Historically Yours: A Love Letter to Manuscripts as a Podcast from the Archives

By Colleen Theisen

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Microphone, photo by Ernest Duffoo.

With the enormous explosion of podcasts following the breakout success of Serial (2014-2016), many archives and special collections are turning to audio to give the space for extended storytelling and highlighting the work of their archivists, curators, and faculty.

This is not that story.

Iterative Process Creates a Podcast:
Historically Yours, the podcast from Special Collections at the University of Iowa took more than two years to create, as we tested versions of the idea, adapted them, tested them again, and adapted them. The central question guiding the process was: What do we do with manuscripts in social media spaces?

Special Collections at the University of Iowa has had a robust social media presence for more than five years. However, social media feeds inspire a certain type of interaction with content that privileges quick connection to visual material as it scrolls by in a feed leading to a heavier reliance on photography and rare books. Both are visual and have interesting aspects that can be grasped and understood quickly in a feed with minimal description. That fits the format of most social media feeds, and also the staff time required to produce content for the feeds quickly.

Presenting about The University of Iowa Special Collections’ social media outreach at the Midwest Archives Conference in 2014, I was asked an important question in the Q&A: What about manuscripts? In a quick scrolling feed, one manuscript can look like any other manuscript. I did not have an answer at the time: Manuscripts are harder. The compelling and addictive aspects of historic research are contained in the question, the quest, and the connections: The context. Context is something a rapidly scrolling social media feed does not well support. Context takes time to develop and time to deliver.

So I set out to solve that problem: What would be a format that would support just enough context and personality to really bring a historic document to life, but without being so overwhelming that it might be repeatable and sustainable?

My first answer to that question was a pilot video project called “History Out Loud” featuring a miscellaneous manuscript letter collection in Special Collections that I had always wanted to feature in some way. The MsL collection has thousands of individual letters with no collection and no context. Thinking of our fast social media posts, I determined that the equivalent of an Instagram post with a manuscript letter would be a video of a person reading the letter out loud. We piloted this video project with a test run of five short videos.  

In reviewing the footage, what became clear to me was that the visuals were getting in the way. Watching a person, their posture, the set around them, and even their facial expressions were not adding to the experience of hearing the letter, but rather were taking away from it – distracting from it. It was easier to pay attention to the letter as audio alone. The content was telling us that it wanted to be a podcast.

Then came Serial in October of 2014. A podcast entered into American popular culture to such an extent that it garnered a parody sketch on Saturday Night Live in December of that year.

Refinement:
With the recent explosion of interest in podcasts, I started expanding my own listening beyond the few radio-based formats I had traditionally consumed. In particular, recent humanities podcasts have been inventing new storytelling formats. Armed with knowledge, the concept grew and changed. Instead of one reader, inspired by The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, I added a guest to read the letter and took on the role of host. Dear Hank and John provided a format for adding theme music, a quote about letter writing, and a tagline. The project grew from, “Let’s read a historic letter” to being inspired by the question: “What can we learn from just one letter?” It changed from promoting a letter, a single historic document, to being an exploration about letter writing past and present, and the spark of inspiration that makes historic research so compelling, with our staff and guests’ full personalities and passions included. With that shift in focus, the name “History Out Loud” no longer captured its essence and we switched to “Historically Yours.”

With the format set, we were poised to record and discover all the problems and challenges recording in the library.

What you need to know about file storage:
The mass familiarity of sites like YouTube for video makes it seem like it should be possible when making a podcast to simply choose a site, upload files and go. However, unlike YouTube, podcast distribution sites like iTunes do not store files but only make them available via RSS feed from hosting site. The actual files need to be stored somewhere, and most of the file hosting options are not free, or have enticing free options that in the end only allow enough storage and bandwidth for a few episodes to be stored at a time. Archive.org can be used for free (and provides a tutorial). However, paying for a service gives you access to analytics. Historically Yours is hosted on Podbean.com and Podbean also offers step by step explanations of what resolution and formats your image and sound files should be to properly connect with iTunes, which was very helpful. Other options include Soundcloud and Libsyn. Soundcloud and Libsyn both have an entry-level tier with analytics for $7/month. However, Podbean.com had a tier for just $32/year while still including analytics, so I chose Podbean.

It is important to think of these sites like a storage locker. As Dana Gerber-Margie pointed out in her talk at the Midwest Archives Conference in 2017, the files can be deleted and lost the moment you fail to pay. The site does not and will not back up your files so archiving your work needs to happen at your institution.

None of the hosting sites are able to generate an invoice, so working with your institution to find a solution for paying might be a place where the process can stall.

Equipment & Editing:
It took us six months of trying every piece of equipment in every closet and adjusting to come up with the right combination of equipment and location to get good sound and move on with the project.

