The phrase occurred to Joe Janes out of the blue one day and immediately appealed to him. From there, ideas began to flow quickly.
Janes, associate professor in the University of Washington Information School, had been a fan of the British Broadcasting Corp. radio series “A History of the World in 100 Objects” and thought those shows effectively blended history and storytelling.
He got to wondering, what if he took a similar approach to information, telling about the twists and turns of history — through documents?
We’re surrounded by, live by, various documents but take them for granted, Janes said. What if he “opened up” their stories by discussing how such documents came to be, what they mean and, in some cases, what they are becoming over time in a changing world?
“There’s this rich history and background of documents of all different kinds — and I mean that very broadly — that have had profound impacts on all aspects of human life,” Janes said. “And people rarely pay attention that, rarely acknowledge or notice.”
Janes quickly ruled out some of the more obvious choices. “Everybody knows about the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of the Rights of Man in France,” he said. “And everybody knows books that made a huge difference. But I think there are things that are a little less obvious — and as a result, more revealing.”
Take the case of the first podcast he’ll release, about President Barack Obama’s much-discussed birth certificate. “I tried to do that one in a noncringeworthy sort of way, so it’s not yet another story about the birthers,” Janes said with a smile.
Janes does not question the president’s citizenship. “But the birth certificate, to me, raises questions about authenticity and authentication of documents — how do you go about doing that?” He added, “It’s absolutely essential, but who pays any attention to it, and what happens if it’s wrong? And how much longer will that piece of paper survive in an increasingly digital world?”
Another podcast, created by Janes’ student Andrew Brink, is about the map that physician John Snow created in 1854 that shows both where people were getting sick from cholera and where they got their water, thus solving the mystery of cholera contagion. Brink set up the story with dramatic flair: “You fill a bucket with water, and return home. You don’t know it yet, but in choosing to use that particular pump, you’ve just determined whether your family will live or die.”
Birth certificates and passports and such are one type of document, but Janes said in the information world the definition is more elastic. “You can stretch that at the ends — what’s really the difference between the text of a broadcast and the broadcast itself?
“I think it’s fascinating to throw open the idea of what a document is — to include, let’s say, the Bayeux Tapestry, or ‘The Jazz Singer‘ as the first film made with synchronized sound,” Janes said. Other possibilities include “Steamboat Willie,” the 1928 debut of Mickey Mouse; and the first-ever text message or email.
Janes said he’s also considering a podcast on a “document” known mainly by its absence — the famous 18 and a half-minute gap in the Watergate tapes from the Nixon presidency. “Some documents are notable for what they don’t contain,” he said.
He wouldn’t mind delving into fiction, either. He’s on the lookout for a document referenced in a novel, play or movie that, though made up, “nonetheless had some effect in the real world.”
Other podcast possibilities, Janes said, include the first credit card, Webster’s Dictionary, the Unabomber Manifesto and the AIDS Quilt.
Janes hopes that some day, his Documents That Changed the World series might find a larger audience or sponsorship, and of course he can’t help but dream of it running on National Public Radio.
“I’m trying to take things that are less known or less appreciated and tell their stories in a slightly different way, to leave people with something new to think about, a background or perspective they didn’t know.”
He has several podcasts finished and several more planned, each to be presented at UW Today — and more are occurring to him all the time.
“I’m just the sort of person who thinks of these things,” he said.
– By Peter Kelley
*Source: University of Washington