New Job, New Opportunities at the Omohundro Institute

I’m excited to announce that I’ve joined the staff at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture as its new Digital Projects Editor. This is a really exciting opportunity because it means long-term support for Ben Franklin’s World and the Doing History series and a chance to continue working and collaborating with the OI’s great staff of talented historians and professionals.

Over the last two years, the team at the Omohundro Institute has helped develop Ben Franklin’s World into a serious and professional media outlet for scholarly history. Their knowledge has played a major role in growing Ben Franklin’s World into a podcast that receives over 160,000 downloads per month and has garnered more than 2 million downloads in less than 3 years. Plus, the Doing History series has evolved into a dynamic series that not only shows the world how historians work and why our work matters, but encourages us to experiment with adapting our traditional modes of historical interpretation and communication to new media. (Thus far these experiments have proven successful as episodes in the Doing History: To the Revolution! series are the most downloaded episodes in the entire BFWorld catalog.)

It’s also an exciting opportunity because the Omohundro Institute is the preeminent organization in the world for early American historical scholarship. They do so much to support the work that we historians do through their fellowship and publication programs, conferences, and digital history initiatives and by challenging themselves and others to produce the best scholarship in the field. And now, Ben Franklin’s World and I get to be a BIGGER part of that work.

Going forward, listeners can still expect great interviews with scholars who work on different aspects of early American History. Episodes will continue to post on Tuesdays, just as they have been for over two and a half years, and listeners can also expect more multi-part series with narrative-style episodes.

For nearly 75 years, the Omohundro Institute has been committed to producing the best scholarship in early American history and I’m really looking forward to meeting the challenge of producing episodes that meet their high standards as well as the high standards the Ben Franklin’s World and Doing History audiences have come to expect. I’m excited to contribute to the Omohundro Institute’s long tradition of excellence.


Sounds of History: What Did Early America Sound Like?

What did early America sound like? boston-harbor

This recurring thought has recently moved from the back of my brain to its front.

I'm fortunate to live in Boston, a city that attempts to preserve vestiges of its early American past even as it builds around them. Living in a place with many visual reminders of the 18th and 19th centuries provides ample reminders to pause and listen for early America.

In recent weeks it has become typical to find me standing at the corner of State and Congress Streets, for example, staring down State Street at the Long Wharf, tuning out the cars in the foreground, and trying to imagine what it sounded like when ships pulled into and out of port and dockworkers loaded and unloaded cargo holds. Or standing on a lawn on the Common trying to imagine the sounds the British military encampments made in 1768 and during the 1770s.

I've even started pacing the sidewalks in my neighborhood in areas where the sidewalk transitions from granite cobblestones to brick pavers. I'm wearing modern shoes, but the sounds my shoes make as they make contact with these different materials sounds different. What would it sound like if I wore period shoes?

Sound shapes our world, mostly in unconscious ways. It drives our experiences in part by establishing context and setting expectations.

Film provides a great example of the power of sound and how it shapes our expectations and experiences.

For example, let's explore a few of the sounds in Star Wars. The movie opens and immediately the music used to introduce the film sets an expectation that we are in for a grand, epic tale about "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." Background music and sounds frame scenes so we know if we're watching Tie Fighters chase the Millennium Falcon or a shoot out between rebels and drones. We also know when Darth Vader is coming. His heavy, ominous breathing gives him away even before we see him on screen.

If you want to have some fun, try watching Star Wars (or any other film) without sound. It changes the experience and makes it easy to lose the story because it lacks the context sound provides.


The fourteenth and final episode in the "Doing History: How Historians Work" posted today. Each series episode presents a discussion with one or more of the seventeen historians, archivists, and genealogists I interviewed about how they work with and use the historical process. As I reflect back on all the sage advice they provided, two recurring themes stand out:

1. Process: The production of historical knowledge comes out of a collaborative process based on evidence, analysis, and interpretation. Even historians who claim to work alone rely on work produced by other historians and on sources produced by people who lived in the past.

2. People: History is about people. It's the study of how and why people lived, acted, and responded in different times, places, and circumstances. It tells us who we are as people, communities, and individuals and its knowledge provides us with the intellectual tools we need to navigate and better understand our present-day world.

In the final episode of the "Doing History: How Historians Work" series, Lonnie Bunch, the Founding Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture stresses that historians need to humanize the past so that everyone can relate to history and realize that the past is alive and a part of who they are.