Needed:

  • Quiet place to record (HVAC hum will also be audible)
  • Recording device (Cell phone, Zoom H4N Recorder, computer)
  • Microphone (Will need omnidirectional microphone if recording with one mic and two people)
  • Computer for editing
  • Program for editing (Audacity or Audition)

 

zoom
Zoom H4N recorder.

In the end, our sound solution was to treat the podcast like an oral history. The Zoom H4N recorder we use for recording oral histories (~$150) doubles as a podcast recorder. We tested many USB microphone solutions and even cell phone microphones, but the Zoom was the best at picking up two voices. We are able to set it in between us, hit record, and go. Other set ups required us to find an omni-directional microphone in order for it to be pointing at two people in two directions. We are not audio engineers! It was tricky to get the sound right. The Zoom solved our audio issues.

 

For editing, we use Audacity, which is free to download. There are great tutorials online, which are needed because the buttons are not clear. I picked it up from tutorials and was editing in 15 minutes, but it did require a tutorial to explain what the minimally marked buttons meant. At first the episodes took an hour to edit, but they get faster each time.

 

Historically Yours
Thumbnail logo for Historically Yours.

Get a designer:
There is an important and obvious step that I missed along the way: You will need a thumbnail and a header image for your podcast. The thumbnail is very important in inspiring people to listen to your podcast, so do not skimp on this step. I started a Twitter, Facebook, and blog for the podcast as well so the thumbnail and header image had to be resized and reformatted for each site. This took a good deal of time and should be factored into the schedule. I did not have access to a designer so our team worked with Canva, the online graphic design software, to create the thumbnail and headers.

 

Sharing the RSS feed:

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View of the Historically Yours feed in iTunes.

Once you have your perfect first episode and design and you have paid for a hosting site, and put it together, there is another step before fully launching your podcast. Once our Podbean site was set, I submitted the feed to iTunes and it took us two days before our RSS feed was approved. If you have announced a specific date that your podcast will launch, this could slow down the process. You may need to upload your files to your hosting site, submit the feed to iTunes, wait for approval, and then fully roll out the advertising for your podcast when it has been approved by the various podcast sites.

 

Results/What We’ve Learned:
So far Historically Yours has five published episodes and is averaging 100 downloads per episode. The highest number of downloads always comes on the first day. That first day download number has increased with each episode, so the podcast is growing a healthy base community.

In each episode of Historically Yours, we call on our community to help us out with the research. From the very first episode we had a listener inspired to do a bit of historic research about the letter and we received a listener response (via email) about the results of their searching, identifying more information about the theater fire described in the letter. For the next episode, I will read user feedback letters on the air and we expect the user connection and response letters to increase as soon as they are read on the air.

The podcast gives a chance to feature our staff and graduate student as real idiosyncratic passionate people who love research, and seems to be inspiring responses from like-minded passionate history nerds. It seems the perfect method to reduce fear of the institution or the professionals by connecting with and inspiring new users.

The steps to make a podcast are not all that difficult, but like any creative work the end result is improved by testing, critiquing, and changing. If you have the space to invest in the concept in bursts without a tight timeline you can troubleshoot the process along the way, learn from those who have gone before, and create a really meaningful way to connect with our users.

Tips:

  • Finding a quiet place to record was our biggest challenge. Have your recording location identified (and tested) before proceeding far. Between HVAC banging, construction, door slams, and interruptions, many locations may not be feasible.
  • Give your podcast a home on your blog as well. We post a transcription of the letter we are reading each episode to our blog along with an image of the letter.
  • Our followers asked for the RSS feed to be added to: iTunes, Pocket Casts, and Stitcher, as well as its home on Podbean.
  • It might be good to upload three episodes at once to start with, especially for a short podcast – having several episodes to binge at once can build a fan.
  • If you are using a single microphone and one person’s voice is deeper or quieter, put the microphone closer to them.
  • Get multiple memory cards and a card reader.
  • People trying out the podcast will listen to the first episode. Over time, episode one will have the most downloads and will be the most important. It’s your commercial. Do your best to get episode one right.

Historically Yours:
Historically Yours is asking the question: What can you learn from just one letter?

Host: Colleen Theisen
Guests: Staff, graduate students, faculty, and friends.
Theme music: Will Riordan
Editing: Colleen Theisen and Farah Boules

As we say on the podcast – DON’T FORGET TO WRITE!


Colleen Theisen is the Outreach & Engagement Librarian for Special Collections & University Archives at the University of Iowa Libraries, where she coordinates social media, including a Tumblr named “New and Notable” by Tumblr in 2013, the YouTube channel, “Staxpeditions,” and the podcast “Historically Yours.” She started her career as a high school art teacher and completed her Master of Science in Information in 2011 at the University of Michigan School of Information. In 2015 she was named a Library Journal Mover & Shaker. She’s on  Twitter @libralthinking.

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