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Thomas Kahlisch - Your Story, December 2010

Dr. Thomas Kahlisch – Now the DAISY train is rolling through the whole world and it also stops at many places in Germany to let people get on board

"Today, DAISY is more than a talking book standard; it is the key to the world's knowledge, which can be useful for everybody." Thomas Kahlisch is a rather brilliant gentleman who, it seems, loves a challenge – big challenges. The DAISY2009 Technical Conference was a resounding success, and as the Director of DZB Leipzig, Thomas was instrumental in making the conference the success that it was. Plans are now underway for BRAILLE21, and it will be organized by DZB and hosted in Leipzig. I have known Thomas for many years and continue to be impressed with his ongoing achievements and his understanding of the international issues which are so important to achieving equitable information access for all.

Portrait Dr. Thomas KahlischI'm grateful to my parents for making me a book lover. They enjoyed reading to me, and even though I was born with a visual impairment, they encouraged me to read by myself as well. As soon as I went to school, my parents subscribed me to the talking book library of the German Central Library for the Blind (DZB) Leipzig. From then on the postman regularly brought me huge, bulky boxes containing reel-to-reel tapes in the beginning, and later on the books were on cassettes. I impatiently awaited each delivery and was disappointed if it didn't contain the book I longed to read because another library user had borrowed it first. When I completely lost my sight at the age of 14, I learned to read books and magazines in Braille, which was quite a challenge at this stage because feeling the dot combinations with my fingers was hard at first. However I soon realized that skill would come with practice. After only a few months of hard work, I was astonished to notice that I had started to think and even dream in Braille. Never would I have imagined that one day I was going to become the director of the institution that had inspired in me such impressive dreams.

Library DresdenAfter my professional training in the IT sector and my graduation in computer science studies I became a research fellow at Dresden University of Technology, and in 1998 I did my doctorate on the interaction between humans and computers. At the university we provided support for many blind and partially sighted students. As research fellow, I was responsible, among other things, for their accessible learning materials as well as a few smaller research projects.

Braille is indispensible for my work. Reading digital books on my refreshable Braille display and editing documents has become quite natural to me; it is the basis for my independent way of working.

When I worked as a scientist at the university, I participated in many conferences and workshops. Having grown up in Germany, a divided country, I was fascinated by international exchange with experts from all over the world. I took every opportunity to improve my English in order to make communication easier. Today I gratefully look back on numerous encounters with experts from every corner of the earth and even organize international events myself.

Logo MedibusI was first introduced to DAISY technology in April 1998 when Elke Dittmer, chair of MEDIBUS (Media Association for Blind and Vision Impaired People), invited the DAISY community to a congress at her organization, the North German Library of Talking Books and Braille in Hamburg. George Kerscher, Secretary General of the DAISY Consortium, and I had met at other conferences, and we had discussed the wonderful opportunities of SGML and later XML-based processing of documents to end the book famine for visually impaired people. With growing enthusiasm I followed the developments within the DAISY Consortium to use open internet standards and technologies for digital talking books. George and I were fascinated by the idea of blind users being able to easily read and edit accessible text or audio books on a PC with standard software.

In 1999 I became director of DZB and was highly motivated to make DAISY the talking book standard in Germany in cooperation with Elke Dittmer. At first we had to face the challenges of the federal structure of Germany, the many different member institutions within MEDIBUS, and the fact that some of the decision makers were generally prejudiced against the use of new technologies. Today, after more than 10 years of working together, MEDIBUS libraries and self-help organizations have made DAISY, together with Braille, the most important information media for all age groups.

It was a remarkable experience for me to have been given the opportunity to have a short conversation with Bill Gates in November 2004. I asked him about his opinion on DAISY for the mass market and XML-based processing of documents. Through a congress on that topic organized by Microsoft we had many hopes for future progress, and although not all been fulfilled, but we were motivated and gained ideas for further developments. Now the DAISY train is rolling through the whole world and it also stops at many places in Germany to let people get on board.

Thomas Kahlisch DAISY2009-Konferenz in LeipzigWith pride and great enthusiasm, the team of DZB Leipzig organized an entire conference week on DAISY in the summer of 2009. Many international guests were impressed by DAISY2009 and went home with ideas for new projects and cooperative strategies. Staff members at DZB are working on different ways of providing blind and partially sighted people with information. Improving access to Braille music for professional and non-professional musicians has been an important topic in recent years. The DaCapo project an Internet-based solution was developed. Through DaCapo, blind musicians can order the transcription of sheet music, which the DZB then sends on paper or in a digital format. Encouraged by this successful transcription service, DZB is now working on software for the semi-automatic conversion of educational and reference material into DAISY, Braille, and large-print, thanks to support from the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. Within the framework of this project called Leibniz, we cooperate with commercial publishers to use their data sources in order to accelerate the conversion process.

Braille21-LogoToday, DAISY is more than a talking book standard; it is the key to the world's knowledge, which can be useful for everybody. Making the dream of ending the book famine come true will require much more effort, especially on an international level. Since 2007 I have been working in the Libraries Serving Persons with Print Disabilities Section, and since 2009 I have been a member of the WBC (World Braille Council), which was founded by the WBU (World Blind Union). One of the WBC's tasks is to organize a world congress on Braille. Encouraged by the success of DAISY2009, I suggested that this congress be held in Leipzig. Peter Osborne from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and other WBC members showed instant support. This important international event, BRAILLE21 – Innovations in Braille in the 21st Century – will take place in September 2011 in Leipzig. I invite all of the members, friends and supporters of the DAISY community to come to Leipzig from 27 - 30, September 2011. It's high time to combine Louis Braille's dots, which have helped so many blind people master written language and hence live independently, with the inclusive design of DAISY technology. No matter whether people prefer to read the knowledge of the world on paper or use digital devices, or both, everyone must have unlimited access to it!