From shell shock to Shellac: the Great War, blindness, and Britain's Talking Book Library

• 01 July 2014

Matthew Rubery explains how the Great War, which had caused death and destruction on a scale previously unimagined, resulted in the creation of the talking book.
The story of the talking book in Britain has yet to be told. Accessible reading formats for people with vision impairments had long been sought by the time sound-recording technology made it possible to record a full-length book on a set of gramophone records. One publication from the 1930s described "the inability to read" as the greatest handicap imposed by blindness. Embossed books allowed some people to overcome this hardship. But raised type offered no help to people who couldn't read Braille, and depended instead on volunteers to read aloud to them. Their plight received public attention after the return of soldiers who had lost their eyesight during the First World War.

The War was a catalyst for reconceptualizing blind veterans and civilians alike. Blinded servicemen returning from the War gave a degree of urgency to problems of literacy that had long been tolerated. Before the War, blindness had been regrettable and unfortunate, but it was not a problem for which the public bore any direct responsibility. The War changed all that. The British public owed a debt to the disabled ex-servicemen who had sacrificed their eyesight defending the country. In the absence of state compensation, disabled veterans relied on philanthropic organizations for treatment and rehabilitation. Campaigns to raise funds on behalf of veterans reminded the public of its obligation to make the lives of disabled veterans tolerable by supplying them with entertainment including books.

Captain Ian Fraser first conceived of a talking book while listening to a gramophone at St Dunstan's, a charity for the rehabilitation of blinded ex-servicemen. Fraser joined St. Dunstan's after being shot through the eyes by a German sniper at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916; he went on to become the organization's Chairman at the age of 24. Once there, he began experimenting with a Dictaphone, a device used to record speech onto wax cylinders. Working with a recording engineer in a makeshift studio at St Dunstan's, Fraser recited scraps of poetry and speeches. As Fraser writes in his autobiography: "These were really the first talking-book records, and were the first beginnings of the Talking Book."

New forms of sound-recording technology such as the long-playing (LP) record presented an opportunity to remake the book for the ears instead of the eyes. Still, veterans had to wait more than a decade after the War for a technological alternative to reading aloud. Before the 1930s, records were unsuitable for books, since they could play only for a few minutes; the LP was not ready for the commercial market until 1948. Blind people benefited from the technology more than a decade earlier, however, when the National Institute of the Blind (now RNIB) and St Dunstan's, working with record labels such as the Gramophone Company (later HMV), succeeded in making discs capable of playing at the reduced speed of 24 revolutions per minute (rpm).

In 1934, the NIB and St Dunstan's announced their intention to launch the talking book service. The talking book was now within the bounds of possibility thanks to advances such as electrical recording in the gramophone, radio, and film industries. Talking books could, at last, be made at a reasonable cost. Fraser had also learned that the American Foundation for the Blind had begun its own talking book programme. As he told readers of St Dunstan's Review, "I do not want to excite undue hopes, but I think that in the near future it may be possible to establish a Library of Talking Books." Shortly afterward, this Library began at a rudimentary studio in Regent's Park. The studio was described by Fraser as "a hut in my own garden, which I used to use as a workshop". There, Anthony McDonald recorded Britain's first talking book.

The Talking Book Library began on 1 August 1935. Membership was restricted to those registered as blind and anyone else who was unable to read ordinary books. Yet the Talking Book Library hardly resembled other libraries. Its books required custom-made machinery in order to be read, and talking books cost more to manufacture than printed books. Funding was scarce, since the service received no public subsidy. Whereas the United States Library of Congress received funding from the government, the NIB and St. Dunstan's relied entirely on private donations from Lord Nuffield, the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, and the Pilgrim Trust. They were among the many philanthropic organizations that helped rehabilitate wounded veterans in the absence of state support.

Talking books went out to readers on 7 November 1935, nearly one year after the distribution of similar records in the United States. They were considerably larger than their print counterparts. Each title consisted of a set of 12-inch shellac gramophone discs that could play for approximately 25 minutes per side; the average book took up 10 double-sided records, which were shipped at no cost to borrowers, who had only to pay the return postage. Membership was free to anyone who purchased (or received through charity) one of three different models of talking book machines: an electric gramophone; a mechanical model requiring no electricity; and a model designed for use with headphones. Machines were sold at cost price, and St. Dunstan's subsidized £1 of each machine purchased by veterans. By the end of September 1937, talking book machines had been delivered to nearly a thousand of Britain's soldiers and civilians.

The Library's catalogue adhered closely to the public taste for printed books. The first talking books were Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Joseph Conrad's Typhoon, and The Gospel According to St John. Titles were chosen for their broad appeal and resembled those in other popular fiction series begun the same year. Agatha Christie, for example, was among the first authors in the Penguin paperbacks series too. Little thought was given to their relevance to a blind readership, with the exception of Axel Munthe's The Story of San Michele, described as "a modern masterpiece that has a particular interest for all blind people" because its author was himself blind. Outside sponsorship also influenced the selection. The Gospel According to St John was the first part of the Bible recorded because the British and Foreign Bible Society offered to pay for it. At the end of the Library's first year, it held 55 complete works (24 recorded in Britain, 31 in America). Recipients were nearly unanimous in their enthusiasm for the recordings, though many complained about the limited inventory.

The talking book represented the first practical and affordable means of literacy for the majority of blind people who were unable to read Braille and depended on other people to read to them. The need for technological assistance became increasingly evident after the return of blinded soldiers from the First World War who were forced to make the transition from able-bodied citizens into objects of charity, dependent on others. The plight of these veterans prompted St Dunstan's and the NIB to test various mechanical reading devices throughout the 1920s and 1930s that would ultimately benefit all blind people. Blind and partially sighted people faced many difficulties after the War. The Talking Book Service was part of the ongoing campaign to ensure that access to books was not one of them.

The oldest surviving talking books can be heard on the Audiobook History blog. A longer essay on the history of Britain's Talking Book Library is available here and as a PDF.

Matthew Rubery is Reader in Nineteenth-Century Literature at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of The Novelty of Newspapers: Victorian Fiction after the Invention of the News (2009), editor of Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies (2011), and co-editor of Secret Commissions: An Anthology of Victorian Investigative Journalism (2012). His current project is The Untold Story of the Talking Book.

RNIB will be celebrating 80 years of its Talking Book Service in 2015 and is working to enable more people to read more content in more formats than ever before.

To find out more about how publishers can work with RNIB contact

RNIB's reading services
Talking Book Studios