Exploring the World of Librivox

Once upon a time, I recorded an audiobook in my closet.

My makeshift studio consisted of my laptop perched atop a closet organizer, a USB microphone with barely enough room to stand in front of the laptop, and rows of hanging shirts to absorb echoes. My recording—along with more than 11,000 like it—is now part of the LibriVox audiobook collection.

You might think of LibriVox as the audio cousin of Project Gutenberg, a volunteer-read audio library of works in the public domain. Readers release their own recordings into the public domain too, so like the original written work, the recordings are free to use, reproduce, or modify.

The best (and worst) things in life are free.

I happened upon LibriVox by chance in 2010, clicked through the whole catalog (it was much smaller then), downloaded some Jane Austen, and soon became a LibriVox enthusiast. I started proselytizing, telling friends and family about this nifty internet project devoted to recording an audio version of every public domain work, and encouraging them to listen too.

A few times, I got a response that went something like this: “Yeah, I tried LibriVox books a while ago, but some of the recordings were so bad, so I gave up.”

The thing is, they’re right — some of the recordings are so bad. Enthusiast that I am, I won’t listen to those ones either. Absolutely anyone who wants to can record a book for LibriVox. There’s no audition process, no rating system, no publisher or purchaser to please. Sometimes, when an audiobook is free, “you get what you pay for.”

But there are all the other times, too: the times when you get something you didn’t pay for, and it’s wonderful; the times when someone decides to make something delightful and just give it away, and you’re the beneficiary.

Maybe it’s all 39½ hours of Bleak House, beautifully performed by a reader who is working her way steadily through Dickens’ novels, sounds like she’s in a professional studio, and spices her narration with memorable Dickensian character voices. Or maybe it’s The Worm Ouroboros, a recording with a much more DIY sound quality, but which nonetheless made me fall in love with the novel’s flowing, baroque, and intentionally archaic prose. I enjoyed it so much that I soon listened through a second time.

Recordings like these aren’t just “free” in the sense of costing no money. They’re free in the way that a gift is free — a handmade gift, the gratuitous result of someone’s effort and creativity.

Why be an audiobook amateur?

39½ hours is a lot of reading. In my experience, even 6½ hours (the length of my recording) is a lot — at least, when you factor in all the microphone malfunctions, interruptions, flubs and do-overs, and audio editing.

Why bother? Why does an excellent narrator record for free instead of looking for a paying gig? Why does a so-so reader spend hours and hours for a weak result?

Right now, the Play channel is considering amateur pursuits: the skills and interests we cultivate and devote time to even though no one is paying us, even if we never expect to become experts. LibriVox is an amateur project, sustained by people who take pleasure in reading aloud. From the first, the idea of LibriVox made me want to listen—the idea of booklovers reading aloud for fun and sharing what they made.

I can’t answer “why bother?” on behalf of other readers, so I’ll rephrase the question: why did I record a free audiobook in my closet?

The short answer: I made my recording for pleasure (because reading aloud is fun), out of curiosity (“I wonder if I could record a book”), and out of stubbornness (“I will finish this recording however long it takes!”).

The longer answer: After three years as just a listener, I had the bug. Surely you’ve had a similar experience: you see somebody else doing something interesting and think, “Maybe I could do that too,” and the thought doesn’t go away.

For me, once the idea of trying to make a LibriVox recording came into my mind, it stuck. I started reading how-to articles on the LibriVox Wiki site. I found a book I had recently enjoyed that fit the public domain criterion and wasn’t in the catalog yet. I eavesdropped in the LibriVox forums, where narrators, “proof listeners,” and “meta coordinators” collaborate on in-progress books. Finally, I worked up the courage to mention to my husband that I was thinking of trying to record a book, and did he think that was an extremely silly idea? (One of the things I most appreciate about my husband is that he takes my creative hobbies seriously—usually well before I give myself permission to.)

In LibriVox, I found a context in which it was possible for me, an ordinary reader with no training as a voice actor, no access to a recording studio — not even a spiffy British accent — to try my hand at making an audiobook. I love stories — reading them, listening to them, writing them. As a writer, I care about making sentences that flow and please the ear. So it was interesting and instructive to experience the auditory quality of writing from the narrator’s perspective. I also enjoyed learning the new technical skill of recording and editing my voice — albeit just the basics.

It’s okay to dabble.

Short as my chosen book was, it took me 3½ years to get to the last chapter.

Yes, life circumstances were partly to blame (I had two babies between when I started my recording and when I finished), but mostly I made slow progress because LibriVox usually took second place to other interests.

As a LibriVox reader, I got to step into a big undertaking, sustained by hundreds of participants much more dedicated than I was. My own crawling pace gave me a deeper appreciation for the people who record well, often, and at length.

But it also made me grateful for the freedom to pursue something as an amateur. Sometimes, true, even amateurs are as prolific as some of my favorite LibriVox narrators. Other times, we just dip our toes in, try something new, give what we’re able.

Is there something new you’ve been wanting to do? Something you’ve been observing from the outside, trying to decide whether you’d be any good? Would scaling back the expectation of perfect, polished results make it easier to try?

If reading aloud is something you enjoy, too, consider sharing your voice with the LibriVox community. I’d love to hear the result.


Erin Schellhase lives in Wisconsin with her husband and two small daughters. She loves writing fiction and is currently revising a fantasy novel. When she isn’t writing or caring for her daughters, she is usually washing the dishes, listening to an audiobook, listening to an audiobook while washing the dishes, reading, cooking, having deep conversations with her husband, or washing the dishes.

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