[Sound of pages flipping]
Krissa Corbett Cavouras [Whispered] Okay wait, let me just stamp this library book.
[Library stamp sound]
Adwoa Adusei I thought we didn’t use stamps anymore?
Krissa Corbett Cavouras We don’t.
[Sound of pen writing on paper]
[Sound of typing]
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Okay, that was us having a little fun! I don’t know how many listeners are aware of this thing called ASMR … it stands for “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.”
Adwoa Adusei Okay, I never knew what that stood for actually!
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Right, it basically means that some people get chills when they hear someone whispering in a certain way, or tapping their fingernails on a book, or turning pages…
Adwoa Adusei I mean, those are all things that happen at a library, every day!
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Exactly. So there’s this whole subculture associated with people who get these satisfying chills when they hear sounds like that. And then there’s a sub-sub culture of folks who particularly enjoy library sounds. There are thousands of hours of library ASMR videos on YouTube. Naturally, we couldn’t resist adding to the treasure trove.
Adwoa Adusei Maybe we should stop podcasting and switch over to the ASMR YouTube world? That’s a public service, right?
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah, I’m not sure about that. Not sure it lines up with the mission.
Adwoa Adusei Ok fair enough. How about we stay in our lane and just bring you an episode about sounds at the library?
Krissa Corbett Cavouras That sounds more our speed.
Adwoa Adusei Today on Borrowed: from defunct recording technology to vinyl’s comeback to a conversation with the world’s first two podcast librarians. You’re in for a treat.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras.
Adwoa Adusei And I’m Adwoa Adusei. You’re listening to Borrowed: stories that start at the library.
[Theme song ends]
Adwoa Adusei You know, Krissa, I don’t think we’ve ever explicitly pointed it out, but our theme song uses actual sounds recorded at Central Library. Our composer, Billy Libby, whose name you hear at the end of every episode, incorporated the sounds of our check-out machines…
Adwoa Adusei … and our cavernous Central lobby.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras And a child laughing —
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Which is actually my child, when he was a baby!
Adwoa Adusei So cute! This reminds me that one of our retired librarians Vickie, who helped me produce BrownsvillExcerpts podcast made a library song way back when and then later, teens at the library recorded and re-mixed it with sounds from BPL.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Oh my goodness, can we hear that?
Adwoa Adusei Of course! Here it is.
Well, it’s a place for you and a place for me, it’s the Brooklyn Public Library.
We’ve got books and things that we lend for free.
It’s the latest, it’s the greatest, it’s the library!
Adwoa Adusei That song was made by teens at the library in 2017 and the BrownsvillExcerpts sound engineer Lewis Thompson. It’s a good time to mention that the library is no longer a quiet place full of shushing librarians! When you enter one of our branches today, you’re liable to hear story times, discussion groups, concerts and even just kids having fun. But, 125 years ago, the library would have sounded quite different.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Right. Libraries at the turn of the century were intended as places for quiet reading and serious study, places to improve the minds of the common man. Of course, we don’t know exactly what our libraries sounded like in 1896, when BPL was founded, because even if someone did step into one of our branches to record the sounds of patrons reading or checking out books, not many recordings from that era survive at all.
Adwoa Adusei That’s true. If you were going to record anything in the 1890s, you would have likely have had to us a wax phonograph cylinder.
Natiba Guy-Clement So, an audio cylinder is one of the earliest inventions for a sound recordings that has ever been created.
Adwoa Adusei This is Natiba Guy-Clement, the assistant director for collections and public service at the Center for Brooklyn History.
Natiba Guy-Clement It’s essentially a hollow wax cylinder, usually about five centimeters in diameter and eleven centimeters long. Each cylinder could record for up to about two minutes. And wax cylinders became commercially available in 1889.
Adwoa Adusei One of the oldest wax cylinders in our collection was made in 1927.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras It’s a recording of Sally Maria Diggs, the young girl who came to Brooklyn in 1860 as an enslaved person. The famous reverend Henry Ward Beecher “auctioned” her freedom, essentially galvanizing his Brooklyn congregation to give their money to purchase her freedom. Sally Maria Diggs was freed, later married and became Rose Ward Hunt. She returned to Brooklyn in 1927 to speak at the 80th anniversary of Plymouth Church where she had appeared over sixty years before.
