By day, Adrian Praetzellis digs, pulling out stories from the detritus the dead have left behind.
By night and on weekends, however, the archaeologist and director of Sonoma State University's Anthropological Studies Center tells tales of a different sort.
In an attic room tucked into the eaves of his 1870s house near downtown Santa Rosa, Praetzellis reads aloud. No one is there to hear as he intones, in his soothing English accent, everything from great works of literature to children's works like "The Wind in the Willows" to the Sierra diary of John Muir. His pet project is to pluck out obscure Yiddish fiction deeply buried in archives and otherwise doomed to be seen only by scholars.
His solitary and unpaid exercise in story-telling has reached close to half a million listeners through LibriVox, a free and communally run library of digital audio recordings. The operation was started four years ago by young Montreal techie Hugh McGuire, with the altruistic mission of making as many texts as possible available to a limitless number of people around the world in audio format with no filters, no judgments and no fees. It not only is nonprofit, but has no paid administration.
The only real restriction is that all the texts must be non-copyrighted and in the public domain. In the U.S. that would include anything published before 1923.
Some 3,500 people like Praetzellis have posted recordings — 3,175 books and 65,000 other audio texts ranging from poetry and plays to government documents and important letters and speeches on the site, LibriVox.org.
What gets recorded is up to the whim, tastes and motivations of the volunteers. Some are near professional quality; some are terrible. There is no posted feedback on the site, so as not to inhibit people — including the talented but shy — from trying. But other off-site forums have sprung up to rate the readers and Praetzillis, who has an ear for intonation and inflection along with a bit of a dramatic flair — not to mention that winning "Masterpiece Theater" accent — seems to be a four- and five-star favorite. His rendition of "Treasure Island," complete with drunken pirates singing, was turned into an iPhone app that has been downloaded 125,000 times.
Knock around the site and you can find such disparate literature as someone reading Einstein's Theory of Relativity, the 9/11 Commission Report, the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
"There's no quality control," McGuire said by cell phone from Quebec, where he has a tech start-up, bitesizeedits.com, that connects writers with teams of editors who improve their prose, one sentence at a time.
"Anyone can record. You can be terrible at it," he said. "As long as your recording conforms to the text it will be accepted. We check everything to make sure it's audible. There are in the collection a handful of recordings that are pretty close to unlistenable. But the vast majority are very good if not excellent."