The  Art of Audiobooks

by Mary O. Fumento
November 2009

“There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories. “ - Ursula K. LeGuin

Throughout history, people have loved to listen to stories. Balladeers, minstrels, poets, historians and storytellers have at one time held a place of honor in nearly every culture. Telling tales of adventure and history has always been a valuable means of passing traditions and knowledge between generations. Spoken word is indeed how storytelling began, and our current audiobook fascination may just be a return to our well-grounded roots. 

It is easy to assume that audiobooks are recent inventions because of technology, such as CDs, downloadable digital formats, mp3s, and PDAs. But, in fact, audiobooks have quite a history.

For instance, Thomas Edison anticipated the usefulness of audiobooks when he first applied for a patent on his phonograph in 1877.

In the 1920s, the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) in the United Kingdom tested different ways to produce "talking books.”  RNIB investigated the use of the long-play record as a viable means of producing the spoken-word novel.

In 1931, the Library of Congress started a project called "Books for the Adult Blind Project" and was producing audiobooks by 1932.  This project included excerpts from Helen Keller, O. Henry and The Bible.

Other audiobooks concepts were under development as well. In 1933, anthropologist J.P. Harrington drove through North America recording oral histories of Native American tribes on aluminum discs using a car-powered turntable.

By the 1950s, many audiobook recordings were completed by great writers such as Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Fitzgerald and Robert Frost.  There remains a fascination to hear an author present a work personally, and audiobooks provide a convenient forum. 

The Evolution Continues

Audiobook media keep changing dramatically. In 1949, magnetic tape was seen as a viable replacement for the gramophone discs.  Magnetic tape was not the most convenient technology since open reel tapes had to be loaded and threaded manually.

A real breakthrough occurred in 1969 in the United States, when National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped developed talking books on audiocassette tape. These could be easily produced and were lightweight, compact and much easier to use. Audiocassette rapidly became the preferred medium for talking books and remained that way until the invention of the compact disc in the 1980s.

CDs were not initially a successful medium for audiobooks because people who enjoyed listening cared less about the quality of the sound as they did about the convenience of bookmarking their place in the recording. When car manufacturers began including the players in most new models, CD audiobooks gained in popularity.

And now we are indeed mobile. No longer hooked to a gramophone, we can download our selection to phone, computer, MP3 player and take it wherever we choose to go. 

Audiobooks provide a way for busy people, who may not take the time to sit down and read, to enjoy a book while they are driving, exercising or performing other tasks.

Selections at your Library System

Audiobooks are quite popular in Washakie County, and you can visit the library to check out some titles or download them to your computer at home from Netlibrary, available from the Wyoming State Library.  There are over 1,900 titles in the Netlibrary adult category with 30 added each month

There are two new collections now available in Netlibrary.  Ideal for public and school libraries, the Children's & Young Adult Collection has 785 titles and includes Newbery, Caldecott and other award winners as well as classics, multicultural titles, popular themes and bestselling children's and young adult author series. Each month, five new titles will be added to the collection. View the titles at

Audiolibros, the Spanish Language Collection, has 131 titles and can be viewed at

Netlibrary books are ideal as book club books; each reader download an individual copy for consumption.

Other sources exist for free audiobooks. For instance, try the web site LibriVox at LibriVox allows you to come full circle with audiobooks.  You can listen to stories, and you volunteer to record chapters of books in the public domain and release the audio files back onto the Internet.

Audiobooks are thriving, and becoming more numerous and convenient every day.

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