Adwoa Adusei It’s an important moment in history, and we’re lucky to have a recording of her voice. But the technology itself proved to be a bit of a barrier.
Natiba Guy-Clement So because the process to create a digital recording of a wax cylinder requires having appropriate equipment in this case, it would be a cylinder transfer machine, which is not something that we have on site at the Center for Brooklyn history.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras In 2010, we were able to use an outside vendor to digitize the recording of Sally Maria Diggs — so anyone can hear her voice. Here’s Sally Maria Diggs, speaking to us from 1927, recorded on wax and then digitized so that her words can travel all the way to your ears.
Adwoa Adusei Sally’s voice also lives on the internet archive for all to hear, for free. And while that’s incredibly valuable, Natiba said that she will preserve the original recording, too.
Natiba Guy-Clement It’s always our goal here at any age to preserve as much original material that we can and can do that safely. Not just because the content on the cylinder is irreplaceable. But the physical surrender as an artifact is also a really, really rare. So it’s good for us to be able to have that and have it stored safely for future generations.
Adwoa Adusei She also mentioned that the Center for Brooklyn History has more digitized archival audio and film — all documenting Brooklyn’s history. We’ll put links to all of those recordings, plus a picture of what a wax phonograph cylinder looks like, on our website. We also have a whole Borrowed episode about Sally Maria Diggs and the free Black communities that was thriving in Brooklyn at the time of her first visit to the borough. We’ll link to that as well.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras It’s so wild to think how many formats we have abandoned since the dawn of recorded sound. Even just in our lifetimes. We talked to Norman Eriksen, an adult services librarian at Central Library who’s been with BPL for 30 years. So he’s seen many media formats come and go.
Norman Eriksen Phonograph records, cassette tapes, film strips. The film strip is basically a static image on a screen. You know, you have to sit there and turn it manually to get the picture to show up on the screen. And there used to be a record to go with it, and it would go “beep!” and then you’d have to turn the screen.
Adwoa Adusei Phonograph records, cassette tapes, film strips … I’m willing to bet that most listeners wouldn’t be able to play those things if they were given the opportunity. And, because a library has to remain modern and relevant to its patrons, we had to update our recorded audio and film collection. And, sometimes, updating means … throwing things out!
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Okay, in the library world, it’s called “weeding,” which is a much kinder term … but it’s the same idea.
Norman Eriksen I had fun throwing them out. I threw out the microfilm, I threw out the video tapes. They sat in the basement for about two or three years and we watched to see how many things were used and what people—we were monitoring it, before we, you know. .. And then one day we realized that they hadn’y moved in three years. It’s time to go.
Adwoa Adusei Not everything got trashed, of course! Some of our items had more historical significance than, say, a VHS tape of Austin Powers.
Norman Eriksen The films, we ended up giving those to Pratt. They had an archival film history collection, so they went there.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras And what wasn’t archival, but not totally obsolete, we sold to purchase new and more accessible audio formats.
Norman Eriksen The records, the LPs, we sold them. Now, vinyl is coming back. I laugh hysterically. It was like, “the arrival of the compact disc in the early 1980s will spell the doom of the LP and the cassette. Well, LPs are back. Vinyl is back.
Christine Schonhart You turn the machine on, you press start and the record starts spinning. And then you lift the record arm, place it gently on the record …. [soft music starts] and let’s see what happens here.
Adwoa Adusei That last voice was Christine Schonhart, Director of Central Library. She, along with other staff at Central Library, are bringing vinyl back to patrons.
