Reading by Sound: Pre-Digital Age

Talking books on tape

Sound on tape instead of on heavy LPs was another breakthrough in reading technology.  Books recorded on magnetic tape allowed for longer reading times.  The tape players evolved during the period. One bulky tape system from the mid-1960s, developed by the Royal National Institute for the Blind, was described as an “unwieldy monster” for its size and weight, but it could play for 21 hours.  The year 1967 saw the introduction of the considerably more compact and lightweight hand-sized “tapete.” It weighed only seven ounces, and could play for 12 hours.

CNIB placed its first order for 200 tape talking book machines and 600 cassettes in 1962.  Readers were enthusiastic, so much so that the Library had trouble keeping up with the demand.

Transcription services


A brighter day for those Canadian blind people who are going in for higher education
— R.W. Beath, Chief Librarian, CNIB

In the late 1950s the CNIB Library began to coordinate volunteers to record books for students on donated “Soundscriber” discs.  Soundscriber was a dictation machine that inscribed audio onto a soft, flexible vinyl disc.  These were meant for interoffice use, and their playing life was brief, but the system gave students texts that they might otherwise not be able to access.  Chief Librarian R.W. Beath expressed the “hope that this will spell a brighter day for those Canadian blind people who are going in for higher education.”

Kate Aitken (3:01)
Excerpts from the radio script of Kate Aitken, from September, 1954
(Read transcription of narrated text)

Broadcaster Kate Aitken, a well-known Canadian radio personality of the 1940s and '50s, talked about her visit to the project on her radio program in September of 1954.  She told her listeners “there are two reading rooms, each with a Soundscriber machine installed, and in those rooms recordings are made, by readers, of technical works, law books, mechanical handbooks, historical surveys and all the standard volumes used by the student in his own particular studies."  Two hospital nurses "who are between them recording an enormously difficult technical medical history for the use of a student studying this difficult subject by ear and touch” came in for special notice.

The volunteer readers recorded books on demand. It could take from one to three months, depending on the length of the book.

National Broadcast Reading Service

Seeing the faces of their grandchildren, and reading the paper: these were two things that blind Canadians said they missed the most, in response to a cross-country investigation of their unmet needs in the mid-1980s.

Fran Cutler describes the start of Voice Print (1:06)
Fran Cutler was the author of “The Right to Know,” a CNIB report that helped pave the way for the National Broadcast Reading Service. She talks about the project to meet the informational needs of people living with vision loss

Advocates couldn’t do anything about the grandchildren, but knew they could help with reading the paper.  In some U.S. cities volunteers read and recorded newspaper articles, and broadcast them to special receivers.   The 1988 CNIB report called “The Right to Know” led to the creation of a Canadian version of that system: the National Broadcast Reading Service (NBRS).  CNIB, industry, and government created a new not-for-profit organization to provide volunteer-read newspapers that would be broadcast nationally, using the “SAP,” or Secondary Audio Program television channel.

The team that eventually launched the service in 1990  as “VoicePrint” needed CRTC approval for dedicated space on cable TV services.  They also needed sustainable funding.  Both were eventually achieved, and the uncertainty of grant-based funding was solved when the CRTC agreed to place a per subscriber levy on cable companies, known as a “passthrough fee.”

By 2004 hundreds of volunteers were helping to produce audio versions of print news information, from more than 100 daily and community newspapers and magazines, reaching more than 8 million Canadian homes via cable, satellite audio, and online.

As well as VoicePrint, in 1995 NBRS also established Audio Vision Canada (AVC) to produce and distribute descriptive video.   Both divisions carry on today as AMI-audio and AMI-TV, under the umbrella of Accessible Media Inc., (AMI) which broadcasts original programs as well as narrated news and information updates, and also includes the French-language service, AMI- télé.