Calibre's history shows how quite 'ordinary' people can see a problem and decide to do something about it - and find that they have set up an extraordinary national charity.
Calibre was set up by three north London women in 1974. Susan Beazley had a partially sighted son, James, and was frustrated that there was little available to allow him to enjoy books easily. The main services of the day, RNIB’s Talking Book Service and the Listening Library both charged a subscription. More importantly, they recorded books in special formats so that users needed special playback machines.
Susan and two friends, Monica McMullen and Ros Thornton, started recording books on ordinary audio cassettes. They saw that cassettes offered a cheap and practical way of meeting the need. Calibre Cassette Library, as it was then called, was based on three principles:
the service was to be free;
it was to use standard, readily-available equipment and;
it was to be for anyone who could not read ordinary books whether because of sight problems or other physical disabilities.
These principles still underpin the service today.
A kitchen table launch
The service initially ran from Monica’s kitchen table. Word spread and very soon they started getting requests from adults. They soon had 12 books for 10 adult members – prompting concern about what would happen when the members had read them all!
In 1976 Monica moved from north London to Wendover in Buckinghamshire and Calibre moved with her - first to her new kitchen table then Portacabins in the garden. By the end of the 1970s, Calibre had 600 titles and was sending out 30 books a day.
By this time the old Portacabins were too small and the charity moved to a wing of the old Tindal Hospital in Aylesbury.
When the Health Authority decided it needed the premises back, Calibre moved to its purpose-built office on the edge of Aylesbury in 1987. We still work there today – and yes, we have some Portacabins because we have outgrown our space!
Serving a growing membership
By 1987 Calibre had 7,000 members. This was something of a surprise to the founders who had been told that at most 5,000 people would need their service. In fact growth continued and now our service reaches around 20,000 people from all over the UK and beyond.
Monica McMullen, who had been the organising secretary from the start, was awarded the MBE in 1986. She retired in 1989 and died in April 2006. Without her tireless energy and persistence, Calibre could not have become the successful, well-established service it is today.
A new name for a digital age
We changed our name from Calibre Cassette Library to Calibre Audio Library in April 2006 to usher in the introduction of our digital service in July 2006. Although our books are still available on cassettes to our existing members, we are now far from being simply a 'cassette library'. Read more about our digital service.
The image below shows Calibre today with staff processing some of the daily post of returned MP3 CDs. These are either reissued promptly to another member or returned to the library shelves.