Christine Schonhart Yeah, we’re excited to launch, hopefully sometime this Spring, reintroducing vinyl records to BPL. So, probably about two to three hundred records, with a focus on Brooklyn and New York artists and musicians. So, everyone from Wu-Tang Clan to the New York Philharmonic, so there’s something for everyone. And you’ll be able to check them out just like a book for three weeks. We’ll have instructions if you don’t know how to use a record player or how to play a record, we’ll have thos for you. And the great thing we’re also doing is building a listening station. So, say you see a record and you’re like, I’m not sure I really want to borrow this. You could go over to the listening station, put on some headphones, play the record, decide if you want to take it or not.
[Another song plays softly]
Christine Schonhart The thing you hear a lot from people who listen to vinyl is that they do love that sound that comes from vinyl that you can’t get in a digital recording, the crackling and those those unique sounds you get when you play a record. I think that’s sort of an experience people enjoy. And also records are beautiful objects. And I think bands who sort of appreciate a bit more of the aesthetics of the design get to do a really cool thing with the format of a record that really maybe wasn’t as interesting on CDs or cassettes.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Records can be pretty expensive, 30 to 40 dollars for a new release, and even more than that for re-released classic albums. So, Christine is anticipating that our upcoming vinyl collection will be pretty popular with audio-loving patrons.
Christine Schonhart We might run out of records right away. So, if you do come in and don’t see them, you can place a hold on them. You can always tell us what you’re looking for, too, because while we’re keeping the collection pretty small to begin with, we hope to be able to grow it if the demand is there. So, I’m excited to see what what people like.
Adwoa Adusei Christine showed our producer Virginia how to jump tracks on a record. She pulled out a Talking Heads album and demonstrated.
Chistine Schonhart Needle placement can be a little tricky sometimes as you’re first learning, but don’t fret. It’s going to be fine. [Laughs] You’ll just learn how to start and stop your song. So yeah, you’ll just look for the groove along there. And then, let’s see … we’ll put another song on.
[Sound of the record starting up, Talking Heads song plays]
Krissa Corbett Cavouras BPL’s vinyl collection and the listening station aren’t here yet, but they will be coming to Central Library early this Summer! So, audiophiles watch out for that.
Adwoa Adusei In the meantime, we should plug all of the other cool, music-related items we have for check-out at our library. We still have CDs, and we now have digital music that you can stream. And, there’s the Libby app, where you can check out audiobooks digitally to your phone or computer.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras And if you do have old cassette tapes, VHS’s or vinyl that you can no longer listen to, you can actually bring them to the Info Commons at Central Library and we have devices where you can convert those sounds to a digital format!
Adwoa Adusei Plus, our recording studio at the Info Commons has just re-opened to the public, so you can reserve time to record your music or spoken word or even your podcast right here at the library.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras The Musical Instrument Lending Library is back in operation after a pause during the height of the pandemic. We have bongos. We have guitars. We have ukeleles, violins, and even a cowbell! You can check out an instrument for four weeks from our Art & Music department at Central Library.
Adwoa Adusei Art & Music is also where our sheet music collection lives. We have over 17,000 items in that collection: scores for operas, musicals and movies as well as chamber music ensembles, and sheet music for pop songs. You can browse the collection at Central or check out our collection online.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Okay, I think we’re leaving out one very important audio format, Adwoa.
Adwoa Adusei Oh yeah, what is that?
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Podcasts! Much of the time, when I want to listen to something, I reach for my phone and open up my podcast app.
Adwoa Adusei So, which podcasts are you listening to these days?
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Well, I think the things I never miss are Slate Culture Gabfest and Who Weekly, which is a sort of celebrity, dishy culture podcast. But these days I’m really obsessed with Trojan Horse which came out of Serial productions. I listened to it over the course of like three days. I couldn’t stop listening. Adwoa, what’s in your ears right now?
Adwoa Adusei I can never get enough of Scam Goddess with Laci Mosley, and I’m really digging Nosy Neighbors from Spotify. They’re both comedy podcasts and it’s good to laugh in these trying times. [Laughs] As much as I would like to find and try out new shows … it is kind of hard.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Right. It just doesn’t always work to throw a search term into the podcast app and find something — it doesn’t seem to work that way. And even if you do come up with a list of podcasts related to “parenting,” or something, it’s hard to tell whether you’re getting into a chat show, or a narrative deep-dive, or reporting, or even who the audience of that podcast should be, right?
