The First Audiobook: an LP for the Blind

Before they started playing music, LPs were used to play books for those who couldn't see.
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Before they started playing music, LPs were used to play books for those who couldn't see.
Blind students listen to a "talking book" at Lighthouse in New York. (PHOTO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

Blind students listen to a "talking book" at Lighthouse in New York. (PHOTO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

From 1934 until 1948 long-playing records (LPs) were almost exclusively the domain of the visually impaired. But they weren't being used for music. Instead, they helped blind people listen to a brand new invention—the audiobook.

In the early 1930s, the American Foundation for the Blind took on the project to get "talking books" into the hands of blind Americans, with a mixture of funding from public and private money. In the early 20th century, the major record companies had found success selling records that could only hold about five minutes of music, but they struggled during the Great Depression to develop technology for long-playing records that sounded good while playing tunes.

However, long-playing records were satisfactory for voice recordings, and in 1932, the American Foundation for the Blind approached Frank L. Dyer to license his technology for audiobook LP players. Dyer granted the Foundation royalty-free use of his invention. As we see today, though, there was one major issue: the intellectual property rights of publishers.

In his fascinating book The Unseen Minority: A Social History of Blindness in the United States, Frances Koestler explains the copyright hurdle in producing what were then called "talking books":

If Talking Books were to command a wide audience among blind readers, they would have to include new and current books as well as literary classics in the public domain. In principle, authors and publishers who had long permitted their copyrighted books to be reproduced in braille were equally well disposed to making their work available to blind readers in this new form, but they raised some understandable objections.

Those objections were publishers worrying how these new talking books would be delivered and to whom. The April 21, 1934, issue of Publishers Weekly explained that public performance would be absolutely out of the question: "If such discs were used for public halls, or especially for broadcasting purposes, they would fall into the realm of public performance and therefore would be decidedly in competition with books in print."

The American Foundation for the Blind made contracts with the Author's League as well as the National Association of Book Publishers to ensure that they could produce talking books for a nominal license fee of $25 per title. The Foundation also agreed to other terms that would guarantee recorded audiobooks would only be used by blind people, making sure that each record was labeled with "solely for use of the blind" and that no record or record player would be sold to sighted people. As Koestler points out in his book, the Foundation also agreed that these new audiobooks or players would never be used in groups open to the public nor would they be broadcast on radio.

In late 1934, the program, which would lend out both record players and LPs, finally began. Within a year of the program's implementation, 27 different audiobook titles were being distributed across the U.S. While equipment was loaned out to those who couldn't afford it, those who could were expected to buy their own. But again, LP record players and the audiobooks themselves were only allowed to be sold and lent to blind Americans.

In 1935 the Foundation's Talking Book project (now working in conjunction with the Library of Congress to ensure the broadest possible access) officially received funding from the Works Progress Administration. Between 1935 and 1942 the Talking Book project produced about 23,000 record players at a cost of approximately $1.2 million, employing around 200 people in its factory. Almost half of the employees were visually handicapped themselves. Though funding from the WPA dried up in 1942, the program continued until 1951, when the Foundation stopped producing its own record players because they were now readily available to the general public and there was no longer a de facto ban on sighted persons buying the equipment. Though the Foundation no longer produced players, the Library of Congress's National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) continued to make materials accessible through a variety of media—eventually migrating to tape cassettes, CD, and today's digital technologies.

Over the past decade, organizations that control the licensing of copyrighted works in the U.S. have not been particularly kind to the visually impaired. The Author's Guild has argued that technologies like Kindle's text-to-speech is a derivative work and thus copyright infringement. The Guild relented when Amazon gave publishers veto power over which works would be allowed to make use of the text-to-speech feature. Amazon's Paperwhite doesn't include the text-to-speech feature that came with older Kindles, but it recently purchased IVONA, a sign that Amazon may be taking the experimental feature more seriously in future releases of its various e-readers.

As Koestler points out in his book, Americans with severe visual impairments generally lag behind their sighted counterparts when it comes to access to media. And organizations like the Author's Guild are certainly making that no easier today. But for a 14-year span this new media technology (and the people that held the keys to the intellectual property) seemed to work for the betterment of humankind.