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In the spring of 2005, as I was discovering the joys of podcasting, I was looking online for an audiobook to listen to while cooking. I stumbled on a project by AKMA, to get people - volunteers - to read chapters of Lawrence Lessig’s book, Free Culture. A number of people chipped in, some famous names (I didn’t know those names at the time), and I listened to “Free Culture” over the course of several evenings. That was the most concrete inspiration for LibriVox, but of course there were others.

Probably the most significant of which is Richard Stallman and the free software movement. I had been aware of open source for a long time (I did not yet know the distinction between Free Software/philosophy; and Open Source/methodology). I loved the concept, the philosophy and the idea. As a non-technical guy, though, I was not able to participate as a coder, and in most cases the software required too much tech input for me to use. But the idea, I loved.

Sometime in the fall of 2004, a friend of mine who was doing a Master’s in Environmental Studies, with a focus on Biotech and Intellectual Property, asked me to accompany Stallman from one speaking engagement (at talk at UQAM about free software), to the biotech class, where rms had agreed to do a talk on IP in general, and how (he believes) it stifles innovation. My first meeting with rms was … quirky … I knew very little about free software at the time, other than a general interest, so I didn’t have much to say; Stallman carried an old beaten-up laptop in a plastic grocery bag, and when I left him for a minute to confirm where the class was, I came back to find him sitting on the hallway floor, typing away. Other than that, when I asked how a non-tech person should get into free software, he suggested I install GNU/Linux on an old machine, and just hack away till I got comfortable. Which I never did.

But still, I was inspired to read more of rms’ essays, and to listen to much of it too (scroll down to speeches and interviews). I was curious to read what academics - philosophers and political scientists - had to say about this very active and successful pseudo-anarchist movement: amazingly, very little. But I read what I found, including the dotCommunist Manifesto by Eben Moglen, Columbia Law prof, and legal mind behind the GNU Public License, the brilliant bit of institutional underpinning on which the success of the free software movement built: you are free to use copy modify and redistribute this software, as long as whatever you use it for maintains those same freedoms.

The free software movement was a revelation: here was a man (Stallman) who rejected the idea of proprietary software… and instead of thundering around the world complaining about software practices he didn’t like, he did something much more interesting. He started building an operating system, gnu (gnu’s not unix), to be a free piece of software for anyone to use. His objective was long term, and he knew he had to start with the basics. He wanted all software to be free, and he knew he had to start at the bottom, on the operating system. GNU became the kernel for the famous Linux operating system, the posterchild of the open source movement. And Stallman continued (and continues) his evangelizing for free software, a movement that has, some 25 years lated, built an impressive array of free open versions of software anyone can use, copy, modify and distribute for free. Now most of the web sites you surf (google, amazon) are built on GNU/linux-based servers. There are free/open source software alternatives to Microsoft Office (open office), Internet Explorer (Firefox), Internet Outlook (Thunderbird), Photoshop (GIMP), and a good audio-editing suite called Audacity.

Though I was excited about the practical software applications of free software, it was the concept behind it I found fascinating. Here was a successful movement built not so much in opposition to the predominant ethos of, at least, the past 40 years (ie, greed is good, the only useful motivator for large scale problems is the profit motive); but rather in parallel. A place where those inclined were free to contribute their time and energy for large projects …for reasons other than personal financial gain. And more: there was a theoretical and legal framework for doing so, and the movement was successful. I started using some of this software around this time, and it turned out some of it was better than the commercial alternatives. I was impressed that from a humble start at a free operating system, and based on clear articulation of ideals, such a powerful movement had grown, and was now even threatening the proprietary model. And further: I wondered whether (and how) this model could be applied to non-software projects.

I discovered blogging at the same time, and here was another revelation: free, easy publishing. Publishing on the web had been around for years, of course, but not for me. This was different: I didn’t need to know html, and I didn’t have to pay a dime. I sensed the world shifting.

From free software I found the Creative Commons movement … which aimed to do for culture what Free Software and Open Source had done for software. Spearheaded by Stanford Law prof Lawrence Lessig, the Creative Commons project provided a legal framework for those who wanted to make sure their art would be available to other artists to build on, and brought renewed thinking about the importance of the commons, and the public domain.

