The Evolution of Talking Books in my Lifetime
I remember when I received my first talking book machine from the Massachusetts commission for the blind in 1967. Subtle improvements had been made over previous versions. There was an extra speed–8 rpm–and current books were on 16 rpm. The sound quality was excellent and patrons often played record albums with pleasing results.
People were already talking about cassette technology being on the horizon, a new adjunct to talking books. But by the mid seventies, records were still the norm and new talking books were on 8 RPM hard discs, soon to be replaced by thin flexible discs. New practices didn’t end with the discs either, as the well-made wooden talking book machines were replaced by lighter, less durable plastic models.
The innovation of cassette books expanded literature available to us. The first cassette books produced in the 70s were recorded at 1-7/8 speed and varied in quality. I remember not being able to finish reading a best seller, “The Strawberry Statement,” in its entirety because the sound faded out towards the end of the recording. By the late seventies, library patrons across the U.S. started receiving the new four-track players, opening doors to knowledge and accessibility previously unavailable to us. We could read and discuss best-selling authors almost at the same time as our sighted friends.
It was a wondrous time for us as far as reading went. Classics like “Gone With the Wind” were on eight four track cassettes and most college textbooks were housed in one small cardboard box. But by 1999, we all realized cassette technology was on its way out and digital machines would soon stand in its place. We wondered what, exactly, that meant for us.
Well, we were pleasantly surprised. What a leap in portability, technology, and simplicity these books and machines are. They are made to withstand years of use, with no moving parts, and twisted cassettes are a thing of the past. You never have to deal with interruptions to turn or find that next cassette. The user guide is on a chip inside the player, eliminating the need for an instruction tape. They have large buttons on top, all marked in Braille, and for non-Braille readers, each button speaks its function in a clear, pleasant voice. Navigation options are endless and they are so easy to use. Since getting this new machine from the Perkins Library, I have appreciated the simplicity of this player and the convenience of having an entire book on only one cartridge.
The most exciting thing is that you can download books as well, and don’t rely solely on a local library. It’s wonderful that books will be in digital formats for future generations of blind children. They will easily be able to download any book they wish to read directly on their computer or portable device. They’ll never have to know what it’s like to have to listen to one book on countless records or cassettes.
I wonder if by 2015 we’ll be asking ourselves the same question we were in 1999: what comes next?
Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind