LibriVox: Apologia

by Hugh

Been a while since I wrote a longish piece on LibriVox. Peter Kerry Powers, a Professor of English and chair of the English department at Messiah College, wrote a piece about audio books, and LibriVox, here. I commented on that post, Peter answered here, and this was my comment to on his second piece (i’ve edited it slightly, some of it is in direct answer to Peter’s stuff, so you might want to check out what he had to say, but I think it all should make sense on its own):

i’ll defer to your analysis of dickens, but the wider point is that the roots – some ancient, some more recent – of text literature is oral. so “reading” is a particular type of experience of literature, but not the only one, not the oldest one. as to the value of these different experiences of literature, I think that’s up to those who experience it to decide and describe. Certainly reading text and listening are not the same thing, but how one values one or the other is surely a matter for the individual to assess. If audio books *result* in a decrease in (paper)text reading, then I will be with you in decrying the loss of a certain type of skill and experience, one that cannot be replaced by listening (or by reading online for that matter). But I don’t think it’s the case that audio books result in less reading; I suspect the opposite, but I have no proof of that.

As for myself, some of my own most formative experiences of literature involved my mother reading to me: RLS’s Kidnapped; The Trumpeter Swan; Stuart Little; The Hobbit; and countless others. It never occurred to me to criticize my mother for stumbles, substandard reading or non-NPR intonations. Some of the philosophy behind LibriVox is a recreation of that interaction: not a professional performance of a text (there are plenty of those available), but instead an intimate experience of someone reading to you – with all the little warts and idiosyncrasies that come with intimate readings.

For someone who aggressively promotes this philosophy, check out Miette, an occasional LibriVox volunteer, and one of the first audiolit podcasters in the universe. She is at once “professional” in sound and approach, and also intimate and personal. Her stuff is very much: Miette reading to you; rather than Miette performing a text. See:

The other issues you’ve raise all relate to a common problem – this is true of much of the web in general – which is a misunderstanding of what LibriVox is for. Mainly, you are looking at LibriVox as “provider of audio books,” in the model of a traditional publisher whose job (at least as it is usually understood) is to produce books that readers want to purchase.

It might be easier to consider LibriVox not as a publisher, but rather as a library, at least as far as our relations to the listeners are concerned. That is, you would not go into a library, pull out five random books, and say, “I didn’t like these books, this library is no good, the books here are all crap.” This is the same impulse people have when they say: “bloggers are self-obsessed, they rant and rave and have bad grammar, and I will never waste my time reading blogs because they are stupid.” … It’s true that some blogs are stupid, but not true of any I read, not true of this blog. So the problem is not “blogs”; the problem, among others, is that people don’t know how to find blogs that they like reading. And they are faced with a similar problem you express about LibriVox, because they say: “Well, you say there is good stuff on blogs, but how do I find it in the sea of crap?” You and I know the answer, but it’s not so clear how to express the ways to “find” good blogs to read in a general sense. In the non-web world, when you open a newspaper, you are guaranteed a certain quality/type of writing by the masthead; ditto when you open a Penguin Classic or a Vintage Paperback or when you walk into a certain section of the books store. The web world works differently, and the “guarantee” is delivered differently, in my case from something like “network authority.”

But getting back to LibriVox, our objective is:
“To make all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format on the internet.”

So we evaluate how we do things based on that objective. And partly for reasons of various kinds of idealism, but also in large part for pragmatic reasons, we’ve decided (rightly, I think), that criticism, ratings, particularly bad ratings are a hindrance to our objective, not a help. The main reason is that recording texts is difficult, and putting them out into public is a traumatic and sensitive thing for many people to do. Criticism, especially unsolicited negative criticism, turns people off from recording. But, we have an objective, stated above, and that objective is not: “To make the best audio …” or “BBC-quality audio …” Rather our objective is to record “all public domain texts.” We need all the help we can get, and we do what we can to “protect” our readers from harsh criticism that will stop them from participating.

So in fact, I think it is entirely fair for you to say that (some) LibriVox recordings are dull. Or annoying. Or both. I agree with you, or rather, that has been my experience of some LibriVox recordings. But I have the same experience with any random collection of text or audio books or music or art. And that’s what LibriVox is, a random collection. If fact, I personally find random collections of professionally-read audio books have a much higher quotient of dull and annoying than a random collection from LibriVox, but that’s my personal preference about style: humanity over professional performance. And certainly for me, it is totally incorrect to say *most* LV recordings are dull or annoying.