Creative Commons grew out of a belief that total corporate control of culture is not in society’s best interest. Art has always been built on previous art, and the notion that every bit of cultural heritage should be owned by someone, or rather, something: a corporation … especially corporations keen on charging vast sums, or threatening to sue anyone who they deemed had infringed their copyright. Creative Commons offered a space (legally defined) for people to contribute their art outside of traditional copyright, allowing certain uses of the works. Again, this was a parallel movement built for artists who wanted to maintain the importance of a commons for new art.

As I was thinking about all this stuff, I was working on a writing contract for a friend, who was doing a big exhibit for the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, on dinosaurs. The project included a number of information kiosks, essentially little web-sites packed with information and games. I was doing a fair bit of the writing, which required a significant amount of research. And as I plowed through this project, researching on the net, I found again and again that the best source of first-level information was Wikipedia. I had heard about this project too (this was in 2004), but had never paid it much heed: until I needed it. Again, here was a voluntary effort, parallel to other sources of information, and often better than anything else I could find (for free) online. I used wikipedia extensively on that project, and as I was using it, I thought I should give back. Where articles in wikipedia were light on information that I had, I added what I could. I got hooked. The great thing about the project was, you could start an article on, say, the Western Interior Seaway, with very little information or attention to style. Someone else would be by to add to it, correct it; and you could continue to make improvements if you wanted. Harness humans’ interest in sharing information, in helping each other, and don’t force anyone to be an expert, let it grow slowly, and build an encyclopedia. The beauty was, what I added didn’t have to be perfect: just adding something constructive was enough participation. Taking a long view of things, eventually the wikipedia would improve. Don’t let it’s flaws at any given time detract from the larger picture, the larger plan: to become the most complete encyclopedia in the world, available to anyone for free on the internet.

A project I had investigated numerous times was built on a similar foundation: Project Gutenberg, which has been in existence since 1970, and is the real granddaddy of all free culture/information projects on the net. Gutenberg offers a library of some 20,000 free public domain texts, in many languages, in plain vanilla format. I had been to the site often but had never actually read a book from there … I’m not good at reading long texts in digital format. Still, knowing they were there was a great and important resource, especially since those texts could be used for anything: they were public domain.

At some point, as I was listening to huge numbers of podcasts, I heard Brewster Kahle’s talk: Universal Access to All Human Knowledge, a profoundly ambitious talk. In it Brewster argues that it is technically and financially feasible (for some couple of hundred million dollars, not such a big sum when you consider the scope of the project) to put all text, audio and video ever created by humans online and offer it up to the world (for free is Brewster’s idea, though he’s not so much an anti-copyright evangelizer as a promoter of digital access to a robust public domain). From this talk I found his project, the Internet Archive, and realized that there was a home for public domain and creative commons media, a place where storage and bandwidth were free, and with a vision to keep those files forever. A modern version of the Library of Alexandria, with redundancy and back-up systems (servers all over the world) built in to avoid that tragedy of one fire.

The pieces were coming together. The last bit was Audacity: a free, open source, easy to use audio editor. I tested it out. It was easy.

So I had a format (podcasting), a publishing tool (wordpress), a philosophy (free software), a legal framework (creative commons/public domain), a source of texts (gutenberg.org), free hosting (archive.org), free audio editing software (audacity), an approach to information creation (wikipedia), and a model project (AKMA). And finally, after all that stuff mixed around in my brain for a while, I had an idea. Put it all together to make public domain audio books. How about all public domain books? Why not?

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Famous Montreal digital entrepreneur community-based start-up, focused on philanthropy. (He’s also agreed to be on the Advisory Committee of another project I am involved with, the Atwater Digital Literacy Project). We’ve been talking a bit about a bunch of things, but generally discussing building online communities with a specific purpose - which his blog talks about a fair bit (he also did an interview with me)

He had one post a while back, about leadership, which contained some quotations from the “Tao Te Ching,” the guiding philosophical text of ancient China. Among the gems:

If you want to be a great leader,
you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.
The more prohibitions you have,
the less virtuous people will be.
The more weapons you have,
the less secure people will be.
The more subsidies you have,
the less self-reliant people will be.
Therefore the Master says:
I let go of the law,
and people become honest.
I let go of economics,
and people become prosperous.
I let go of religion,
and people become serene.
I let go of all desire for the common good,
and the good becomes common as grass.

