Celebrating 80 Years of Talking Books

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Celebrating 80 Years of Talking Books


1. Timeline (page 1)

2. 80 years of innovation (page 3)

3. 80 years of independence (page 3)

4. 80 years of choice (page 4)

5. Find out more (page 5)

1. Timeline

1918 - The First World War comes to an end, leaving many soldiers blind and struggling to learn Braille

1920 - The National Institute for the Blind (NIB) starts testing different ways of making and listening to Talking Books
1934 - NIB joins forces with St Dunstans, a charity dedicated to caring for soldiers blinded in war. They form the Sound Recording Committee, with Sir Ian Fraser as Chairman
1935 - The Sound Recording Committee decide on gramophone records as the best format for Talking Books, and the first Talking Book machines and records are sent out
1937 - The first dedicated recording studio is built
1940 - The recording studio is destroyed by a bomb during the Second World War, and a temporary studio then suffers the same fate just a few months later. The American Foundation for the Blind sends a gift of 500,000 gramophone needles to help with problems of supply during wartime
1953 - NIB becomes the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB)
1955 - The ‘Nuffield Talking Book Library’ is established with a £50,000 donation from Lord Nuffield
1960 - The MK1 Talking Book tape player is launched – sturdier than records, it’s so heavy that the postman has to bring it in a separate delivery!
1967 - The MK4 tape player – a much lighter machine – is launched
1977 - New studios open in Great Portland Street, London, and accelerate book production
1980 - The Talking Books service enters the computer age with a new and more efficient computerised system
1982 - RNIB are among the first to consider downloadable digital books
1984 - RNIB start to record books for third party publishers, bringing in commercial revenue to support the Talking Books service
1985 - The 50th anniversary of Talking Books is marked by a visit to the studios by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
1987- A fourth recording studio opens, named after founder Sir Ian Fraser
1998 - The DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) format, which will revolutionise reading for blind and partially sighted people, starts development
2002 - The digital Talking Book service is launched – around 800 members transfer from analogue to digital every month!
2004 - The Plextalk DAISY and Plextalk Pocket players are rolled out
2007 - RNIB merges with the National Library for the Blind, making Talking Books part of the second largest library for books in an accessible format in the world
2014 - Talking Books become available on USB stick and as digital downloads via RNIB Overdrive
End of timeline.

80 years of innovation

“... I do not want to excite undue hopes, but I think that in the future it may be possible to establish a library of Talking Books.”

Sir Ian Fraser

Chairman of the National Institute for the Blind Sound Recording Committee (1934)

80 years ago, our Talking Book service revolutionised reading for people with sight loss. Since its humble beginnings in 1935, eight decades of innovation have made it the biggest and best service of its kind for blind and partially sighted people, bringing choice and independence to thousands.
Over the years, we’ve had to be resourceful. The Talking Book service pioneered the use of the long playing vinyl record, before record labels such as Decca and EMI used it for recording music, but although records proved popular, they were bulky and fragile. Tape players were introduced after the Second World War, but we were already looking forward, and were investigating the possibility of downloadable digital Talking Books as early as 1982 – nearly two decades before digitalisation of the service became possible. We’ve made the most of new and changing technologies to introduce new readers to our library, but have also had to deal with challenges ranging from bomb damage to shortages in raw materials.
Technology doesn’t stop moving, and neither do we. Today’s Talking Book readers can choose from a wider range of listening formats than ever before, but we need to stay ahead of developments to make sure that our books remain accessible for blind and partially sighted people, no matter how they enjoy listening to them.

80 years of independence

“The person who thought of Talking Books ought to have a monument three times the size of Nelson’s... Not being able to sleep much and being very poor at Braille, you can imagine how useful the Talking Book is to me.”

A blind ex-soldier’s reaction to the new Talking Book service

The Times, 1936
Reading isn’t just a fun pastime. It can be a lifeline to the outside world or a source of knowledge and learning. Talking Books have given generations of blind and partially sighted people independence and access to a world that might otherwise be closed to them.
Today, a Talking Book reader can skip through chapters as easily as someone would skip through the pages of a physical book, or change the speed of their reading by altering the speed of the playback. Talking Books can be downloaded to a smartphone or tablet, without the need for specialist equipment, or can be borrowed on USB stick and then played on a wide variety of devices, both simple and advanced.
And if help is needed – whether to set up or use a new device, or just to choose what to read next – there’s no need to rely on friends, family or neighbours. We’ve been sending volunteers to our readers since 1949, when the growing membership of our Talking Book library created demand for engineers to service machines in the homes of blind and partially sighted people around the country. Today, we have around 800 volunteers nationwide, so there’s always someone nearby to help.

80 years of choice

From the first five books recorded – including The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie – the Talking Book library grew and grew. By 1968 there were 1,200 books in the library; by the start of the new millennium there were over 12,000.
Today, thanks to the support of donors, publishers and the hundreds of staff and volunteers who work hard behind the scenes, our collection of more than 23,000 unabridged books – which is growing every day - is listened to by nearly 30,000 people, in a wider range of formats than ever before. Our collection includes prizewinning fiction, bestsellers, biographies, cookery books, titles for children and young adults and everything in between.
We’re working more closely than ever before with publishers, not only to bring their books to our library but also to make sure all books are published in accessible formats so they can be enjoyed at the same time by anyone, regardless of their reading requirements or preferences.
“Having the Harry Potter audio books come out at the same time as standard print meant I was able to discuss the books with my sighted peers. It’s very important when you’re young not to feel excluded from the things your friends are talking about.”

Tuesday, aged 22

Find out more

Find out how to sign up for RNIB Talking Books, or how your donations can help us continue to make this vital service available for thousands of people affected by sight loss, by calling our Helpline on 0303 123 9999 or emailing us at helpline@rnib.org.uk.
Visit our library catalogue at www.rniblibrary.com to browse our collection of books.
Document ends.
(c) RNIB 2015

rnib – supporting people with sight loss rnib charity numbers 226227, sc039316 and 1109

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