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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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Let’s start with the bad news. I have always been a bit of a doomsdayer: I usually think wars will end up badly for most people, I worry about things like mass economic collapse, peak oil, overdependence on an industrial food system and a global trade system that destroys a community’s (country’s) ability to support itself, even minimally. And I especially worry about climate change. I worked for several years in Climate Change policy (in the energy sector) and later in finance, where I was part of an investment banking team building and marketing financial products tailored for the Kyoto Protocol. The idea was to get millions of dollars into emission reduction projects. Didn’t really work.

LITTLE UPDATE: What I love about the open movement, free software, and LibriVox, is that instead of opposing something, trying to get others to *stop* doing something (say starting wars or spewing CO2 all over the place), we instead decided to build a parallel system, to do something constructive rather than oppositional. There is spill-over from what we do and why we do it, but what I love is that with the tools at our disposal (the internet, some free software, mass presence of computers, gutenberg.org and archive.org), we were able to say: we’d like to make a public domain audiobook library for the world. And now, with little fuss or muss, with no funding from governments or foundations, with no protests at city hall and meetings with rich benefactors …we just did it. That’s the Good news. Back to the Bad:

Anyway, I just started reading The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, by Thomas Homer-Dixon. It paints a grim picture of our future, based on five major tectonic stresses: energy; economic; demographic; environmental; climate. Needless to say, as a doomsdayer I agree with everything he’s said so far.

But I have an intuition, that I hope to explore more in this space, that open projects like LibriVox provide some insights into how we might arrange things better to deal with complex challenges in the future. I started thinking of LibriVox in the early days as a sort of organic system that ran up against all sorts of environmental challenges, and because of its openness, was able to confront and overcome those challenges (for instance management of people, management of projects, management of books). We were flexible, and we easily evolved into a more complex system better able to handle difficult situations. Something like evolution, adaptation to new environments.

Of course LibriVox is just a little project, but I think the base concepts are valuable:

  • articulate a goal
  • break the problem down into component parts
  • take a long-view of solving it (don’t make it perfect now, but allow for constant improvement, a la wikipedia)
  • allow individuals to help solve it when and how they see fit

We have many problems ahead, and maybe, just maybe, some of them could be better solved by opening up the processes we use to fix things.

On that note, sort of, Nora and Cathi tipped me off to a project called We Are Smarter Than Me:

The central premise of We Are Smarter Than Me is that large groups of people (”We”) can, and should, take responsibility for traditional business functions that are currently performed by companies, industries and experts (”Me”).

As far as I understand it, this will be an open wiki-built book about … open building. Cool idea. Focused more, I think on business than is my interest, but I’ll be following that 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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