To the extent that I can be considered a “leader” of LibriVox (Christine calls me the “mayor of LibriVox”), I was surprised to see so much of my approach reflected in this and other bits of the Tao. It was a struggle in the early days, releasing LibriVox from my ego and letting it go where people wanted to take it. Of course, I still try to bend it to my will in certain directions, but in almost all cases that bending is in favour of openness: the two big controversies are “reader standards” (we have none, all are welcome to record no matter how “good” they are); and “niceness” (we don’t tolerate jerky behaviour on the forum - UPDATE: someone asked my how banning jerkyness could be considered in favour of openness … and the answer is inclusion … our forum is very welcoming, so people who do not like other internet forums like ours. Certainly it is a bit of a Nice-Police State, but the results pay off: more people enjoy the forum and contribute to the project; jerkiness would drive away many people. So it’s sort of an openness=access argument, rather than an openness=total freedom…of course this contradicts the Tao a little, but what can you do.). Other than that, things are pretty open. Though as we have evolved, we have become more complex, and more rigid in our way of doing things.

Still, as a general principle behind building communities, my experience is:
a) articulate a goal
b) follow the tao
c) if you need to check your direction, check against the goal first (objective), and the tao second (way to objective)

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When LibriVox was just a wee project, with a couple of books going, I did most of the management myself. When things got more complicated, a number of people came to the rescue: Kristen helped with the website design and Kara took the reigns on the cataloging, and several others helped in the early days as well. Things got much bigger over time, and now there is a busy team of people (some have come and gone, others have just stayed) who do all that back end work to keep things going. I don’t have much talent in all those areas, and so my role in the project has become more rallying of the troops, and articulating project philosophy and objectives once in a while. Usually this happens on the Forum, generally when a controversial debates come up. These long-winded posts usually get read just by those interested in a particular thread (often many admin types).

One of the big controversial issues that comes up again and again is reading standards, and criticism of recordings: the short answer, is we don’t have any standards, and criticism is not wanted unless requested. This came up again recently on the forum, and here is part of my response which describes why:

Now it so happens that my preference (this is personal) is for readings that are not theatrical. For my ears, more theatrical readings do something interesting: they are performance, and so the reader is taking a text, interpreting it, and infusing it with a particular emphasis and meaning. (True of course for every recordings). But to me, the performance can often overtake the text.

In more subtle, perhaps “flatter,” “duller” readings, two very curious things happen.

Firstly, the text itself becomes more important than the reader. You don’t so much hear the reader’s performance battling for predominance over the words themselves. The text, if it is good, wins. And with great texts, they transcend the voice reading them in some ways, especially if the voice gives the words the space to transcend. To my ears there is less space in more theatrical readings.

Secondly, the reader’s personal relationship with the text somehow adds another layer of humanity to the sounds of the literature itself. With less-theatrical readings, the honest connection between reader-text-listener seems very pure to me, again precisely because the reading is not a performance, but a human somewhere, reading a text they love for me. That is, to me, a beautiful thing, and one of the most wonderful and unique things about LibriVox.

But one is not really better than another; they are just different approaches. Some may wish to change the way they read … they might, for instance ask for advice on how to achieve a certain voice, a sound, how to inffuse more passion or oomph into their recordings. That’s fine, and if someone asks for advice, by all means give it. We have a big wiki filled with information and suggestions, and people often ask and give advice in our forum thread: “Need Help? Got Advice?”

But we do not insist on a certain style, a way to read, a way to interact with the text. We do not promote certain voices, professional diction, BBC accents, or Hollywood voice-over techniques. We are happy when we get them, of course, they add to the diversity of voices. But they are not better, or worse than any other voice. What we insist on is that people read texts the way they would like to read them, without fears of criticism that they are not good enough, talented enough, BBC enough, or anything enough…if you have a voice, and you wish to record a text, you are welcome here, and you will be thanked for adding yet another bit of literature to the audio universe. That is enough. It is not just enough, it is something much more than enough, with all sorts of wonder and beauty attached to it.

Listeners will like some readers better than others. Of course. And they are free to seek out the readers they prefer (soon a brilliant searchable catalog will be released where you can search by reader).