For most humans, sound is a fundamental part of who we are. It's an essential part of our humanity as it frames every moment of every day and shapes our preferences and moods.

Sound has the power to humanize the past in a way that the text in books, articles, and exhibits cannot. It has the power to evoke mental images, create empathy, and to tell us something about the ways people lived, worked, and responded to events in ways that we cannot fully understand through text alone. I believe that sound can work with the other media historians produce to create a more three-dimensional image of past peoples, places, and events and to make them seem more real, more human.

Therefore, I plan to spend 2017 thinking more consciously about what early America sounded like and experimenting with sound in my scholarship. I expect you will see and hear the results of my thinking in future podcast episodes--especially those in the forthcoming "Doing History: To the Revolution!" series and in how I think and talk about my new book project on the Articles of Confederation--a project that I've already begun to compose in both text and sound.

That's what I'm working on in 2017. What aspect of history will you be working on and exploring?


Plan for a Historian Digital Media Network

Historian Digital Media NetworkOn March 3, 2016, I explored the idea of whether it makes sense to create a podcast network for historians. Eight weeks later, I am convinced that historians need a network. But we need more than a podcast network. We need a digital media network. Presently, digital media consists of blogs and online magazines, podcasts, and on-demand video. In the near future, virtual and augmented reality devices will enhance each of these media types with immersive experiences.

A digital media network offers historians the ability to cultivate and convey their work to wide and receptive public audiences. Digital media compliments books and articles by providing additional ways to disseminate ideas. A digital media network also provides historians with flexibility. Flexibility to present history in different media and flexibility to work in and develop new forms of media as they enter our digital world.

In this post, you will discover my plan to start a historian digital media network.


Overall Vision

If granted convenient access to the work of professional historians, the public will take an interest in history and historians’ work and become advocates for it. Convenient access to professional historical work will not only increase the ability of society to think historically, but having more advocates for history will help ensure that we have the funding we need for our research and the majors we need to keep our departments alive and fresh with talent.

The historian digital media network has a two-part mission: 1. To create wide public awareness about history and the work of professional historians by providing convenient access to history and historical research through digital media. 2. To educate historians how to use digital media to communicate history to people within and outside of the historical profession.

Plan of Execution

Given the rather large scope of this idea, I have been exploring models for how to execute it. The most promising models come from the technology sector.

Alphabet Inc.: This company made up of many companies started with just one company: Google, the wealthiest company in the world. Larry Page and Sergey Brin had big, long-term plans for what they wanted their business to do, but rather than execute all of their ideas at once, they started with one idea: how to improve people’s ability to search the internet.

Amazon: Today, Amazon stands as one of the largest logistics and technology companies in the world. But, before the company provided computing power on its AWS servers, warehouse and drop-shipping services, merchandise of all types, and digital media, Amazon.com provided one service: the ability to locate and purchase hard-to-find book titles.

Apple: Apple manufacturers high-quality computers and media devices and provides media delivery services. The second wealthiest company in the world started with three dudes in a garage who wanted to bring computers to the people. Their idea: shrink room-sized machines into personal, desktop kits.

All three of these companies are huge in size, scope, and profits. They achieved their success by starting off with one, small idea and executing that small idea well.

Similarly, I intend to start a historian digital media network with one, small idea and executing it well: podcasts.


Why Podcasts?

Podcast-MicPodcasts are hot right now.

Since my last post, Edison Research released its “Infinite Dial 2016” report. The study revealed a large increase in the number of podcast listeners and an increase in the number of podcasts people listen to. Additionally, The New York Times announced that it is creating an audio division, Audible.com (an Amazon company) released the beta for its new short-form audio service, and Google Play Music finally launched its podcast directory and service. I also intend to start the network with podcasts because, at the moment, it is the media I most enjoy learning more about, working with, and the one I am finding the most success with.

Starting a digital media network with just podcasts is also a large undertaking. Ideally, the historian digital media network will convey history from all periods and subfields. However, launching a network with one podcast from every period and subfield won’t work. We won’t be able to build the audience we need to sustain a network with such a diversified strategy at the start. Therefore, we must begin with an even smaller piece and work our way toward the end goal.


Where to Start?

Listeners patronize networks because they offer consistent content in terms of quality, topic, and release schedule. Listeners are more likely to tune in to new shows if they already know and like the hosts and content of the podcasts they listen to. Therefore, I imagine building the network up and out much like we convey narrative in survey courses.

