Inside the cozy confines of Studio D, volunteer narrator Judie Yuill might as well have been deep in the forest.
Leaning toward the microphone, she read aloud from Hemlock: a Forest Giant on the Edge, a detailed account of the towering tree’s threatened extinction, written by a team of experts at Harvard University.
“Mighty trees fall, just as stunted saplings drop their needles and wither away,” she read. “As they succumb, the deeply shaded woods are inexorably converted to starkly open groves.”
Later, she acknowledged her surprise at the book’s poetic feel.
“It’s quite lyrical for something so scientific,” she said.
Yuill’s recording of Hemlock will eventually become part of the Perkins Library’s growing collection of audio books, which are loaned out to patrons with visual impairments or other disabilities that prevent them from enjoying traditional print. A vast majority of the 75,000 titles available were recorded by the National Library Service in Washington, D.C., but every year the Perkins Library produces about 100 on its own, choosing books that otherwise would remain inaccessible.
To be considered for this group, a book must be well reviewed and have some sort of tie to New England, explained Todd Smith, who manages the recording studio at Perkins.
“It could have a local subject matter or be an author that lives in the area,” he said. “Being in Boston, that’s pretty wide open.”
A book selection committee ultimately decides which titles get the nod, taking reader requests into account. Their choices appeal to a diverse array of tastes: on the studio shelves, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski’s playful autobiography sits next to Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole, a book about the mysteries of brain disease co-authored by a distinguished Harvard neurologist.
The Clive W. Lacy Recording Studio opened at Perkins in 1987, its two booths equipped with reel-to-reel tape recorders. When the Perkins Library moved to a larger building on campus in 1999, the studio went with it, expanding to include four new booths overseen by a full-time studio manager.
Over the next decade, the studio kept up with changes in audio recording technology, making the final transition to digital talking books in 2010.
Today, the studio occupies the same four booths, each named after a famous American author. The space retains a vintage feel (large “ON AIR” signs light up when recording is in progress) despite housing an array of modern equipment used to create and edit high-quality digital files.
A staff of four handles the months of pre- and post-production that go into every audio book’s creation, but the actual narration of each book is completed by a team of more than 60 volunteers like Yuill who generously dedicate their time – and vocal chords – to make books accessible.
Bart Morse can’t remember when he started narrating books, but he knows it was quite a long time ago. During the school year, he’s a fixture in the Perkins recording studio, arriving twice a week to record books and several of the magazines the library offers in audio form. He was inspired to begin narrating by his mother, who suffered from vision loss due to macular degeneration.
“I would visit her once or twice a month to read her mail and stuff like that,” he recalled. “She was a big user of recorded books and she said, ‘I’d much rather listen to you than these people on the tapes, no offense.’ So I started to look into it.”
The books recorded at Perkins can be obscure, and Morse is never certain what to expect when he starts a new project. After decades of recording, he’s learned never to judge a book by what’s written on the back cover.
“They’re surprising,” he said. “I had one book that was described as ‘some systems analysts that arranged a bank heist,’ and I thought it would be a comedy. Well, it turned out to be the most violent book I think I’ve ever read.”
Every volunteer brings a unique voice to the recording booth, along with a certain set of skills and interests. It’s up to Smith to match each book with the narrator best suited to it, and vice versa. In the past, Morse has primarily narrated biographies and historical nonfiction.
“I don’t do voices that well,” he explained, “although I’ve been getting into it a bit with historical novels.”
Many narrators say dialogue is the most difficult part of any recording project. It forces them to adopt slightly different voices for each character, and then keep them all straight as they weave in and out of the story.
Yuill’s first book, a murder mystery, included numerous back-and-forth conversations in addition to time travel, both of which challenged her to work on different methods of delivery.
“Narrating isn’t just reading slowly,” she said. “It’s really about reading in a way that people will be able to follow and really grasp and hopefully enjoy.”
As with any skill, practice goes a long way. Narrator Marilyn Rea-Beyer, who also works as the public relations director for Perkins, has been reading aloud since she was in grade school. Years later, it’s become nearly impossible for her to separate a written story from its audible counterpart.
“Even when I’m reading silently I’m hearing a speaking voice in my head,” she said. “It takes me a little bit longer to read things than most people because I can’t get away from that rhythm of the story, the rhythm of the voice.”
Nobody’s perfect, which is why most Perkins narrators work in pairs, with one person acting as a monitor. While Yuill records inside the Emily Dickinson Booth, her partner, Thomasine Berg, sits at a desk outside, visible through a glass window.
She listens to Yuill’s narration through headphones, making sure the words match up with what’s on the page. If Yuill stumbles over a word (Hemlock contains a lot of scientific terminology) Berg tells her where to resume her recording.
“I like having a partner because it gives you a safety net,” said Yuill. “They follow along word for word and always have your back. It’s one of the biggest benefits we have here.”
Once a book is recorded, post-production begins. Editors clean up the digital files and reviewers compare the cleaned-up version to the written text. Narrators re-record any mistakes, which are inserted into the final file. Using special software, staffers then convert the file into a digital talking book, available to the public for download.
These layers of review combined with advances in recording technology have resulted in a finished product that is light years ahead of the audio books produced when the studio first opened, Smith said.
“Since I got here I’ve worked really hard to bring up the standard and quality of what we do,” he said. “A lot of work goes into it but I wouldn’t feel good at all distributing books that are full of mistakes or sound bad. Our patrons rely on us for these books.”
Sona Andresian lost her vision more than 50 years ago at the age of 34. Since then, she’s struggled with various medical issues but remains an avid reader, thanks to audio books available through the Perkins Library. Having access to literature has given her life, she said.
“The books make me go all over the world,” she said. “I feel I’m part of the world out there because of these wonderful readers and these books.”
Patrons like Andresian remind Morse of his mother, who would often stay up late listening to audio books on tape. Morse remembers hearing the clunky noises of the cassette player and the sound of the narrator’s voice at all hours.
“It would go on forever because she’d fall asleep during it,” he recalled. “She just loved them, so I feel there must be a lot of people out there that (audio books are) their source for information, for entertainment, for all sorts of good things.”