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Open Culture

LibriVox is a project that describes its mission to be the “acoustical liberation of books in the public domain.” It is a digital library of free public domain audio books that are read and recorded by volunteers. It was started just a year and a half ago, in August 2005, and already has amassed over 150 recordings. Most of the recordings are in English but there are also recordings available in German, Spanish, Chinese, Russian and Japanese as well as other languages.

LibriVox’s catalogue includes an impressive range of books, short works and poems from writers as diverse as Jane Austen, Aesop, Samuel Coleridge, Rene Descartes, Fodor Dostoevsky, Johann Goethe, Henry James, Franz Kafka, Tze-Lao, Leo Tolstoy, William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and P.G. Wodehouse. There are also many children’s works — such as “The Wind in the Willows,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Max und Moritz” and “Anne of Green Gables” as well as nonfiction works including Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”

All recordings are released to the public under the Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication. Creative Commons asked the project’s founder — Hugh McGuire — to tell us more about LibriVox.

CC: Tell us about the idea behind LibriVox — why was it started? How did it become a reality?

Hugh McGuire: The immediate reason was practical — I was going on a long drive and I was looking for free public domain audiobooks on the Net; there weren’t very many, and I thought there should be.

But other than that practical need I wanted to address, LibriVox came out of a few conceptual strands. The first was the idealism of the free software movement, and it’s pragmatic success. Here was a parallel system (to the proprietary software system) built almost entirely out of volunteer effort, and hugely successful to boot. I was very interested in how free software ideals and methodologies could be applied to non-software projects: could the same sorts of ideas be used in the real world? … Wikipedia was of course a great example of somewhere it did work, and was a major inspiration. Creative Commons was another important movement — this reclaiming of important cultural space, again through a parallel system (a positive contribution rather than an oppositional one). In fact it was AKMA’s distributed, volunteer recording of Lawrence Lessig’s book “Free Culture” that provided the real seed to LibriVox. In this project (from March 2005), a number of bloggers and podcasters got together and made recordings, a couple of chapters each, of the book, and they were all posted on the Net, for free. After listening to that, it took me a while to figure out how to record things on my computer (which I finally did, thanks to free software Audacity). Brewster Kahle’s call for “Universal Access to all human knowledge” was another inspiration, and the free hosting provided by and meant that LibriVox was possible: there was no worry about bandwidth and storage. So the project was started with an investment of $0, which continues to be our global budget.

Finally, I’m a writer, and I love books. Project Gutenberg is a wonderful resource, the granddaddy of online free culture projects, and thanks to their huge library of public domain etexts, we had a basis for building our audio library.

One day as I was preparing for a long drive, I was checking on for free audiobooks, and there was very little to find (other than computer read stuff, which I don’t like). Eventually I did find a text read by a volunteer, from another site (urban art adventures), and then I had the thought: why not try to get a group of people to record texts to audio, and make an open project. I set up a blog, sent some emails. We started with one book in August 2005, and now we have some 150 full-length texts.

CC: You describe LibriVox as a “totally volunteer, open source, free content, public domain project” — how do you ensure that this ethos is maintained throughout the project?

HM: We now have a pretty well-established culture, so there’s not much maintaining to do. For instance, many have said we are the nicest & most welcoming forum they’ve seen on the Net. Other than that, we tried to make clear policies early on that outline our main principles … but I think generally, just about everyone gets it pretty quickly. We’ve also tried hard to make it clear that if anyone has an idea (say to translate the site, to set up a wiki, to build catalog/management software) the team of admins – who are just really keen LibriVox volunteers – will support the project. But since it’s a volunteer project, really if you want something done, then it’s up to you to do it …so we have a kind of frontier mentality. Someone will say, hey we should have such-and-such, others will agree we should, and then the person who suggested it usually ends up coordinating the project … once things get going, “librivoxers” are usually pretty happy to chip in and help. But things are so busy with day-to-day stuff, that unless someone decides to take on the leadership of a new project, it probably won’t happen. We get all sorts of suggestions all the time, and we’re open to just about all of them, as long as someone is willing to spearhead the effort.