The network needs to start with one historical period and subfield. It will start by offering content about early American history. Ben Franklin’s World will serve as the network’s first podcast. It will be the base from which we launch other programs. New programs will tie into and build off of the geography and period of early American history because this consistent and related content approach will encourage listeners to sample new network programs.


How to Add New Shows?

Building out the network comes down to two factors: Money and historians.

I cannot build this network alone. I have many ideas for shows and how historians can utilize digital media of all types to convey their ideas, but presently, I need to keep my focus on Ben Franklin’s World. Its quality cannot drop. It is the cornerstone of the network and we must not take its audience for granted. Ben Franklin’s World will not only help us build the audience for the historian digital media network, it will help us fund it.

Ben Franklin's World has grown to a point where I could seek the corporate sponsorship of companies like MailChimp and Squarespace. (I have a different strategy for how to monetize the podcast, but that must wait for another post.) Once I monetize Ben Franklin's World, we will have funds to invest into new shows, which will need webpages, hosting, artwork, audio engineers, software, and recording equipment.

Aside from money, the network needs people. Not only should the network provide a space where the public can hear many different historian voices, but the network needs the labor of many historians to exist. Podcasting is fun, but it is a labor-intensive media. Therefore, I need to find enthusiastic people who share in the vision of a historian media network and find ways to realize the second goal of the network: to educate historians how to use digital media to communicate history to people within and outside of the historical profession.

Ben Franklin’s World could be used as an educational tool. I am confident I could bring in historians and graduate students to work on the backend of the show to gain experience in digital media (podcasting requires knowledge of blogging and video too). As colleagues gain experience with Ben Franklin's World, we could work on ideas for shows they would like to produce and work on launching them.

However, this is easier said than done. I haven’t yet figured out how to effectively bring in people to work on Ben Franklin's World in a virtual setting. I can demonstrate many of the technical aspects of podcasting via a shared-screen video conference, but providing hands-on experience and in-person discussion would be difficult and this type of work is best performed with hands-on practice.

Hands-on practice with the technology and with communication is key as the network must offer high-quality content to realize maximum success. Anyone can podcast, but not everyone can produce a high-quality podcast. Hands-on experience is critical to learning the art of the latter.


First Steps

Clearly, I still have a lot of details to work out and thinking to do. But, I am going to start building the network as I work out those details. I will finalize and implement my monetization strategy for Ben Franklin’s World. I will build the network's website, the gateway to all network content. And, I will survey my audience to see what periods and areas of history they would like to discover more about.

Rome was not built in a day and this network won’t be built in a day either. It’s going to take years. But, I am confident we will sort out the details as we go and hopefully within a few years the network will start to resemble a broad, inclusive platform for the profession. A platform that will help us spread ideas, promote historical thinking, and create advocates who will help support and advance our work.


Network Name

The network needs a name. What do you think it should be?

I am sitting on a couple of domain names, but I would love to know what you think.


#TravelinBen: The Historian's Flat Stanley

Flat StanleyDo you know Flat Stanley? Flat Stanley is a paper boy that kids cut out, color, and send to friends, family, and pen pals. These friends and correspondents take pictures of Stanley in different places and send those pictures back to his owner. Once the pictures come back, the kids write stories about where Stanley has been and what he did during his trip(s).

The Flat Stanley exercise helps kids learn “authentic literacy.” Kids get to create and write about the stories and ideas they are passionate about.

Flat Stanley made me wonder, can historians and history teachers use a version of this idea to help kids learn and become passionate about history?

In this post, you will discover my new experiment for 2016: #TravelinBen.


The Inspiration

I have two nephews and a niece.

I met my eldest nephew when he was 6 or 7 years old. He talked my ear off for hours about Pokémon during our first meeting. It was cute even if I had no idea what to do with the conversation. Today, he’s 18 and a freshman in college.

My other nephew and niece are young. My youngest nephew is 1 year and my niece is 3.5 years old.

Admittedly, I am not a baby person and I feel (and likely look) clueless around little kids. However, my niece has decided she won’t stand for a clueless auntie.*

Every time I walk into her house for a visit, she runs up, gives me a hug, and takes me to her playroom. We color, build Lincoln Logs, go shopping at her store, play doctor, and serve tea with her princess tea set. Mostly, she just bosses me around.

It’s cute and smart. My niece is bringing me into her little-kid world through play.

