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In the rough project outline I gave a long list of some of the reasons I think LibriVox has been successful. I’m going to try to write about each one separately, and in no particular order. This post is about Clarity, in my opinion the most important pragmatic (rather than thematic) reasons for success of LibriVox. Clarity comes in a variety of guises, all of them important and I’ll touch on each of them individually:

  1. Clarity of Purpose - what are you doing?
  2. Clarity of Language - use plain, exact English (or whatever language you are using)
  3. Clarity of Participation - give people an action they can do right away to participate
  4. Clarity of Process - how does it work? make barriers for entry low. make it clear how it works.
  5. Clarity of Policies - as the project evolves, you need simple, clear policies (less important in the early days)

Clarity is important in any enterprise (hence the 80s/90s/00s fetish for mission statements etc), but that’s especially true in an open web project. If you want to get volunteers involved in what you are doing you need to immeditately let them know:

a) what you are doing
b) how they can contribute

If someone comes to a website and has to read through long texts explaining who started a project, why it was started, what tools are used (technological, management, back-end etc), what influenced the project, what inspired it, or other extraneous information, you will quickly lose the majority of your potential volunteers. Some will read through, but the majority will not. And once “inside” the project, clarity is no less important.

Clarity of Purpose
This is probably the most important of all. Being clear about your purpose is so important because it helps a new web visitor decide whether what you are doing is interesting or not. By purpose, the focus should be: “What are we trying to do?” Leave the politics, ideals etc. out of it. If your purpose is clear, people can make their own decisions about whether or not they want to join you. Consider the most successful of the non-software open projects, Wikipedia. Here’s their purpose:

Wikipedia: the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.

Contained in that purpose is everything you need to know about the project:

  1. it is an encyclopedia
  2. it is free
  3. you can edit it

Note that you can be interested in 1 & 2, without being concerned by 3. And that’s another thing about open projects - they should be useful no matter what your participation level. The wiki reader:editor ration is, I am told, 50:1 … meaning there are 50 people who use Wikipedia as an information source for every one person who edits. So in a sense, for the random visitor, the “free encyclopedia” part is 50 times more important than the “edit” part. But it’s the “edit” part that wikipedia has to “sell” in order to be successful.

The beauty of that purpose tho is how clear it is.

Clarity of Language
Turning to LibriVox, compare this slightly baffling introduction text I started with on project launch in August 2005:

LibriVox is a hope, an experiment, and a question: can the net harness a bunch of volunteers to help bring books in the public domain to life through podcasting?

LibriVox is an open source audio-literary attempt to harness the power of the many to record and disseminate, in podcast form, books from the public domain. It works like this: a book is chosen, then *you*, the volunteers, read and record one or more chapters. We liberate the audio files through this webblog/podcast every week (?).

Good: It tells you what you need to know.
Bad: It’s wordy, and filled with jargon that only certain tech-heads would understand (podcasting, open source, audio-literary).

Luckily the original “market” for volunteers could decipher those jargony words - in fact it was just that group of sophisticated techies interested in Creative Commons, podcasting, copyright issues, open source that would be able to figure out what LibriVox was all about. But as the project got a bit bigger, the early group of volunteers pared things down and now the “About” text says:

LibriVox volunteers record chapters of books in the public domain and release the audio files back onto the net. Our goal is to make all public domain books available as free audio books. We are a totally volunteer, open source, free content, public domain project.

Maybe still a bit long compared to Wikipedia, but everything you need to know is there, in plain English. The jargon is at the end, which isn’t great, but it’s still important info.
The tag-line, however is still pretty high-falutin:

accoustical liberation of books in the public domain

Which should probably be changed to:

free public domain audio books

Still, I’m a bit of a sucker for lofty ideals, and the high-falutin one maybe does a better job of articulating the dream behind the project, rather than the nuts-and-bolts.

Clarity of Participation
So now you’ve described what you’re about; your visitor has decided whether or not she is interested in your project. Now you have to tell her what she can do to participate. There is a famous website from the US Department of Agriculture that was developed to help the market for buying and selling hay (Haynet … defunct, but the wayback machine provides the preceding link). The site is so simple, not flashy, and lets users decide what they want to do in clear simple English. Need Hay? click here. Have Hay? click here.