But that one person perfers reader X, and another prefers reader Y is irrelevant to what we are doing here, which, again, is getting volunteers to record the public domain literature which they love. That is what we do, and that is what we encourage… and even if no one finds reader Z as their favourite, it matters not one whit, because reader Z has still gone to the great, and sacred trouble to offer his or her voice to bring a piece of literature to the ears of anyone in the universe who cares to listen. and that is enough.

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Extensive interview over at the Creative Commons weblog about LibriVox.

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James, a LibriVox volunteer, tells me about CouchSurfing as an open project worth checking out. Will-do.

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Jim and Sean of the LibriVox Community Podcast asked for a little audio segment about TextoSolvo … so I sent them this:

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[Prelim note: this is just a rambling introduction to where LibriVox came from. I don’t know to what degree it will be interesting to anyone except me, but here it is regardless. I’ll probably post it in a couple of sections.]

In August 2005, one of my closest friends from childhood got married in a little town called Metis, six hours east of Montreal, on the stoney south shore of the St. Lawrence River. We were born three days apart, in the same hospital; we lived one block away from each other as kids (our parents still live in the same houses); went to the same schools from ages 5 to 18; and I got Charles and Sarah’s engagement announcement, by yet another coincidence, the same day I proposed to my now-wife, Christine.

Metis is in the Gaspe, the tongue-like region that makes up south-east Quebec on the map, with the mighty St. Lawrence to the north and New Brunswick and Maine to the south. It’s famous in Quebec for lobster, rugged beauty, and the richness (some would say incomprehensibility) of the French accent of native Gaspesians. At Metis, the St. Lawrence is so wide you usually can’t see the other side, except at night when lights from Baie Comeau on the North Shore twinkle in the dark.

When I was a kid, I went with Charles and his family to their big ramshackle cedar-shingled house in Metis a number of times, often on Thanksgiving weekends (late October in Canada), to close up the summer house there. I remember the grey rains, playing on the huge rocks by the beach, trying to catch a rabbit with some lettuce attached to a string and a box propped up by a stick (we didn’t catch anything); I remember the old ice-house shack with it’s piles of sawdust, where huge ice blocks used to sit, to serve food cooling needs in the days before refrigerators); playing Risk, and my first attempt at collaborative novel-writing, with Charles, (it was a Chandleresque detective story, with cigars and trench coats and dames, called “Cold Rain” or somesuch).

And I especially remember the six-and-a-half-hour drive from Montreal to Metis seeming like an eternity. Though I was used to long drives with my family, Metis, for some reason, seemed to be on the other side of the universe. And I got car sick as a kid, so long drives were not my preferred activity. Charles’ mother used to get audiobooks for the trip, and I was always amazed at how they made the otherwise deadly trip so pleasant (my family was not an audiobook family). But on the trips to Metis we listened to all sorts of stuff, with “Tom Brown’s School Days,” lodged in my memory, as well as short stories, (O. Henry, and Dorthy Parker’s “The Big Blonde,” for instance), and a fair bit of Poe. Among many others. By listening to those books, six terrible hours of driving (at least a good part of it) were transformed into something wonderful instead.

My mother used to read to me when I was a kid: Robert Louis Stevenson, Swiss Family Robinson, Peter Pan and Wendy, the Narnia books, among many others … and I suppose the sound of her voice reading to me is where my love of literature came from, along with the idealization of my father’s early career as a journalist, and short-story writer (long before I was born). But the sound of a voice reading to me is something I have always loved, though I rarely listened to audiobooks in my adulthood, I was always glad when I did, especially on long drives.

