The AUdible Encyclopedia, or, What was this thing?
June 25, 2020 8:19 PM   Subscribe

Hi, AskMe. :) I come to you with a question out of my childhood, just because it's been on my mind tonight and I'd love some information if you have any. When I was a kid in the 90s, I had access to an audio version of the World Book ENcyclopedia. I"m 99% sure it was the WorldBook. It came on audio tape and had some kind of analog indexing system.

I remember this distinctly because the tape deck which played the cassettes had three or four knobs on the front. This device had evidently been designed for the use of the blind, as it had Braille labeling affixed, as did all the tapes. The tapes came in big "books," which also had, presumably, indexes to let you find the correct one, although I never understood how they worked.

I have a very strong memory of listening to a super long article about American football, and couple tapes from what turned out to be the 1981 Worldbook Yearbook.

I'm just curious if anyone else knows what this thing might be, and whether any of the audio from this curiosity got archived anywhere? It was not, as far as I know, the 1960s-era Braille encyclopedia which Google tells me existed.
posted by Alensin to Education (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Encyclopedia of Louisville, in the section about the American Printing House for the Blind, mentions "The first recorded encyclopedia was the 1981 cassette edition of the World Book Encyclopedia".

Funding Universe: "In 1981, the American Printing House brought out a new edition of the encyclopedia, this time on cassette tape. The recorded encyclopedia took up 219 tapes, each containing six hours of material."

The APH Wikipedia page refers to it as the "Talking World Book".
posted by zamboni at 8:48 PM on June 25, 2020 [3 favorites]

One small piece of additional information: according to the museum website of the American Printing House for the Blind, yearbooks for the Talking World Book were produced through 1985.
posted by jedicus at 8:56 PM on June 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

jedicus' link is to the Indexing Cassette Player page at the APH museum, which was produced for use with the recorded edition, and has the three dials that you remember, for entering track and item number.
posted by zamboni at 9:00 PM on June 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

I remember this distinctly because the tape deck which played the cassettes had three or four knobs on the front. This device had evidently been designed for the use of the blind, as it had Braille labeling affixed, as did all the tapes.

You were likely listening to it on four-track tapes, on a dedicated four-track player. These were standard for various libraries such as The National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled at the Library of Congress and the CNIB National Library here in Canada where I am (and which I used to narrate books for).

This would be one such player: Library Of Congress Cassette Player (Model Loc-3)

Ah, indices. So...

For the analog indexing system to work, the recording of the book would need to contain "beep tones," also called "marker tones." These would have been ultra low-frequency tones that would be inaudible at regular playback speed but audible as a "beep" when listening in fast-forward mode to indicate pages (one beep) or chapters (two beeps). In some cases, three beeps might signal a section, etc. The reel-to-reel recording machines we used had a switch on them that would create that low-frequency tone. I think we had to hold down that switch for a count of two seconds while recording. In fast-forward, this would sound like a quick beep that lasted only a fraction of a second.

When books contained an index, we read the index just like any other part of the book recording. As the end-user reader, you'd have to listen to the index tape, and once you found the index entry you were looking for in the index, then swap in the corresponding tape containing the page range containing the page the index entry pointed you towards, and then fast-forward from the beginning of the tape, listening to the beep tones to determine when you landed on the page. It was a time-consuming process for the reader to say the least.

This all went away when we switched to the DAISY audio format and went fully digital with the recording and production process. Because markup could be used to add structure to the audiobook that corresponded to parts of the audio, it made indexes way, way, way faster and easier for the reader to use (i.e., instant jumping to pages with the push of a button vs. endless swapping of tapes, fast-forwarding, and rewinding).

Contacting the the Library of Congress NLS for the Blind and Print Disabled might be the first step in trying to track down an archived version of this.

I'm kind of thinking there's a chance that something like this (a 1981 taped recording of an encyclopedia) wouldn't have been digitized at any point for reasons of currency. But it might physically exist somewhere.

I did a couple of quick searches on the NLS Catalog but couldn't find any audio recording entries for the World Book Encyclopedia.

There was (and continues to be) some sharing of audio book recordings between the Library of Congress, the CNIB, the RNIB, and a few other national libraries for blind and print-disabled people around the world, so it there's an outside chance that it would not have been originally produced by the Library of Congress service itself.

The NLS has a link to some catalogs for other organizations including Louis/APH and RNIB.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:04 PM on June 25, 2020 [13 favorites]

According to WorldCat, there's one at the University of Puerto Rico, but I'd take that with a fairly large grain of salt.
posted by zamboni at 9:06 PM on June 25, 2020

Yeah, jedicus' link is probably the player you're thinking of. It's a four-track (the track selector dial is labelled A-B-C-D), but I'm curious about how the indexing function worked on that That thing is 10 pounds of tape player. And the World Book was 219 tapes. And those tapes would contain four tracks each.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:14 PM on June 25, 2020

Sadly, I remember breaking the knobs of the thing at one point, probably unintentionally. :) Glad to know what it was even if it will probably forever remain one of those weird childhood memories which is more meaningful in the abstract.
posted by Alensin at 9:23 PM on June 25, 2020 [3 favorites]

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