A few points of interest come out of this:
a) there are plenty of professional, “high-quality” audiobooks available for a price; our books are free if anyone wants them (and if they don’t, no matter)
b) if you compare our catalog to older “free” audio lit projects, projects that DO have high “standards” (eg, our catalog is much bigger … which means that we have provided a resource, that would not be there otherwise, for those who want it. whether people like or use the resource or not is another question.
c) in our large catalog, there is an impressive amount of beautifully-read stuff, searchable by reader, some great ones include: david barnes, andy minter, karen savage, gord mackenzie, kara shallenberg … the list is much longer.

So the *result* of our fundamental policy to take all comers, and turn away no one, results in a strange catalog filled with lots of stuff that sometimes *is* dull, or “badly” read, or hard to listen to, for some people, especially if you are expecting a certain style of audio. But that does not mean that these more idiosyncratic readings don’t have any value. And our approach also results in a large number of good recordings (mine, for instance, I think fall somewhere between badly-read and good … they seem worth doing to me; certainly my more recent ones are “better” than older ones); and a surprising number of extraordinary recordings, that I would put toe to toe with any professional recordings.

Now your problem is finding the good stuff, and I sympathize with it. I think we could/should probably do something like an informal “recommendation” page. But again, if you look at our objective, helping people find good LibriVox stuff is not our “job.” …Our job is to make the audio, and make it available for free. .

It’s the “job” of the rest of the web to start sorting out this resource we are providing, and sorting the good stuff. Metafilter is a work-around starting point, but eventually someone will put up a site that sifts thru librivox audio and finds the really good stuff. And if you follow links from our catalog page, you’ll get to the Internet Archive, where our audio is hosted, and there you will find some ratings. But we don’t publicize that.

There is more to write on the relationship between ratings & an open project like LibriVox, but the ink in my pen is running out, and I wanted to touch on a couple more of your points.

In particular: “To some degree I think he’s suggesting that Librivox is really more like a blog service where readers can express themselves via recording.”
This is another misreading of what we are up to. LibriVox has a particular objective (quoted above). It is not for self-expression, etc., tho that might motivate some people. It’s got a very particular purpose, to provide a complete library of public domain books, in audio format. So, people are motivated to pitch in for lots of different reasons, but our decision-making about how or why we do things always has to answer to our objective.

“It’s also the case that in reading a published work, the reader puts himself/herself in the position of performer/artist who is interpreting the work of another artist.”
That is one way to look at it. You could also say, “the reader puts him/herself in the position of human who is doing their best to make a public domain text available in audio format.”

Now I know you’ll probably say I am picking at semantic bones there, but the first motivation/role is not the same as the second, and they will result in different approaches to recording, and different results. And you can argue with me about the “value” of the first or second motivation, but in the end it doesn’t matter because I (and, generally, people who buy into what LibriVox is trying to do) disagree with you. And you might further say I (and the rest of the gang) are wasting our time, but it is our time to waste.

Now if *everyone* said: “you’re wasting your time,” I and others might start scratching our heads, and wondering if this open project idea was kind of stupid after all. But we get enough emails & blog comments from people saying: “wow, what wonderful work you are doing,” that it’s easy enough to shrug the shoulders at those who say otherwise. And, amazingly to me, our audio books get downloaded thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of times. For instance, Hobbes’ Leviathan, published by us 2 days ago, has been downloaded 1,671 times! In 2 days! … Which, you, as a writer of books will recognize is the kind of number that DOES appeal to the ego and excitement of the people who participate in LibriVox, for all sorts of non-altruistic reasons. Which is fine, because that kind of excitement helps us with our objective.

Finally, to Puccini and Pavarotti, if I were them, I would be horrified to know that someone was telling people to stop singing in my name. That doesn’t mean I want to listen to bad opera, but there are so many reasons people don’t sing opera any more, so many reasons people don’t read any more, so many reasons people don’t celebrate literature, and I don’t want to be another contributor to all the things that discourage reading (or opera). I would much prefer to find ways to help encourage people to share literature, to discover great books – and mediocre books too – and to spread literature, to get closer to text, to reading, to the sounds of words and the ideas behind them; in the case of LirbiVox those people are behind the microphone, and on the other side of earphones…

And in its essence, LibriVox is not about audio books, it is about people, of all types and all skills, reading and recording public domain texts, and making them available for free for anyone who wants to listen. We work hard to help that happen, and whatever happens next is something we spend much less time worrying about..