Joe Janes

This is Circulating Ideas. I’m Steve Thomas. My guest today is Joe Janes. He’s an Associate Professor at the University of Washington’s Information School, and he’s the author of Library 2020 and Documents That Change The Way We Live, which is based on his podcast “Documents That Change The World.” Circulating Ideas is brought to you with support from the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science and from listeners like you.

Joe, welcome back to the show.

Well, thank you, it’s great to be back.

So, now you have, the last time you were on we talked about a few things, but you had your previous book, Library 2020 out. How are things, how are things progressing on the path to, to the year 2020?

Well, we’re on schedule [laughs], it’s coming about when we all thought it would. Yeah, every once in awhile I go back to that, to pieces from that book I use it in teaching or, you know, run into one of the people who wrote a piece for it etc. And, you know, it’s a hard thing to ask, what do you think’s going to happen in, I think it was 6 or 7 years at the time we did the book, and it’s quite remarkable, the kinds of things that people raised and, you know, now that we’re within, what three, almost two years, a lot of that panned out, and so I was pleased with, you know, the, the horizon on that book was far enough out that it was, you know, you could speculate a bit, a little bit, but it wasn’t so far out that it was shiny jumpsuits and hovercars.

[laughs] Right, light sabers..

And we’re getting closer to hovercars actually.

Yes, yes.

So, you know, I think people, people really entered into the spirit of that. I think there’s still, the book’s still available by all means at your, you know, local computer place. It, it’s quite, it was a lot of fun to do and, and I think it sparked some interesting discussion and thinking and conversation and, and we’ll see how, you know, still have a couple more years, we’ll see how that all goes.

Well your, your new book is Documents That Changed The Way We Live and it’s kind of, it’s based on the, the podcast that you do, you did and I believe, well sort of still doing.


We’ll talk about that.


Is there anything in the, and I should say well for people back, I’ll have a link in the show notes to the previous episode where we talked about the podcast a little bit. Is there anything in the book that wasn’t in the podcast? Or is it all kind of a book, the book form of the podcast?

It’s, a good chunk of it is edited transcripts or scripts from the series. There were a few that, particularly from the early days, I went back and rewrote the scripts and was kind of quietly appalled, so I, I redid them. You know, you get better at this as you go. I did combine a couple to make an introductory thing, the one about the Gutenberg Indulgence and the Gregorian Calendar. And then I wrote an original conclusion about the kind of future of the document etc. One of the things I’m, I’m most pleased about with it though is images. We have a, 47 chapters and each one, almost every one has two images, and, so it looks beautiful, even, even as objective as I can be about it, there’s some great pictures, some great stories behind some pictures that aren’t there because of rights management issues, as you can imagine.


But, there’s beautiful images and I have a great graduate student, Tim Blankemeyer, who helped me track down and keep track of all the images and stuff, and, and the overall editing of the book as well. So, I, it’s a beautiful piece, I think, it’s got some great pictures. And it, it tries to, you know, encapsulate the, the story of the stories. A number of really important documenting things that have, you know, had, had impacts, sometimes small, sometimes very large in a lot of aspects of society.

Yeah, and we talked about it last time and you mentioned it even in the intro of the book, but can you kind of tell listeners again what your definition of document is as pertaining to this project?

Well that was one of the things that I really wanted to take on with this, is those of us in the information field, I think, sort of natively have this idea of document as, as a very encompassing term. And I worked really hard when I was starting the podcasts not to use that word. Because for so many people it connotes, you know, print on paper, they think of, they think of articles, they think of books, they think of drivers licenses, they think of, you know, Census records, they think of, you know, those kinds of things as documents, which of course they are. Or, you know, Microsoft Word, but they, but they don’t necessarily think of film, they don’t necessarily think of images, they don’t necessarily think of, you know, what we would loosely call regalia, you know, objects that are, the not traditionally thought of as the kinds of things libraries would hold, for example, and yet which are created documents. So, the AIDS quilt, for example, or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, those kinds of things that are, you know, documenting things, that are meant to serve those kinds of purposes, but they don’t necessarily fit instantly into your ideas about it, or the commonplace idea, so I wanted to use it to stretch people’s thinking about what a, what a document is and can be and what a documenting thing can be. Including, you know, the letters of transit from Casablanca because I couldn’t help myself. But, you know, I love Casablanca, so I get that, and it’s my thing, I can do whatever I want.

Joesph McCarthy’s lists of communists that never existed. The We Can Do It poster that’s not Rosie the Riveter but everybody thinks she is. Those, those kinds of things that are, you know, more, to me more interesting stories because they’re unexpected, but they also reveal things about how we think about documents, and how we treat them, and what they do, and the work they do, and the power they have, and those kinds of things. So, very broad, very broad.

Well and you even have things in the negatives, like the missing parts of the tape of the Nixon tapes, as a document.