Adwoa Adusei The podcast ecosystem is sort of a wild west when it comes to organization. If any of our listeners are podcast-makers themselves, you’ll know that you have to input categories and terms when you publish your show. You’re either an “Arts and Culture” show or a “Kids and Family” show … but, organization really ends with those broad category topics.
Ma’ayan Plaut Someone’s definition of a Kids and Family podcast is very different because kids and family are two different categories, and whether something is about kids or for kids are two completely different things.
Adwoa Adusei This is Ma’ayan Plaut, currently the growth marketing manager at an accessibility technology company called Three Play Media.
Ma’ayan Plaut And I bring it up as an example because it’s probably the most classic example of where that can go terribly wrong. If you’re just like, “Oh yes, the kids in family category is totally fine for my kid.” And then what you get is two moms drinking and talking about the fact that they can’t handle dealing with their kids doing something that day. You don’t want your six year old to hear that.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras We talked to Ma’ayan recently because she had a very unique job, right at the intersection between librarianship and the Wild West of modern sound: podcasting.
Ma’ayan Plaut I hold, I guess, the honor of being the world’s first podcast librarian, which I was from 2016 through 2020 at the company RadioPublic.
Adwoa Adusei That is a seriously cool title. So, listeners, we wanted to end our library sounds episode by playing a bit of our conversation with Ma’ayan and Norman Chella, the world’s second ever podcast librarian. He works for a company called Podchaser and actually joined us from his home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Neither Norman nor Ma’ayan have library science degrees, but they both said that they think the title “librarian” is extremely useful when thinking about their jobs. Here’s Ma’ayan again:
Ma’ayan Plaut I’m actually the daughter of a librarian. My dad was a elementary, middle and high school librarian for about 20 years. He just retired this past school year. And I had sort of a series of existential crises when I was sort of gifted this title of podcast librarian because I was not trained as a librarian. I just love libraries more than anything in the whole world.
Norman Chella I’ve also been communicating with fewer librarians in private messages, etc. just seeking guidance. And in terms of how do you accommodate for those who are looking for specific books or specific entries? What’s your workflow? What questions do you ask? How do you prompt them? What do they prefer to search by? Maybe they prefer a specific author, maybe they prefer a specific set of attributes by a specific author. Maybe it’s a category, etc. Do they follow specific systems?
Adwoa Adusei So, how would you describe your job to someone who hasn’t heard of it?
Norman Chella So, a podcast librarian’s role or responsibility is to organize and categorize and credit all of the information related to a podcast or a show or an episode that is currently existing up until now.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s a lot of content! As an aside here: I did some research on numbers. There are over two million podcasts in existence. And as you said, there’s no universal system for organizing podcasts — So, how do you do your job?
Ma’ayan Plaut A lot of the systems that are set up for libraries are about finding physical things in physical places. And podcasts are not physical things, and they are not in physical places and can exist in multiple places at the same time, which was a totally different mindset for me about how do we help people find something that could be categorized under 20 different categories? There are flaws with every organizational system and the biases that come in with all of that. And given that podcasting is a grassroots medium, it seemed wrong to try and want to impose a top-down structure. And rather, we are at a very early stage of trying to figure out how do we actually group this stuff? I don’t think that it makes sense only for corporations to group things. As of now, the only way that you can categorize podcast, she says and giant air quotes, is to use the various categories that every single podcasting platform asks you to use. But there are zero definitions about what that means. And as far as I understand, the Dewey Decimal System, a very common way of classifying books and media in libraries has some definition about what each of those different numbers mean. Doesn’t mean that they’re right, but they exist, and that actually doesn’t exist in podcasting.
Norman Chella Yeah, adding on to that, that responsibility of articulating this strange complexity, which is all of these intangible pieces of data. How can we make it so that the common person walking into the world of podcasting can easily reach it? It is such a simple question to ask, but such a very difficult one to answer, mainly because of all of these variables. And the factor of it being user-created was a big thing, especially in a lot of the events that have gone through in terms of figuring out, oh, why is it that this show is falling behind on their discovery? When they’re asking us and we’re like, we don’t know, maybe it’s because the way that they have formatted their podcast, which is something technically out of our control, makes it very difficult for that search, that cue, that discovery to happen.