Since LibriVox has two potential “markets” - listeners, and volunteers - we used this model, and split the screen into two options: Read/Listen.

And crucially we provided actions for either one: buttons to press to take you where you want to go. That’s important too - if you want people to participate in something, you have to give them a call to action. Read? Listen? You decide, and by deciding you’re already on your way to doing whatever it is you’d like to do. You can abandon ship if you like, but most people who click through to one or the other option are likely to keep going.

Clarity of Process
You’ve hooked people in this far, and this is where, truth be told, things get more complicated. The LibriVox process is “simple,” in a way, but it does require some thinking. The important thing here is to make sure your volunteers understand the bare essentials of how things work, and that they not be frightened by how complicated it is. In the case of LibriVox, our process doc looks like this:

1. a book coordinator posts a book (with chapter info) in the Readers Wanted Section.
2. volunteers “claim” chapters to read
3. the readers record their chapters in digital format
4. the book coordinator collects all the files of all the chapters
5. the book coordinator sends the collected files to a “metadata coordinator”
6. we check the files for technical problems in the Listeners Wanted section
7. the metadata coordinator uploads and catalogs the files… working their secret magic
8. yet another public domain audiobook is made available for free!

In fact it’s a bit more complicated, but that gives an interested reader a sense of how things happen. The important thing is that they can get a snapshot of what goes on, see that the process is relatively straightforward, and understand that their participation is a manageable chunk. Thats a hugely imporant issue, for another post, that you want your first-time contributors to feel that participating is easy, and small, that they will not get roped into a complicated project they are not prepared for. Some LV contributors record one mp3 for us and that’s it. Others do many. And some get obsessed and end up running the project. You need all three types of contributors to succeed, and you have to make sure you take care of all of them.

Clarity of Policies
This last issue is really important as the project gets bigger. In the early days of LibriVox, we had a small group of dedicated participants who all had a shared understanding of what we were doing and why. But as it gets bigger, more people come, more questions get asked and some controversies come up. It really saves a lot of headache if you can define you base policies right away. In the case of LibriVox, here’s what we came to as fundamental principles:

  • Librivox is a non-commercial, non-profit and ad-free project
  • Librivox donates its recordings to the public domain
  • Librivox is powered by volunteers
  • Librivox maintains a loose and open structure
  • Librivox welcomes all volunteers from across the globe

The most important principles there are: no ads; all recordings in public domain (not creative commons); no one is getting paid; we’ll take any language; and the project is open. In addition to these principles, we’ve developed a few policies that help guide what we are doing:

  • we only accept published texts in the public domain (no self-published, creative commons stuff)
  • everything done for LibriVox is public domain - audio, images, text etc… this just makes life so much easier
  • no criticism of reading styles allowed on the forum (unless requested by the reader) - this one is controversial, and I’ll address it separately later
  • be nice - we have a pretty stringent non-flaming policy on the forum which has come under some fire, but the result is that we have among the friendliest forums you’ll find on the net - which helps keep volunteers around

The policies cover a number of things, but it’s been helpful to limit what texts we can take. And on the other issues we tend to make policies that help make volunteers comfortable about participating. That’s been such a huge part of our success, I think, cultivating that sense of a supportive community of volunteers - rather than the more critical communities that are elsewhere.

Conclusion

Clarity in what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how people can participate is of utmost importance if you want to compete for eyeballs, and more importantly participants in this busy web world. If you feel passionate about something, chances are others will too. Trust that passion, but be careful to articulate exactly what it is you are trying to do. Leave out the politics, the ideals, the history, or at least leave it off the front page. All those things might be important to you, but they might be less important to others. Focus on exactly what you want to do. Tell people in clear English. Give them a clear path to participation. And as things develop, make sure you head off complicated conundrums by making your policies clear.

If you do all that, and if you manage to pave a way for others who share your passion to easily participate, you’re on your way.

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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, a publishing tool (wordpress), a philosophy (free software), a legal framework, 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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[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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