Broadcasting the Past

Library podcasts explore local history

November 1, 2021

Jeff Whalen, special collections librarian at Long Beach (Calif.) Public Library, records an episode of Don’t Know Beach about History: Short Histories of Long Beach in August.
Jeff Whalen, special collections librarian at Long Beach (Calif.) Public Library, records an episode of Don’t Know Beach about History: Short Histories of Long Beach in August. Photo: Ryan Rogers

Keloni Parks, manager of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (Ohio) Public Library’s (CHCPL) West End branch, is passionate about West End history. Her father was born and raised in the area, and Parks used to visit family and friends there regularly while growing up. “The West End was one of the few places in the city where African Americans could reside,” she says. “[It] was dense, vibrant, and thriving.”

That all changed in the 1950s, when parts of the neighborhood were partially destroyed to make way for Interstate 75. “[The area] will never be what it was,” she says.

In an effort to share this history with her city, Parks started The West End Stories Project, a monthly podcast that preserves the fading narratives of African Americans who grew up in the area, before their stories are lost to time. The podcast, which debuted in September 2020, was inspired by two events: the construction of a soccer stadium that further displaced many West End residents and the death of local author John W. Harshaw Sr., who wrote the book Cincinnati’s West End: Through Our Eyes (2011). “Memories [were] erased with [Harshaw’s] passing, and the further destruction of the community really lit the fire to get the project started,” she says.

Parks is one of several librarians across the country using their research and tech skills to create podcasts that capture community histories—especially those perspectives that are often forgotten or marginalized. Many in the profession find that podcasting is easy to learn, and that audio brings a vibrance and immediacy that often can’t be replicated with the written word. Another reason for this medium’s popularity is the low barrier to entry, as library staffers are privy to the many free tools that are now available for recording, editing, and hosting podcasts.

Labor of love

Shoshanna Wechter, reference librarian at Ypsilanti (Mich.) District Library, created the podcast Ypsi Stories in November 2020 to explore overlooked aspects of the town’s history. “It was an opportunity to showcase different experiences, narratives, and histories that you don’t normally see in a history book or even from local history organizations,” she says.

Ypsi Stories was inspired by the local history programs that the library had hosted before the pandemic. When in-person events became impractical or impossible, Wechter turned to podcasting to fill the void. The monthly show features local historians and experts discussing everything from city infrastructure and Black liberation to organizational histories and personal narratives. The library supplements each episode with related videos, photos, bibliographies, and biographies on its website. “Ypsilanti has a rich and diverse history,” Wechter says, “and there are many people working on telling this history from different angles and through different lenses.”

One common thread running through these podcasts: It’s a labor of love.

“Doing a history podcast takes much longer than anyone probably thinks it should,” says Jeff Whalen, special collections librarian at Long Beach (Calif.) Public Library. “It’s much more work than seems reasonable.”

Whalen’s podcast, Don’t Know Beach about History: Short Histories of Long Beach, has explored the city’s everyday, sometimes eccentric aspects since its inception in June 2020.

“Super-interesting Long Beach stories are all over the place,” Whalen says. “It’s really more the digging in to find the best, most reliable information and then putting it all together in a way that’s as accurate as possible. You really have to piece it together yourself.”

Don’t Know Beach about History’s first nine episodes have showcased some of the more bizarre moments in Long Beach’s history—an abandoned mummy at a funhouse, a daredevil who attempted to set a world record in flagpole sitting, the arrest of baseball great Babe Ruth in 1927. “I loved growing up in Long Beach,” says Whalen, “but I didn’t have any idea the place had so many gripping, human stories.”

Whalen didn’t have to go far to find his city’s stories; they were waiting for him in the library’s local history collection. Uncovering them was a task he had trained for.

“You use all the tricks you learned in school and all the tricks you’ve learned on the job—how to work the databases and navigate books, newspapers, vertical files, scrapbooks, archives,” Whalen says. “You find clues that lead you to other clues that lead you to dead ends that lead you to try something else in some other part of the collection. You end up finding so many interesting details around the edges. I still have so much to learn about Long Beach’s collection. The podcast has helped me in that process.”

Assembling an episode

Parks records interviews for The West End Stories Project using Google Voice and edits audio using open source software Audacity. After she writes a rough outline and records narration with her phone, she sends her audio files to Kent Mulcahy, grants resource librarian at CHCPL and the podcast’s coproducer, to assemble the episode in Audacity.

To produce Ypsi Stories, Wechter also uses Audacity: “I taught myself as I went,” she says. She recommends using Spotify’s podcast distributor to host episodes.

Sharing human stories via podcasts has allowed these libraries to maintain and strengthen outreach with the patrons they serve. For Parks, her podcast is about preserving the memories of a once-dynamic community.

“[Our patrons] believe in the value of this work,” Parks says, referencing an email that she received from a listener. “They wrote: ‘Though I am getting on the old side, it’s refreshing to hear older people talk about their experiences growing up. It reminds me of listening to one’s grandparents reminisce. I always come across things I did not know, and it’s always interesting to think about how things once were.’”


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