According to the Library of Congress, the first audiobooks (“Talking Books”) for the blind came out in 1933. The players for them were developed by private associations, not by business or government. So I was wrong above. Anyway, the LoC initially just bought the Talking Book records from the private group (the American Foundation for the Blind) and distributed them. The other major publisher was the American Printing House for the Blind, in Louisville, Kentucky. So I guess it was always a government contractor thing. It’s just that the vendors were non-profit organizations; and they would have made the books without the government money — just not as many.
(The Library of Congress does have a couple of audio studios. One was for tape recording, but may be defunct now. The other was for academic recordings of folk music, poets, etc. So there were some audiobooks along the way, of a kind.) (Usually, there’s no copyright on anything produced for the US government, because the people have already paid for it. So I’ve never understood why the homebrew LoC recordings do seem to be copyrighted. It’s very weird, and someday I should find out. Possibly they worked through a government contractor also.)
All records from 1933-1958 were normal 33 1/3 RPM. It was after this that the slower-speed players were developed, primarily to provide more playing time per record. But it also kinda cut the program off from the rest of the world’s recording standards; and stuff being “unusable by the public” is actually a desired thing in this segment of the copyright law. (In exchange for being able to ignore copyright, with the full blessing of publishers. Eh, it’s a fair enough bargain.)
Anyway… it would seem that unless legalities stand in the way, or copyrights were renewed, or the recordings in too poor a condition, at least some of the earliest “Talking Books” should be in the public domain by now, since they seem to have focused on public domain books back then. It would be interesting to hear what sort of audiobooks people did back then, since the 1930’s were an audio-oriented age of radio and the talkies.
But if the people are right who say there’s no US domestic public domain sound recording from pre-1972 till 2067 (except for labels that went out of business with no forwarding address or heirs), we’re all out of luck. (And we’d better hope the LoC does good upkeep on its recordings.) OTOH, most countries only copyright recordings till 50 or 75 years after the original date they were put out. So… in almost all countries outside the US, a good chunk of the US library of sound recordings for the blind would be in the public domain right now. This would certainly be very nice for communities of blind people outside the US (not to mention theater buffs). But I don’t know if the US government could legally give them out. Maybe the US foundations could, depending on how weird the legal situation is. An “eligible US citizen living abroad” could probably do whatever he bloody well pleased, if he pleased to. Blind and disabled people from other countries can also participate in the LoC program through libraries in their own countries. However, this very openness of approach will probably tend to prevent the release of books into the wild. (Contented people tend to follow policy, and I’m sure nobody wants to mess this up.) So I don’t anticipate the current situation to change, whether or not it’s legally permissable outside the US.
The American Foundation for the Blind put out the first “Talking Books”, including all four Gospels and the Psalms (the Protestant version), the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Shakespeare — and the following works of ordinary bestseller fiction:
Carroll: As the Earth Turns
Delafield: The Diary of a Provincial Lady
Jarrett: Night Over Fitch’s Pond
Kipling: The Brushwood Boy
Masefield: The Bird of Dawning
Wodehouse: Very Good, Jeeves
(John Knight, an actor, narrated the first Talking Book for the AFB. He stayed with the LoC program so long that he ended up leaving them money! So did the euphoniously named Nymphus Corridon Hanks, a blind gentleman from Heber City, Utah, who left the LoC program his house.)
Interestingly, Helen Keller initially opposed the Talking Books program, thinking other stuff (like blind people not starving) was a lot more urgent during the Great Depression. Construction of the players became a WPA program, however, and apparently Keller was leaned on by FDR to change her mind. (Charisma vs. charisma battle of doom!) But apparently what really helped was that in Annie Sullivan’s last illness, the writer and radio announcer Alexander Woollcott often dropped by to read to her. She even asked for him to come read in her last finger-spelled words. Keller changed her mind.
In the end, blind people ended up being involved in production of the record players (to install small screws by touch, because sighted workers had trouble with it). So it’s an interesting story altogether.
The history of AFB audiobooks is really well put together, and includes some archival audio clips. They employed a fair number of celebrity actors and authors, since they were working out of NYC. (They got the money for production from donations and sponsorships.) They never really planned on producing or manufacturing such things, but the big companies weren’t interested or able to handle so many small “print runs”. So after years of futzing around and meetings with executives, the AFB just went ahead and rolled their own, and the APH followed their lead later. (Despite initially opposing them, since the LoC purchases would be taken from the same budget as was used to buy Braille books — and APH was a major Braille publisher.)
The AFB, employing so many radio actors and stage actors in an era of audio drama on radio, soon found itself producing audio versions of contemporary Broadway stage plays as well. These were particularly popular with rural American blind people, and little wonder.
The first audiobook produced by the American Printing House for the Blind was Gulliver’s Travels, read by a gentleman named Hugh Sutton in 1936 and published in 1938. (By trade, he was a radio announcer for WHAS in Louisville.)
The APH initially concentrated on getting the copyright law for the blind emended to include books for kids, since it was associated with the Kentucky state school for blind kids, and apparently always had school materials as a main focus. Gulliver’s Travels was part of this — though it was an unabridged recording, suitable for adults.
Here’s a whole book chapter about the various AFB readers. It really does sound like some of the major audiobook publishers should get together with the book publishers (or not, in the case of public domain stuff) and the actor agents, and see about releasing some of these for the sighted market — before it goes public domain and they belong to everybody. The historical value of hearing some famous author read her own stuff is incalculable. But of course, it may well be that things are tied up so tightly, legally, that this won’t be possible until they hit public domain.
Shrug. Hard to say. I’m not super worried, since there’s a fairly large population with an incentive to keep them preserved. Certainly I don’t want to glom something not meant for me. But in fifty years or so, it would be a nice present for Americans to hear the dead voices of the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, Sixties, and early Seventies.
Apparently the AFB recently decided to stop producing audiobooks and spun off their production facility as a company called Talking Book Productions. It records books for BBC Audiobooks America, Audible, and a host of other New York City audiobook publishers. The AFB has apparently kept its back catalog, though. (And I don’t blame them.) But the institutional memory seems to have gone into today’s audiobook industry, and probably is part of the reason why audiobooks today are such good quality. It would seem that the secret tradition reserved for blind and disabled folks has partially merged with the commercial one.