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Last Updated: Monday, 7 November 2005, 09:26 GMT
Talking books' 70th anniversary
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News website age & disability correspondent

Photo of a couple listening to a gramophone player
The early players used 'new' LPs, then in their infancy
The service that has issued more than 75 million audio books to visually impaired people in the UK is celebrating its 70th birthday.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind's Talking Book Service pioneered the use of long-playing records in the 1920s, long before the music industry.

Two million talking books are now issued every year, mostly on CD.

The most requested author is Catherine Cookson and her novel, Fenwick House, is the most popular title.

Trail-blazing service

The Talking Book Service has its origins in the First World War. Many soldiers returning from the front were blinded in action and found it too difficult to learn braille.

As early as 1920, the RNIB began testing various formats to produce talking books.

Man listening to a talking book

By 1926 the organisation was experimenting with long-playing records which could be played on gramophones.

It was thanks to the RNIB's trail blazing that LPs were eventually adopted by the music industry.

But it took until the mid-thirties before the Talking Book Service was launched.

On November 7 1935, blind and partially sighted people had a choice of two titles - Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Joseph Conrad's Typhoon.

The early books were recorded onto 12 inch discs which played at 24rpm.

This meant that 25 minutes of audio could be recorded onto each side and a typical novel would fit onto 10 double-sided records.

The Post Office granted the RNIB a concessionary postage rate to keep costs down, and the Society of Authors and the Society of Publishers helped to overcome copyright problems.

Under fire

The new service suffered a major setback during Word War Two when its recording studio and production unit were bombed in 1940.

A temporary studio suffered a similar fate some months later.

The RNIB had close links with the American Foundation for the Blind which was also producing audio books.

The AFB sent a wartime gift of half a million gramophone needles to the RNIB but these were destroyed in bombing raids on the docks.

Fortunately, another consignment was sent and arrived safely.

In 1960 a new talking book player was launched which played tape cassettes.

But these were so large that they had to be delivered separately from the rest of the mail, and were too big to fit into a post box.

The cassettes contained several hours' of audio recorded onto separate tracks.

Although books were now available to thousands of blind and partially sighted people, the players were large and heavy and often broke down.

Digital future

By the late 1990s the RNIB started to look at ways of producing audio books in digital format, and consulted organisations in other countries to agree a common standard.

Photo of a DAISY player, books and CDs
Daisy compresses hours of audio onto a CD

What emerged was Daisy (Digital Accessible Information System), which allowed several hours of audio to be recorded onto a single CD.

The first Daisy books were sent out in 2002 and could only be played on special CD players.

A new range of small, clamshell Daisy players now makes audio reading as convenient as print - on a train, during a long haul flight, on the beach or while waiting to see the doctor.

The Talking Book Service now has the largest collection of unabridged audio books in the UK. It contains more than 10,000 titles including thrillers, travel, romance, sci-fi and poetry.

Talking Books cost around 2,500 to produce and take five days to record.

And the RNIB says the technical innovation will continue.

As the number of portable devices capable of playing audio multiplies, the organisation is now investigating ways of making books available electronically.


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