Issue #17 March 2006

LibriVox gives books a voice in the public domain

by Rebecca Fernandez


Is your daily commute filled with blaring morning talk shows and radio traffic reports? If you're like most commuters, your audio book collection is limited to "Who Moved My Cheese?" and the latest Danielle Steele romance.

When you see flashing lights in your rear view mirror, do you reach for your license and registration... or jab frantically at the volume buttons? If you're looking for something more substantial to tune into, check out the classic book downloads available at LibriVox.

You won't find modern romance novels, but you will see a growing catalog of over 70 works in the public domain, including "Frankenstein" and "Aesop's Fables." These free files are available in mp3 or ogg format, and every recording remains in the public domain. So spread the love. Share the files.

Books on tape: The next generation

In the past when you wanted an audio version of your favorite books, you were limited to the eleven dusty volumes available at the public library. The proprietary works sold for twenty to thirty bucks a piece. If you wanted to hear a classic novel for free, you had to bribe someone to read it to you. Maybe squeeze into a tiny library chair for story time.

In August 2005, with the help of the Internet and a little inspiration from Project Gutenberg and wikipedia, writer Hugh McGuire changed the landscape of audio book recording with the LibriVox project.

McGuire roped a few friends into helping him read and record Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent." Hundreds more volunteers joined them in the months that followed. Today, there are over 150 recordings in progress, both collaborative and solo projects. The majority of books follow texts or translations from Project Gutenberg, which has over 17,000 free e-books in the public domain.

Collaboration... with an invisible hand

Most LibriVox projects are completed by teams of volunteers who alternate chapter readings. McGuire found that collaboration made for more volunteers. "The reading takes a fair amount of energy--though it's very enjoyable, which is why so many stick around and read more. The editing takes a while: for a 20 minute audio, you'd be looking at about one hour of work. I know I personally record stuff happily, but the editing is a bit of a chore."

Collaboration, while making the work load lighter, introduces its own challenges, as McGuire notes. "Generally it takes about two months to get a collaborative project done--sometimes less, sometimes more. We set general targets, but don't stick to them too much. Every once in a while we [try to finish] projects near completion: the coordinator of the project contacts all people with outstanding chapters with a fixed deadline, and if they can't get it done in time, they'll put their chapters up for adoption by someone else."

While LibriVox does allow solo projects, they encourage volunteers to work in a group first, to learn the process and get acclimated to the community. McGuire notes that with a variety of volunteers including programmers, librarians, and public radio fans, "Figuring out editing software can be difficult for [some of our readers], but we have a very helpful community on our forum."

Technical details

Readers choose their own software for recording and editing. Most use Audacity, an open source free software available for Windows®, Mac®, and Linux®.

Regardless of software, all files are recorded in 128kbps mp3 format, then uploaded to archive.org, where they are automatically converted to 64kbps mp3 and ogg vorbis formats.

Most readers do not have extensive technical backgrounds. They simply download some software and read their chapter. Then, they edit it for repeated words, background noises, and various other distractions.

Who's Who Among Readers

Although English is the primary language used, there are six completed works in other languages and others in progress. LibriVox does not require readers to be native speakers.

The lax requirements for who can read and what software must be used would seem to produce poor quality readings. But the selections available are surprisingly good. The dialects and accents add uneven charm to the recordings. The passion of the readers comes through most of the recordings. These aren't professionals. But they love to read.

That's not to say that LibriVox hasn't attracted its share of professional attention. In Touch, BBC 4's radio show for the visually impaired, recently aired a segment on the project. NPR, CBC, and LA Times have picked up on the story.

And rumor has it that Internet celebrity and podcasting pioneer Adam Curry has promised the folks at LibriVox a chapter recording.

Public domain: What's in it?

Despite its fame, LibriVox has quietly refused buyout offers. LibriVox continues to allow only recordings of books that are in the public domain. Generally, this includes anything published in the United States prior to 1923. Books in the public domain have no laws restricting their use by the public.

But a recording of a book in the public domain is not automatically free for distribution. Most of the existing audio books available are protected by proprietary copyrights, even if the original work was in the public domain.

LibriVox deliberately includes a statement in their recordings that safely places each audio recording into the hands of the public forever. Copy the files. Share them with friends. The folks at LibriVox encourage it.

Their goal? To record every book available in the public domain.

Ways to volunteer

There are several ways to help out the LibriVox project. They won't accept your money, but they'd love your time. You can volunteer to read a chapter or more of one of the books in progress. Start smaller by reading poetry.

Not a gifted orator? There are other ways to help. LibriVox has two software projects on sourceforge: a catalog software project and a text/audio linking project.

My two-hour commute is no longer a miserable decision between Howard Stern or John Boy and Billy. Now, I use that time to catch up on the classic reading I've been meaning to do.

This week, I'm listening to Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." Next week, "Pride and Prejudice." Unless they finish "Dracula" by then...

About the author

Rebecca Fernandez is an writer, editor, and web developer at Red Hat.