I had one other significant audiobook period in my life. When I was nineteen, after my first year of Engineering at university, I went to Hinton, Alberta to work in the engineering department of a pulp and paper mill. I had dreams of glory and excitement there, but was greeted instead with a fire. A week after I arrived, the engineering offices went up in flames; thousands and thousands of engineering drawings (big blue-prints the size of tabletops) were charred, but not totally destroyed. They were sent away to get restored and recopied, and then sent back to the mill: my job, for the entire summer, was to re-file all these thousands of drawings. My dreams of engineering glory (whatever that might have been) were snuffed out pretty quickly and I had a summer of mind-numbing boredom to look forward to. To my great fourtune, Hinton had a wonderful public library just at the entrance of the pulp mill. Their book collection was surprisingly good and varied for such a small town, but they also had a big Books on Tape section. And so with my yellow Sony sport walkman, I listened to audiobooks all summer while filing drawing after drawing after drawing. After drawing. Douglas Adams and Ken Follet and Twain and more Poe and many others. I got so enthralled by these audiobooks that I would sometimes sit after my shift ended for an extra half hour finishing a chapter. Even better: there was so much filing to do that I had unlimited overtime, so I worked usually 12 hours a day (four of those hours at time-and-a-half!), filing away listening. After this experience though, for some reason, I didn’t do a whole lot of audiobook listening.

But when I was getting ready for this drive out to Metis, twenty years since I had been there with Charles’ family, I thought: audiobooks. And I started scouring the internet to find some.

I’d become a big fan of podcasting over the previous months. I’ve always loved audio as a format - it seems so direct, so intimate. With text you are forced to interpret; with video the image can often distract from the idea; but with audio, somehow, it seems as if ideas are transmitted directly to your mind. Reading is a new invention, but our minds are built to listen …so when you hear someone - telling a story, or talking about ideas - it’s almost as if their consciousness is plugged straight into yours.

I assumed there would be many free audiobooks out there. I first went to Project Gutenberg, the wonderful project started by Michael Hart in 1970, that acts as a creator of and repository for plain vanilla electronic text versions of public domain books. Gutenberg is really the grandaddy of all online free culture projects, and the work they have done is spectacular. They have a repository of some 17,000 texts in many different languages, all available for free. I’d never actually read one of their texts (the ebook format just doesn’t work too well for me), but I’ve always been happy to know they were there, making this content available to the world, and I assumed they were being put to good use. Gutenberg.org seemed to me the logical place to find a public domain audio book. I searched, but found to my surprise that very little was available. There was a host of machine-read texts, but i didn’t (and don’t) want machine read, I wanted someone to read to me. From gutenberg I toured around some of the other projects on the net: audiobooksforfree.com (where free = horrendous quality, and not-free gets you decent quality); literalsystems.org (small catalog of mostly-short works, all very well done); telltaleweekly.org (professionally-done books and short works for a small fee); and spokenalex.org (the free creative commons version of telltale). But none had what I was looking for: a decent selection of downloadable full-lenght texts available for free.

But surely, I thought, in the world of podcasting there would be someone out there who had decided to make full length books available? And so finally, I stumbled upon Urban Art Adventures, a project by Jan Mclaughlin. She was doing an audio version of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a book I have never read, but thought I ought to. But it was only half-finished, she’d completed 8 chapters of 17 (probably 8 of 17 hours of audio, which was about as much as I thought I could take on this drive). I downloaded the files, burned them to CDs, and off we went to my oldest friend’s wedding, listening to Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

On the drive back, it occurred to me I might have to wait weeks and weeks or even months (as of today, more than a year later, the project is still not quite finished) to hear the rest of Lady Chatterley. And it occurred to me: why not try to get a bunch of people together to get a book done more quickly? I’d like to record a chapter or two, but I didn’t think I’d have the courage or determination to take on the challenge of a complete novel - but a chapter or two, that I could do.

I turned to Christine in the car and said, “I think I’ll start and open source audioliterary project to get people to help record chapters of public domain books.” She said: “Um-hmm.” (Not realizing, of course, that - two weeks before our wedding, there was soon to be a new member of our family, named LibriVox)

When I got home that night, I fumbled around a little, found a name (in Latin, Libri = book; Vox = voice), put up a website (originally at librivox.blogsome.com), chose a first book (Joseph Conrad’s “Secret Agent”), and sent out emails to friends and a few podcasters I was aware of whom I thought might be interested in the project. A day later, all 13 chapters of the Secret Agent were assigned, and the project was rolling. A month later, LibriVox was Boing Boing’d, and from a couple of hundred visits a day, we went to 10,000 visits.

It was very clear to me then that I was going to need some help on this project.

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Musings on open collaborative projects, (mostly non-software) with a focus on idealism and not money-making. The starting point is the LibriVox.org project. Mostly written by Hugh McGuire, but guest writers may join in as well. [more ...]

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