There’ve been a few comments on an earlier post here, wishing that LibriVox would add a ratings system to its catalogue, so I thought I’d respond to them (and others, posted over time in the LibriVox forum).
Firstly, it’s TRUE that there are some few recordings that are problematic for various reasons. Some have content which causes certain listeners concern, but I’m not going to bother discussing censorship, I disapprove of it, end of story. However, where it’s down to the audio itself — some folks would like to be able to warn others to avoid these, or perhaps, target them to produce their own (hopefully better) versions. However, it’s an extremely central tenet of LibriVox that ALL readers are welcome. As long as they are able to record themselves audibly and stick to the text, it doesn’t matter about age, gender, accent, ability to ‘do voices’ or even whether they understand the book. And the rest of this post is where I contend that this is not only a Good Thing — but essential to LibriVox’s past and future success.
“But wouldn’t some kind of vetting or rating be a good thing for listeners?” It’s not going to happen, because it’s honestly not that easy. It’s not a question of “make people audition, and then only the ‘good’ people are allowed to record.”
For starters, the standards of measurement could vary a lot (as you can see by the bad reviews of professionally read audio-books.) The audience has a wide and sometimes contradictory range of ideas about what various members of it want to hear.
Then there’s the practical consideration of improvement — if “bad” readers can’t ever start, and therefore don’t get encouragement, feedback, gentle support, then they’ll never become “good” readers. The professionals are paying for coaching, they’re studying at drama school or voice-over classes. What’s available for free? On a global scale? In every language people are interested in reading?
To say LibriVox has NO quality control just isn’t fair — today. Historically, there was no proof-listening phase, and so yes, a number of finished recordings are too quiet to be heard. (And some are likely too loud!) Some have horrible background noise, or reading-stumbles left in. Some of these are being revisited as admins find time and energy. However, the books we are producing NOW have much better quality in these respects. Accented readers are still welcome, people still record with headset / pinhole mics — but technical problems can be picked up earlier and mitigated as best we can. Readers are given help with noise-cleaning, editing, general settings and volume … and if they aren’t able to do it themselves, someone else will polish it up before it’s catalogued. But at the end of the day, it’s the reader’s voice, pace, spoken words — no change in that.
But most of all, avoiding ratings is about supporting people’s self-esteem. And not in a tree-hugging, “isn’t everyone special” kind of way. In practice, very few contributors at LibriVox are professional actors / voice-over artists. They aren’t trained to extract what use they can out of criticism and then let the rest wash over them. If contributions are rated badly, especially early on in a reader’s recording career, they’ll simply stop and find a nicer way to spend their free time. Is that “saving the world from bad recordings”? Yep. So, how many people would be left to make recordings for the world? Impossible to say, but I’d bet it’s a pretty small percentage. Worst of all, it would put off even those who are generally considered “the best”, because few start out that way. Basically, it’s “saving the world from having a large, free audio-book library.” Audible would approve.
There are other online audio-projects who do insist on auditions before allowing people in (or simply record only using vouched-for actors.) They’ve produced a few hundred books, and are often pay-to-download because that’s the only way to subsidise the whole proceeding. LibriVox has completed 3,374 projects, and another 541 are in progress, and that’s been on zero budget, (though, true, the recent donations-drive changes things.) I can’t think of any other audio-projects which work across languages – all the ones I know are mono-lingual. LibriVox encourages people to record projects in 29 different languages (more if you count the contributions to multi-lingual collections.) I firmly believe that the “open doors” policy directly supports this diversity.
I think the main problem LibriVox has, is around educating its listeners. What many listeners want, I suspect, is completely free access to Audible. They’re frustrated because LibriVox is free-but-different (non-pro. voices, mixed voices in books, non-native voices, etc.) They think that just a few little changes, kicking out the very ‘worst’ readers, would fix things. But it doesn’t work like that. A small barrier to entry, however low, would stop all but the most determined voices (or the most pig-headed readers). And that’s not going to benefit anyone.
As an aside, all LibriVox recordings are public domain. There’s nothing to stop anyone setting up librivox-rated.com, linking through to the catalogue, or pulling recordings directly from archive.org. If rating recordings is as essential a part of the listening experience as those who’ve requested the feature over the years tend to claim — it’d be more popular than LV itself – and that’d be fine … we could concentrate on recording and let other people do the thorny decision-making. And of course, the more recordings there are, the more chance there is that some of them ARE “okay”, by the particular standards of any given listener.