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Bwogger Chloe Gong interviews Michelle Wilson, the librarian who started Podcast Club.
Hey guys, it’s me, Bwog’s unofficial library correspondent, back with another episode of Things You Didn’t Know Butler Library Has.
This time, I sat down with Michelle Wilson, Columbia’s Digital Publishing librarian, to learn about the Podcast Club, which has only been active for one semester so far. This Thursday, February 20th, the Podcast Club will have its first spring semester meeting in Butler 305 from 5 to 7 pm. All are welcome, regardless of experience level!
CG: I guess I’ll start with why and when you started this club and what your motivations for it were.
MW: So we started getting a lot of requests from people to do podcasting services at the library since I started here about a year and a half ago. We didn’t have any podcasting equipment or services are spaces here in the library, so last summer we were coming up with a pilot plan for how we would start to offer podcasting services. And one of the first groups of people that I wanted to offer services to were students, especially undergraduates because a lot of the things that we do through the Digital Scholarship Division here in the library is like academic journals, or big digital humanities projects, which are not things that are really available to undergrads because they require a lot of resources—people need to be available to work on the projects for years, and sometimes people graduate and move on.
But podcasting was something that we thought we could work with undergrads on to help them tell stories about their research and play around with new digital tools. It’s also just something that people think is accessible and fun; you just grab a microphone and kind of get your thing out there. But there’s, as I’ve learned, a lot to it—not only just learning to use the right recording equipment and editing software but also, the way that you write when you’re talking is so different than the way you write an academic paper. We want people to be able to share research and scholarship, and so that means teaching people how to write about the things they’re passionate about in a different way and learning things like how to interview and cut together a script.
Part of that is also helping people to find a team. So the idea of Podcast Club was to create a structure where there’s a project that people can come and join in on and get put onto a team with other people, so they don’t have to come with an idea and they don’t have to have skills in order to do it, and they don’t have to have friends who also want to do with them—they can make friends in the club! That was sort of the impetus behind it and why we made the meetings Thursdays in the evenings because we wanted it to be something that students could come and participate in outside of classes.
CG: So it’s very accessible and anyone can join.
CG: And how big is the club right now?
MW: We did it for the first time last semester and we only had 10 people, which is actually a lot of fun for like a pilot group, because it meant that we were able to do a lot of one-on-one work with everyone, but I’d love for the club to be a bit bigger. There’s no limit on how many people can join, but I would love for people to be able to work in teams of like four or five, because most of our teams were working in pairs, and it’s just a lot of work over the course of the semester to do the interviewing and the sound editing and transcription and everything like that.
And we were able to help them with some steps and I sort of meet the club so that we would learn for the first hour and then have co-working time. So having a designated time made it easier for people, but I think that if we had more people working on each episode, then people could divide out into more jobs are roles, especially depending on what they’re interested in. So if someone’s really into like audio editing and sound mixing but doesn’t really want to do research, or is shy and doesn’t want to be the narrator, there’s space for people to specialize or play around with the thing that they’re most interested in.
CG: Is there one central podcast that everyone works on, or are there separate projects?
MW: So the idea is, we have a podcast that’s called Material Culture, and every group makes one episode. It’s called Material Culture because we focus on objects that are part of the material world, things that people have made—specifically stuff that is here in the library, like objects that are in The Archives or the special collections here, or even just objects in the library that people might not know the history of. And we talk in the first meeting of our club about what object storytelling is and how you can take anything and talk about its history: its personal history to the person who owned it, or where it sits within a social or cultural history, or manufacturing history.
The objects are pre-selected by librarians and curators here, so when the students come in, they get to know what the objects are for that semester and pick which project they want to work on based on which one sounds the most interesting to them. And then they get to interview the librarian or the curator has selected that object, so they get some expert information about what makes that object unique or valuable to our human existence or why we have it here in the library. And so those can be really interesting interviews and allows the students to have different audio that they can cut together, but also leads them off on their own research; and those Librarians were available for more questions throughout the semester if students wanted to have more research resources, so it’s kind of a good way to get in touch with what we offer here at the library.
