Walk into professor Joseph Janes’ west-facing office on the third floor of Mary Gates Hall, and the view might be the first thing you notice. The second thing to catch your eye is the surfaces: Every tabletop, shelf, and chair is covered with enormous stacks of books.
“I’ve always been attracted by stuff,” said Janes, who is a professor in the UW Information School. “I’ve got lots of stuff.”
It might be accurate to say that “stuff” is the topic of Janes’ podcast, “Documents That Changed the World.” Launched in August 2012, the podcast takes documents from history and examines not only the context and information they provide, but their formation, historical impact, and even their future.
Janes is particularly interested in the opportunity for storytelling these documents can provide.
The subjects of Janes’ musings run the gambit. He’s touched on a great swath of history in the 47 podcasts he’s published, from the first woman’s college diploma (1840) to the AIDS Quilt (1980), from Einstein’s letter to Roosevelt (1939) to the Gregorian Calendar (1582). No document, physical or digital, is off limits for Janes. The only requirement is that the topic has to interest him.
“If I don’t care, I’m not going to do it,” Janes said.
The podcasts range from 10-12 minutes in length, but “they could all easily be two or three times longer,” Janes said. “The form forces me to be concise. You just can’t make it 45 minutes.”
This requires Janes to be strict with himself when it comes to editing. Each episode has a written script, which for the 10-12 minute episode ends up being around 3-4 pages.
The aspect of podcast production that took the longest for Janes to get right is both a hallmark of the format and the bane of a podcaster’s existence: creating a story that will keep listeners all the way through to the end.
“You can’t just list off a bunch of facts,” Janes said. “It has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
Take the first college diploma issued to a woman: Catherine Elizabeth Benson Brewer received her diploma from the Georgia Female College, now known as Wesleyan College, in July 1840. How did she get the honor of being first? By being first alphabetically, of course. But is there more to it than that? Do diplomas still carry the same weight today, in an increasingly digital world, as they did 175 years ago?
“Documents That Changed the World” isn’t necessarily going to answer those questions for you. Rather, it provides the background information so listeners might know how to ask more.
“It’s those kinds of things that, the more I dig into it, the more I go ‘Oh my god, I never knew that,’” Janes said. “So when I get that feeling, that’s what goes in the [podcast].”
While genuine curiosity plays a large part in what subjects are chosen, it also has a little bit to do with timeliness and relevance to today’s events. Janes’ most recent podcast revisited the Palm Beach County “butterfly” ballots and “hanging chads” of the 2000 presidential election.
Released shortly before this year’s Florida primaries, Janes’ podcast recounted the story of Theresa LePore, the supervisor of elections in Palm Beach County in 2000 and designer of the contentious “butterfly ballots.”
“I wanted to leave out all the political stuff,” Janes said, referencing the controversial Bush versus Gore debate. “First of all, I couldn’t face it. Second of all, everybody knows what happened and I’m not going to change anybody’s mind.”
But while everyone knows the outcome of the election, not everyone knows that LePore had been working in the same office since 1971 as a file clerk, hired at age 16. Further, not everyone may know exactly how the ballot system was designed or how it led to so much confusion. Janes does the research of approaching those hazy memories of that election and reminds us — or perhaps informs some of us for the first time — how exactly that happened.
“That’s what fascinates me, is these sometimes quite insignificant looking things that can have huge impacts,” Janes said. “People find the stories interesting, but it’s also the larger story about the power these things have, the work they do, and how that fits into many aspects of our society.”
Next on Janes’ ever-growing “To-Do” list of important documents is Webster’s Dictionary. Perhaps after that, Janes muses, is Shakespeare’s First Folio. Janes was inspired by the Seattle Public Library’s Shakespeare exhibit, which he, like many other Seattleites, went to see at the Central Library downtown.
It doesn’t seem like Janes will ever run out of ideas or things to talk about.
“I know just enough about everything to be dangerous,” Janes said, with the same humor that often makes its way into his podcast. “But one of the things that continues to fascinate me is there’s always some aspect that nobody ever thought of.”
Reach reporter Madelyn Reese at email@example.com. Twitter: @MadelynGReese