Free Books and Free Culture Online

Websites like Project Gutenberg and LibriVox offer literary culture for free

| April 26, 2007

Audiobooks have come a long way since the days of eight-pack cassettes rattling off Jane Austen in a classic British lilt. Today, if you want to listen to Pride and Prejudice you have options: You can check out a recorded version from your local library; you can pay anywhere from $10.95 to $47.59 to download it from or iTunes; or you can skip the trip and the expense by downloading and listening to it for free on websites like LibriVox and Project Gutenberg. For lovers of books like Austen's, where the copyrights have long since expired, the internet can be a virtual audio library.

One of the fastest growing free audiobook collections on the internet is available at LibriVox. Started in August of 2005, LibriVox has become the go-to website for audiobooks in the public domain. According to the LibriVox blog, volunteers of the website completed and catalogued 70 new audiobook titles in March alone. Users can search for specific books or browse the entire catalogue of more than 580 texts.

Part of the inspiration for LibriVox came from Project Gutenberg, an endeavor that began in 1971 to distribute plain-text versions of books for free. The website currently offers more than 20,000 books from its online catalogue, all of which are free for download. Project Gutenberg has joined up with LibriVox, the nonprofit Internet Archive, and others to offer free downloads of hundreds of audiobooks (both human-read and computer-generated) in more than 50 languages.

Websites like LibriVox and Project Gutenberg owe some of their popularity to a movement much larger than the websites themselves. According to Michael Erard, writing for Reason, 'the fact [that] the recordings are free is but a fortunate byproduct of a larger process with broader economic and philosophical implications.' Erard writes that LibriVox has been embraced by the growing 'free culture' community, which believes that music, books, movies, and art should ideally be non-proprietary and free. These advocates are the most frequent contributors to LibriVox, holed up in their basements with simple recording equipment and no thoughts of financial compensation.

Even if you don't buy into the 'free culture' movement, it's nice to be able to listen to audiobooks for free. The downloads can be slow and recordings aren't always great, but sometimes listening to an amateur reading Austen can be just right. And if you don't like the quality, you can always grab a microphone and start recording an audiobook of your own.

Go there >> The Wealth of LibriVox