The Secret Center of the Audiobook World

They say there’s no honor among pirates on the Internet, and yet there are certain things you can’t get for love or money. For example, I point out the largest collection of restricted-use audiobooks anywhere. These books are performed by well-known, experienced voice actors; and they are available on the Web in downloadable form. Yet you don’t find this stuff surfacing anywhere else but in the proper authorized distribution channels.

I speak of the Library of Congress’ famous program of audiobooks (and audiomagazines, and audio-pamphlets) for the blind. (There’s also tons of Braille books and music and so on, in the program… but that’s not my focus. There are various charities and national library efforts in other countries, too, but I don’t know anything about them. But they don’t seem to show up either, so what I say probably applies to them also.)

The LoC audiobooks used to be available only on albums, and later, cassettes, that only played on special players that you ordered from the Library of Congress when becoming a member of the program. This was done partly to get the cooperation of publishers and authors, who were deathly afraid of piracy; and partly to maximize the material you could stuff onto an 8 RPM record (which was also harder to break or scratch with blind handling). These used to be mailed from and to DC, like a sort of ur-Netflix. (Though some materials, like local daily newspapers, were broadcast regionally over the radio on some stations.)

Nowadays, the special cassettes are available from various regional libraries (which also have subprograms of volunteer recordings of local publications), and there are audio files available for download from various authorized sites, as well. You can even look at the LoC catalog and see what books they’ve got and who narrates them.

(So if you know somebody with really impaired eyesight, like an old person who’s going blind or someone who can’t read without putting a lot of effort into it, get them to sign up. It’s all free for blind or seriously visually impaired people.)

(Also for disabled people who can’t turn pages, that sort of thing. You can look it up.)

However, given the number of players kicking around, the number of conversion techniques, and the number of people good at getting stuff they’re not supposed to do, you’d expect much of this vast and timely collection to be available for illegal download. But as far as one can tell, it’s just not. I don’t remember there ever being a time when you ever heard of people distributing them. (Unless there was a time when folks were converting this stuff to digital formats themselves, for the use of the blind.) There seems to be a vast store of respect for this collection and the people who run it, and it seems that nobody wants to mess it up for the blind people.

Yet the tradition of audiobooks for the blind, from various sources pay and volunteer, is probably older than the BBC or Caedmon or any of the sources for commercial audiobooks.

(I will say that, at least back in the 80’s when I knew somebody who used the program, the audiobook readers were very very boring. The house style of the LoC recording studio was as bland as possible, and the readings had a weird tempo, if I recall correctly. Apparently they did a lot of experiments on compression and word spacing and speeding things up, back in the day, so maybe that was why it sounded weird.)

The big audiobook and audiomagazine effort these days is apparently housed at a government contractor called Potomac Talking Book Services, over in Bethesda, Maryland. They seem to employ a fairly large number of professional voice actors/narrators, as well as audio production folks. Their job is to record pretty much every book and magazine that comes out, or at least a good proportion of them.

If you really want to break into audiobooks or voiceover work, I suspect that working for them is probably a lot easier than trying to get a job in California or New York for the big publishers. Certainly Bethesda is somewhat cheaper!


If you know somebody who can’t see very well and would benefit from this program, see if you can get them into it. I’m happy to pay for this with my tax money; and if they’ve paid taxes they’ve already paid for it; so no need to be shy!

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