Real lives: Talking Books are a real success story

Ken Reid is a long-time user of the RNIB service. Picture: TSPL
Ken Reid is a long-time user of the RNIB service. Picture: TSPL
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KEN Reid is celebrating the 80th anniversary of sight loss charity RNIB’s Talking Books library – a collection of more than 22,000 audio recordings.

Ken, 56, from North Berwick, lost his sight in his 20s and has long been an avid subscriber to the service.

“I will have at least one book on the go at any time,” he said. “I do a lot of travelling, so being able to carry my talking book player with me and listen as I go has been a great benefit.”

RNIB first began testing different ways to make “talking books” after the First World War, when many soldiers had been blinded.

It pioneered the use of the long-playing record, and engineers from Decca and EMI were later to consult RNIB about how to cut and produce discs.

In 1935, the charity sent out its first talking book, Agatha Christie’s novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This was recorded on 12-inch shellac gramophone records. A typical novel would fit on to ten double-sided records.

Technology progressed to bulky tape-players, smaller cassette players, and then to today’s pocket-size digital technology.

RNIB now sends out more than 1.5 million Talking Books a year on CDs, USB sticks or as digital downloads to over 34,000 blind and partially sighted people throughout the UK.

However, producing these books is expensive – it costs around £2500 for one book, depending on length.

Ken, a former chairman of RNIB Scotland, is adamant that he could never have read as widely without the talking book service.

“With so many titles to choose from, I’m never lost for a good book to read. I have recently switched to RNIB’s new Overdrive system, downloading books through my computer. This means I can have a book on my player within a few minutes of deciding I want it. Sometimes, I will put the book on my iPhone, and can leave my book player at home.”

“And I still much prefer RNIB’s professionally narrated audio books to commercial ebooks, where the device itself ‘reads’ the book.

“Ebooks enable blind people to read on mainstream devices at the same time and for the same cost, as their peers. But it means having books read by a ‘dalek’.

“It is much nicer to relax with an audio book read well by a professional reader. I can’t foresee a time when commercial audio book services will be able to match that.

“So I expect to be using RNIB talking books for some time to come – maybe another 80 years?”

Lord Julian Fellowes, chairman of RNIB’s Talking Books Appeal, said: “Since 1935 we have been working hard to deliver Talking Books in the most up-to-date way, making the best use of available technology, but there is still so much to be done.

“Only a small percentage of all new books published each year are available in unabridged audio, braille, or giant print.”