Yeah, the 18-and-a-half minute gap, I was actually interviewed on the radio about that not long ago, I wonder why. Who would have thought we’d be talking about taping in the White House again.


Yeah, hmmmm. Or, you know, I’m horrified to think the protocols of the elders of Zion.


Which is a plagarized fraud, and, you know, the, I put that in there specifically to make the point that this is not all, you know, Declaration of Independence, and sunshine and roses. There’s, there’s evil here, and I did, you know, I also tried to avoid the really obvious ones. I always say I never, what am I going to say about Magna Carta that somebody hasn’t already said.

The Constitution.

Well, so, I didn’t do the Constitution, but I did the 19th Amendment.


Which is, and, and, but then it’s, you know, the process of amendment, and that there is a piece of paper, but there’s no physically intact authoritative copy of the Constitution. It’s a bunch, I presume, of Hollanger boxes at the Archives in Washington, or maybe out at their facility in Maryland, but they don’t like type it in, you know, when a new amendment gets ratified, they don’t, there’s no, there’s no official Constitution, it just sort of happens. And I did wind up doing the Declaration of Independence, but again, what am I going to say about that. So, but I didn’t do the Declaration, I did the passage that they deleted about the slave trade.


He has waged cruel war, which a) is a far more interesting story and b) tells a far, tells a far more interesting story about the history of the United States, and 250 years later we are still living that out.

Yeah and what, and what’s interesting about that like you say, that there’s no official here’s the Constitution as one document, is that in, in the early ones, you know, you do see those, just lines scratching through things and, on the original document and then that, that as the Declaration of Independence, that that parts written in there and then it’s just kind of scratched out, so.

Yeah. The, the, what’s called the original rough draft of the Declaration is in Jefferson’s hand. There’s other versions, but it’s in Jefferson’s hand, but there’s scratch outs, there write-ins, there’s a little flap at one point that he pasted over to kind of substitute one phrase for another. It’s very much a work in progress and it went through dozens of edits in a committee, and then in discussion in the Continental Congress and, and there’s a, some recent evidence that there’s a comma that maybe got missed, that completely changes the interpretation of one phrase, that, that, and you know the original is so faded and has been through so much over the last couple hundred years that it’s very hard to know, but, even today we’re still exploring the physical object and the text of the Declaration of Independence, that everybody thinks they have known since 1776.

Yeah, well it’s kind of like, that’s the argument a lot of times that people make about the 2nd Amendment, that there’s sort of this first, first product clause, second men militias and how do you read, opps sorry, how do you, how do you read that.

Yeah, yeah.

Grammatically, and the Supreme Court has to like make decisions based on how they decide on well there’s a comma there and then say.

Right. And, and, you know, do you read it the way it would have been written in 17 whatever or the way it would be read today? And that’s the whole strict constructionist thing. So, that the, the, one of the punchlines of the chapter I have about the 19th Amendment is that the, the strange part is that the fact that there’s no definitive singular version, that there’s no, you know, perfect version of the Constitution in the Archives, or the Supreme Court, or wherever, that doesn’t bother any, anybody, but, I mean the idea of it bothers people, but it doesn’t matter, because every, every correct version of the Constitution is equally good. So we don’t argue about the words, we are, but we argue about what the words mean, and, and that, that tells us about the nature of constitutional democracy. That, that we all agree on what the words are, with very few exceptions, but, what does it mean? And that plays itself out every day.

Before we start talking, you said you hate it when people ask you what your favorite documents are, but are, is there anything in particular that as you were researching it became more interesting that you thought? Cause obviously before, if you were going to include it, before you started researching it, you knew it was somewhat interesting, but, anything that really revealed itself as you were reading about it? That you were like oh, I really didn’t know about that.

A whole, a whole lot of, there, and there’s a lot of things that never made it. I’ve done a lot of research on things that, that I never wound up doing episodes or chapters on. Partially because I did the research and thought okay, well that’s all I ever really need to know about that and I’ve stopped caring. Or, I just couldn’t find my way into it. I did a, I, I wrote half of a, a episode about the fingerprinting system, the early fingerprinting classification system. And then it’s never found a really good story to add it, so I may go back to that some day. There’s a whole bunch of these, and I think, one of the most fascinating pieces for me of doing all of this to begin with is almost every topic that I took on, there were layers behind layers, behind layers, and, and some of them are well known, but a lot of them aren’t. One that always emerges when I, when I think about the project of the whole is, is actually the oldest one in there. It’s a, it’s a hymn called the Exaltation of Inanna, 2300BCE, so it’s now over 4300 years old. It’s a hymn written by the high priestess Enheduanna, her father was the King Sargon who united the Mesopotamian city states, this is in what’s modern day Iraq, but in Err, literally Err. And she writes this hymn to her goddess, and it’s a hymn of, we don’t quite know why, but it’s a hymn of praise and vengeance. She’s seeking vengeance against somebody who did her wrong. And, you know, for all intents and purposes it’s a Taylor Swift song.