My niece's intuitive actions have caused me to wonder whether the process can be reversed. If a 3.5 year old can bring a 34 year old into her world through play, why can’t I bring my niece into my world using the same idea?

If my niece loves to play princess tea party, why wouldn’t she love to play Boston Tea Party?

2016: The Year of Travel

TravelI am not sure how it happened, but January may have been the only month when I don’t travel in 2016.

Conferences, speaking engagements, family, and my ability to work remotely have combined so that I will visit Switzerland, Tampa, Baltimore, Providence, Honolulu, Kauai, Worcester, New Haven, Chicago, and central Florida by the end of September.

Trips to Ireland, England, and a second visit to Switzerland are also possibilities.


Remembering Flat Stanley

Over Christmas, I told my parents about how much travel Tim and I had planned in 2016. As we discussed both the craziness of our schedule, and how lucky and fortunate we are to travel, I saw Addison playing. The sight triggered the memory of Flat Stanley, who accompanied us on a family trip years before for a cousin.


Flat Stanley + Podcast Ben = Travelin’ Ben

Podcast BenI have friends and family who find my enthusiasm for early American history a bit eccentric. They send me bobbleheads and tell me about quirky items like the Unemployed Philosopher Guild’s Ben Franklin doll.

He kind of looks angry, but I liked him so I bought one for my desk. I call him "Podcast Ben." He sits by my mic and watches me produce Ben Franklin’s World.

After Christmas, I looked at Podcast Ben and thought: What if instead of Flat Stanley, I used Ben?

What if Podcast Ben could inspire “authentic literacy” and add a dash of history to the kids' experience?


Travelin’ Ben

I renamed Podcast Ben, "Travelin' Ben."

I will take him on my trips and use him as others use Flat Stanley. I will take pictures of Ben at unique places, historic sites, and when we are just having fun.

I plan to tweet my pictures with the hashtag #TravelinBen. At the end of the year, I will create a photo book for my niece and nephew so when they are older they can create stories and I can introduce them to history.

Travelin Ben

*In New England, we pronounce aunt and auntie with the “au” sound in “haunt."


Feedly Shared Collections: A New Way to Curate High-Quality History Content

Feedly_LogoFeedly made a big announcement: Pro users can create shared collections of content that they can make private or public. This has HUGE implications for historians and history organizations.

This tool can help us bring history back to the forefront of the public mind!

What is Feedly

Feedly is the most popular RSS reader app. The app allows you to find, subscribe to, view, organize, and share blog content, news articles, YouTube videos, and podcasts. Feedly displays the headlines and body content for all of the internet content you subscribe to within categorized lists.

Millions of people use Feedly and millions of people love history.


Using Feedly's Shared Collections

Professional Use

If the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, or the National Council on Public History curated a feed of history news its members should be aware of, would you check in with it?

I would.

If these organizations curated a feed of important professional information, it would save me time and keep me better informed because I wouldn't have to hunt for it in all of the major publications. A Feedly shared collection means that we could all visit one place and see all of the most relevant and important articles about the historical profession.

Feedly Shared Collections

Public Use

Imagine if trusted and well-established organizations like the Omohundro Institute of American History and Culture or the McNeil Center for Early American Studies curated shared collections of early American history blogs, YouTube channels, or podcasts that anyone could access.[1] They would be providing an invaluable service because history lovers and professional historians alike could easily check these shared collections and trust that the content within them was worth consuming.[2]

There is so much blog, podcast, and internet video content on the web it is difficult to sort through it and find something worth consuming. Most people give up before they find the gems hidden within the morass.

Historians, history departments, and historical organizations could help their colleagues and history lovers bypass the quagmire by guiding them to reliable, high-quality history content.

Feedly's shared collections are a powerful tool that we can use to communicate history. Shared collections reduce barriers between content curators and readers because Feedly presents readers with access to not just a list of blogs, but the articles and headlines from those blogs. It is a tool that if used properly could help us in our quest to restore history to the forefront of the public mind.[3]

Here are links to my Feedly shared collections and instructions for how you can set-up your own shared collections. I will be adding more feeds soon.


[1] The OIEAHC already has a feature like this with its Octo, but this new Feedly feature could put the content from all of the blogs it features in one, easily accessible place.

[2] History departments could also curate shared collections for students and alumni.

[3] As of now Feedly only allows you to curate blog feeds in its shared collections feature. I hope that as Feedly updates this feature they will add the ability to easily curate shared collections of individual articles.