CG: Are any of these podcast episodes out or on streaming platforms like Spotify?
MW: Yeah, they’re on iTunes right now!
CG: Oh cool, I’ll definitely check them out. Is there anything you would want to improve from last semester, like what went well, and what would you want to change?
MW: I do think having more people would be helpful, and also reducing the number of objects that we’re looking at this semester; we had two groups that just got overwhelmed at the end of the semester. And like I said, we had some co-working time in the club itself, but I want to increase that, so doing only an hour of any sort of instruction or activities at the beginning, and giving people space to work. We used Slack to collaborate outside of our work time and that worked okay, but a lot of people aren’t very familiar with Slack. Towards the end, we realized people were emailing us all the time, and we were like, use the Slack! And so this time we’ll try to encourage and moderate that space more, get people talking more on there, ‘cause I think it increases group collaboration. And I know that there were a couple of people who’ve been emailing me saying that they can’t make the 5 to 7 slot on Thursday and if they can still participate, and I think that definitely they could if we had that active Slack community, that they could still be able to work on scripts or help with editing, even if they’re not able to come to the club. So that’s something I’d like to work on that would increase the availability of the club to people who can’t make that time.
CG: So what kind of skill sets can be worked on in this club? And what types of equipment can you learn to use?
We worked on buying the same professional-level recording equipment that they have over at Barnard at the Milstein center. So we’re trying to make sure that the equipment that you can borrow and use across the Columbia-Barnard campus is consistent, and the director Rachel James who’s the director of the media center there has been very helpful in advising me on purchasing some of the equipment. So we have microphones and headphones that you can check out and use with portable Zoom recorders that have SD cards. But also you can connect them to your computer to download the audio. So that allows people to go and record in their dorm room or go to someone to conduct an interview.
We also have a small recording space here in the library that’s only available to people who’ve been through our podcasting orientation and have been approved to do a podcast with the libraries or people who are in Podcast Club. So if you’re an undergraduate student who wants to learn about this, but doesn’t have an idea for a fully-fledged podcast, this is the way that you can go into that recording studio and practice with some of that equipment. So you learn a little bit about how to set input levels, order the files that you have, download those things, but also how to get good quality sound, how to instruct people where to sit to get the right sound on the microphone, and how to make sure that the sound is consistent for everybody. We also work on editing sound using an open-source software called Audacity that you can just download for free. We do have access to a couple of other recording softwares like Adobe Audition in the podcasting studio—there’s a computer that has it downloaded there and it’s available on a few other computers around campus, especially in the media center at Barnard. Basically, we want people to be able to walk away with skills that they can use without having to buy a license.
We also talked about, like, how do you publish a podcast? What’s an RSS feed? Where does the podcast live online and how does it make its way to iTunes? And how do people find your podcast? Why is it important to make a podcast website? So we learn all of the different steps, not just how to record but how to do the publishing, and also, like I was talking about at the beginning, how to communicate in a different way. How do I tell an interesting story? How do I find a hook about this thing? We work with our journalism librarian on that and it’s a really fun session. And then, when I’m writing for my narration, how do I make this sound natural and engaging? How do I find a way to talk to my audience that’s going to make them care about the thing that I care about?
CG: Ok, one final question: why do you think podcasting as a type of medium is important, especially today?
MW: Well, for the university and for digital scholarship, we decided to invest in it because we think the university produces a lot of amazing scholarship and stories and research—all the objects we have here in the library, all the advances coming out of our medical center, even the work that our undergraduates are producing, are not reaching as wide audiences as they could be. Because a lot of the work that we do gets published in academic journals, or sometimes makes it out to the mainstream media, but we wanted to encourage people to play around with this form of communication that has this huge, unlimited audience. We think that it’s just a huge megaphone that we’d be ignoring to share the important research, stories, and discoveries that are coming out of here with people because that’s where their ears are right now.
So if you’re at all interested in podcasts, make sure to attend Podcast Club’s weekly meetings on Thursdays from 5 to 7 in Butler 305! Also, check out Material Culture at their website and on iTunes!
Image via Columbia University Libraries