Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


lp-audiobook

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

The First Audiobook: an LP for the Blind

• April 25, 2013 • 12:00 PM

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

Before they started playing music, LPs were used to play books for those who couldn’t see.

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.

Matt Novak
Matt Novak writes about past visions of the future for BBC.com and Smithsonian.com.

More From Matt Novak

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.