Adwoa Adusei You’re essentially trying to create an organizing system for massive amount of audio. So, what does a good, organized podcast ecosystem look like?
Norman Chella This is where we need more podcast librarians is because I myself, I’m scared of my own biases because, well, I work at Podchaser, we are a database, so we have all this data incoming. I’m looking at this data all the time, but that’s only just one angle. I’m worried that maybe there are other people who have another angle and then they don’t have the voice or the position or the title to even introduce another idea or perspective. So, yeah, in an ideal world, like, ideally a discovery assistant that is catered to one’s search behaviors, which can parse through all the data for an episode, from transcriptions to language, and I’m saying language because I’m on the other side of the world, so we’re going to see a lot of non-English language podcasts, too. Becasue there’s going to be people who want to find a show because they want to listen to it and there’s going to be other people who want to find a show because they want to reach out and email the podcast creator and say thank you. And those are one of the best things to witness as a podcast librarian.
Ma’ayan Plaut With podcasting, like, my grand huge dream was to be able to categorize things more humanely. My hope is that with better organization and better systems of finding things, finding each other, podcasting feels a lot less lonely.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras As a final question, another part of being a librarian is connecting readers with books that they’re going to love. So, in the spirit of librarianship, what have you been listening to that you can recommend for us?
Norman Chella Yeah, I have one. One show I always like to recommend to people to listen to is Indian Noir, which is an amazing, horror-themed podcast. There’s something really captivating about the way that Indian Noir does their shows. It’s a master show, so it’s a massive show. There’s one feed, but it’s multiple shows within that one podcast. So, for those who prefer one specific genre or one specific type of story or one specific longform show, you just follow the specific episodes that that correlate with that one. I’ve always been attracted to narrative shows that make me fantasize or imagine things, because podcasting is like one of the best ways to prompt you with the right triggers, the right phrases, the right imagery. And this amazing longform, intimate relationship with this other person who is speaking into my ear lobes is going to be with me for the next few weeks as I’m listening to their every episode. So, yeah, Indian Noir, highly recommended.
Ma’ayan Plaut The show that I probably listened to the most is this excellent two to six minute, used to be daily, now three times a week podcast calledThe Best Advice Show. It’s just people talking about ways that they live their life better. And I love the host. I love the way in which things are recommended, and I have taken really small tips from that show and incorporated them into my own life, which it’s … yeah, it’s a very beautiful, very beautiful show. I also find absolute pleasure every time I see a new episode of the podcast This is Good for You pop into my feed, and that makes a lot of sense because it’s a podcast all about pleasure and specifically all of the things that you don’t do for somebody paying you. Don’t monetize your hobbies. And I loved every episode of the show, but the one that I most recently listened to was specifically about walking, and I saw it come up and I was like, I cannot listen to this podcast doing anything other than walking. And I dropped everything and went on a walk, while listening to a podcast about walking.
Adwoa Adusei Thank you so much, Ma’ayan and Norman! And listeners, in lieu of a book list, we are going to have a listening list for you, including Ma’ayan and Norman’s podcast recommendations, some of our own recommendations, and other listening delights from our library.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me, Krissa Corbett Cavouras and Adwoa Adusei. You can find a transcript of this episode as well as the listening list on our website: BKLYN Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts.
Adwoa Adusei Borrowed is produced by Virginia Marshall with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, and Robin Lester Kenton. This episode was written by Virginia Marshall. Our music composer is Billy Libby. Meryl Friedman designed our logo.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras You can find a transcript of this episode as well as the listening list on our website: BKLYN Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts.
Adwoa Adusei Our beta listeners on this episode were Melissa Morrone, Kat Savage, Karelisa Kimmel, and LaCresha Neil.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s it for this episode. Borrowed will be back next month. Until then, keep your ears open.