CC: How do you identify whether a work is in the public domain?

HM: We use the work done by Project Gutenberg to ensure public domain status of texts. They have a great catalog, and are air tight in their legal background checking for Public Domain status in the US. If there is a book not in the Gutenberg system, we submit it to them, and they go through the clearing process. So we’ve built a good relationship with them, since we’re both working for similar goals but in slightly different formats.

We’ve run into a couple of legal issues, where a book is public domain in the USA, but not in some other countries. This means that not all our books can be downloaded anywhere in the world – so that’s something users outside the USA should keep in mind. Copyright is a complicated business, but we are very careful about assuring that all our books are public domain in the US, based mostly on Project Gutenberg’s work.

CC: How do you attract volunteers?

HM: Word of mouth on the Net – blogs, podcasts. There are many knitting podcasts and they seem to love us – so LibriVox is filled with knitters. We also get a fair amount of search traffic (Google, Yahoo! etc), and StumbleUpon drives a lot of people our way. We get about 10,000 visits to our site a day, so lots of traffic coming through. Many listeners eventually become readers. And we’re always looking for people to help out in all sorts of ways — not just reading.

CC: Why did you decide to dedicate the recordings of the works “librivoxers” record back to the public domain using the Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication?

HM: We didn’t want to add any new restrictions onto these “liberated” texts…that is, all our texts are public domain, and we wanted our recordings to be just as free. We talked a bit about various Creative Commons licenses, but in the end Public Domain seemed to fit our spirit best. Plus: “All LibriVox recordings are in the public domain,” sounds good.

CC: Has anyone ever been hesitant to dedicate their recording back to the public domain using the Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication? Have you received any other feedback about the Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication?

HM: Yes, it has caused some concern with some people, mainly because it allows our files to be used for commercial purposes, without any attribution etc. But in the end the majority of us feel that these files are our little gift to the universe, to do as it wishes with them.

We’ve had a number of debates about this, but in the end, we wanted to keep things as simple as possible. So the Public Domain Dedication won the day.

CC: The LibriVox site and also some recordings are available in a range of languages including English, German, French, Chinese and Portuguese (Brazilian); how did these translations come about?

HM: Well, the project is totally volunteer driven, so whatever people want to do we do…we had a big influx of Italians and Germans in the early days (we got posted on some big blogs there), and we really tried to cultivate a welcoming international atmosphere. One of our German volunteers suggested we should translate the site, and in true LibriVox fashion, he became the Translation Guru … so that’s an ongoing process – he just coordinates with whoever comes along wanting to add a new language, and it gets done.

CC: What has been the reaction to and feedback about LibriVox both in terms of public and press interest?

HM: It’s been fantastic really, mainly on the Internet (blogs & podcasts), but we’ve also had some great coverage in mainstream media too: LA Times, NY Times, Globe and Mail, NPR, BBC, CBC, USA Today. Just about everything has been very positive. In the non-Internet world, the reaction tends to be a wide range from total confusion, indifference, to exuberance. Many of our volunteers are not particularly web/technology-savvy, but we tend to be very welcoming and helpful to people who are not necessarily so comfortable on their computers.

CC: Are you aware of any reuse or remixes of LibriVox recordings that take advantage of the public domain status of the recordings?

HM: Yes, at least one. Euterpe Archipelago, an Internet collaborative exercise that puts classic poetry and short fiction to music has used various LibriVox recordings of Emily Dickinson poems — “Success”, “Funeral in My Brain” and “The Chariot” — as the basis for some of its tracks, see here.

CC: How can people get involved?

HM: Read this guide to understand the ground rules for being a volunteer and then sign up as a volunteer on our forum.

Posted 05 December 2006