasing consortium which brought down the price of audio books. I had a hand in the New Zealand copyright legislation which makes special provision for accessible format production and have been privileged to watch other countries adopt similar enabling law.

And Then Came DAISY

In April 1995 attendees at an international conference in Toronto were introduced to 'early' DAISY by two representatives from the Swedish Library of Talking Books and Braille (TPB). At first I did not see the light. Initially DAISY was marketed for students and gave structure to human narrated texts. I dismissively thought the students should have been reading electronic texts with speech and braille on their PCs. Then I learned digitized speech in languages other than English was very undeveloped at that time and human narrated texts were a necessity to access information and by no means a "nice to have".

In 1997, on a visit to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, I made a major if obvious discovery. A patient staff member guided me through navigation on a DAISY player and showed me a book about wine, “From Aligote to Zinfandel”, in DAISY format. I remember the golden rule of checking the validity of any piece of non-fiction: look up something in the book that you already have reliable knowledge of; if the author gets that right, the rest of the work will be fairly reliable. So I looked for New Zealand in the index and it was not there. Wine lovers will tell you I was being quite unfair; our whites were quite new on the world market in 1997. Then it hit me - I had checked the index and flicked around references to Australia's Barossa Valley in a matter of minutes, an impossible feat with an analogue cassette book.

DAISY means to me an accessible equivalent of print structure and, of course, achieving speeds and flexibility almost as effectively as print enabled readers. It is truly the "best way to read".

In 2002 Andrew Furlong, an inspirational engineer from Vision Australia and DAISY trainer, taught my production staff how to produce DAISY books and magazines. He loaded software on my PC and I gained access to full text DAISY structured books using my braille display. When I first saw DAISY demonstrated in the mid 1990's, I never thought for a second that this would be possible.

Like all the blindness libraries RNZFB mails books and magazines to its borrowers. Each of us has the same problem - it takes too long to get material to our borrowers, then they read it, then they post it back and we never have enough copies of popular titles to satisfy demand.

For several years now talking books have been available on the Internet...

The rock group Queen sang "I want it all, I want it now". Well I can't fix the "I want it all" bit yet, with just 5% of print information available in an accessible format. But I thought we might have a good shot at the "I want it now" part. The problem is you need a PC to download audio books, and 90% of my borrowers don't have PCs, can't afford them, let alone master the skills needed to drive Windows, digitized speech and so on.

Clive Lansink, far right, at the DAISY Online Working Group, Toronto June 2007In 2006 we worked with HumanWare to pilot an Internet-capable digital talking book player. We trialled the player with 40 borrowers, all but one over the age of 60. Because of the success of the pilot, we are planning to shift the library programme to Internet delivery of DAISY books and magazines for all our borrowers during 2009.

It is truly a pleasure to see the DAISY Standard so widely embraced around the world. Most producers realize the need to structure audio books to the same standard as the original print. Yes indeed that should include structuring at least to print page level and in a recreational library as well. A good number of my borrowers belong to book clubs with blind and sighted friends. They want to be able to turn to page 187 just as their sighted friends can do, and at the same speed, not 10 minutes later!

Youngsters benefit from full text DAISY books with digitized speech or human narration. They can read the text with ears, eyes or fingers simultaneously or separately. How many of us remember stumbling into a class assignment, quite unable to spell the characters' names because the audio narration did not do so?

I have been privileged to watch DAISY expand around the world, bringing access to information to blind people even in under-developed countries. Digital recording on PCs has made the creation of audio books a less expensive and better quality proposition than it used to be, and the DAISY Standard of structuring has made the final product far more useful than the old analogue cassettes. Now developing countries are beginning to feed back to the so-called developed world, recordings that their immigrants can use, all because of the DAISY Standard and the efforts of the Members and Friends of the DAISY Consortium.

Perkins Brailler at CSUN 2008In the last 35 years of my working life, I have witnessed a remarkable improvement in the technology we use. I began working life with a Perkins brailler, an IBM Model D electric typewriter and the Optacon. Today we have an explosion of PCs and braille displays with several competing screen readers. Although our access to information, especially via the Internet, has improved dramatically, we still must do the hard yards of education and training and there can be no rest. I currently manage almost 60 staff and 2,200 volunteers with an annual budget of US $3.1 million, and I must continue to seek professional improvement for myself as well as for my staff. I am about to serve again on the Board of the DAISY Consortium and am currently Vice President of the International Council on English Braille.

With all the advances in access technology I can see our younger blind, deafblind and low vision people have all the opportunity in the world to become global citizens, just like their sighted peers, if and only if we go after the educational dream. With our skills sharpened and tolerant attitudes, there is no reason why we cannot travel and work just about anywhere. Certainly in the blindness field alone, the DAISY Standard and now the Unified English Braille is standardizing more and more of what we all do.

Down Time

And when I am not thinking about work, or reading some report or other, what do I do for fun?

As I write this, my partner is cleaning up in the kitchen after our barbecue dinner. Around our house is the sound of a classical music mix running on the home entertainment system. It happens to be a classical music mix right now, but it could be rock, pop, jazz or folk. And shortly, the home automation will switch us to the evening's main radio news bulletin. The day will draw to a close and tomorrow will see the start of another working week.


Thank you Mary for sharing your "Success Story Extraordinaire" with us.