[laughs] I was going, I was going to say it’s an early country song, it’s the first country song.

Or Adele, you know, it’s, it’s somebody did me wrong and I want him to fry, and, and the, it’s a, it’s, you mean, my ancient Semarian isn’t very good, but it’s, it’s quite remarkable, and, and it survived. It was used for hundreds of years, there’s dozens of examples of it in, in Tunear form on clay tablet manuscripts, so that’s why it survived even though it was lost for many centuries. And she uses her own name in the text, and that’s how we know her name, and so far as anybody knows now, she’s the earliest first known author. The first name we can attach to a work is hers. Now, whether she conceived of the idea of authorship, what, what we in the trade would call statement of responsibility, who knows. But she’s the oldest one that survived and, and coincidentally she’s also one of the earliest women whose names we know because she wrote and because she recorded her name, and because that survived. And, that, first of all, it’s just compelling to think that, that her name has survived for I, I calculated it out, a million and a half days.


And, and it survived because copies were made and they, they endured. And that’s, that’s the story right there, is it was made to endure and it did and it did the work it was meant to do and now it’s doing very different work and as a result, it’s just, it’s a, every time I revisit that story in my mind it, it, it just, it doesn’t lose it’s power, it’s just an extraordinary notion, and, and that’s kind of why we do what we do in the field, is to help further the human story in all of its, you know, glory and misery.

Yeah, I do want to go on YouTube now and see if anybody’s covered it, but I don’t know.

Well I, so I’ll give credit where credit is due, I had never heard of her and when Neil deGrasse Tyson did the reboot of Cosmos, I fell in love with the original. I mean I was Carl Sagan groupie way back in the day. He talked about Enheduanna and the Exaltation and I had never heard of it, and, so when I was watching the reboot of Cosmos, I saw him, you know, tell that story and I whoa, that completely got my attention, and I was surprised that I had never heard of it.

Yeah, I had never heard of it before your show, so.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So I was quite, so thank you to Dr Tyson for giving me a great story, and yeah, I love that story.

So, will, will the podcast be back?

I, you know that was a good question, I thought for a while okay well I’m done with this, I spent so much time on the book part of it that I thought, oh what I, and then a couple months ago I, I started getting the bug again, so, I’ve got two or three lined up. I’m just about to start writing and I think I’ll do in a few days the golden record that was attached to the Voyager probes with the sounds of earth which is Carl Sagan, so there’s a nice symmetry to that. I did all the research on the Pentagon papers, again, why do these things feel compelling in 2017? And the Pentagon papers, oh my god, there’s just so much, there’s an enormous story and, and there’s so much to it and I figure, and that’s 40 years ago, it was, oh no, more than that. So that’s, you know, that’s trying to wrap my mind around that. And then, I don’t know quite how to approach this, but somebody said to me jokingly oh, you should do, you know, pick a, pick one of the Presidents’ tweets. Oh my god! But it does get you into the whole story of Twitter, and what Twitter is and how it works, and it was conceived and it’s limitations and all the rest of it. But, you know, which one do you pick? So.

My favorite is the one where he talks about the anniversary of 9/11 and talks about the haters and losers that he still wishes good luck to or something like that. That kind of encapsulates him to me.

Yeah, the, the, you know, the, the, the thing with that is you know, you do your podcast and it, it, it’s great for the moment and then it lives on forever, and, and you know, there’s, there will be another new one, like within five minutes of whenever I post an episode, so I don’t quite know how to, I did a little bit of research on the history of Twitter which I knew a quite a bit of and made some notes about the form and its structure and so on cause that’s often what I focus on, but I haven’t, again I haven’t quite found the handle on that one. The, the golden record I’m actually happy about, so that, that may well appear quite soon.

Well the, the first tweet, maybe something like that.

Yeah, but then, oh god, but then that may not be, yeah I don’t know. I don’t know.

Yeah I know.

I, I will take a walk around the neighborhood, that’s usually how I figure things out. I take a little voice recorder and everybody in the neighborhood thinks I’m crazy, but, so what else is new.

Well, and as to current events, I mean there could be something to like a confederate manner, a Confederate memorial or something like that, of.

Yeah, I, I, you know I try, the only one I did that was attempting to be really timely was when the pope resigned. When Pope Benedict resigned, and, and, you know, I wanted to do it because it was on people’s minds and we had enough warning, he had resigned or retired or whatever and then it was going to be a few days so I, I threw something together fairly quickly. Still a good episode, and it got me into resignation letters which was, you know, we all do that. But, other than that, I’ve, I hadn’t tried to be, you know, ripped from the headlines because, you know that’s, then you’re just chasing, by the time I, by the time you do a good job at it, and, and, you know, I mean, I’ve done a couple of these that were kind of slapdash, but mainly they’re, I try to research them fairly thoroughly, it’s at least a week or two. Even the pope, the papal resignation felt very rushed to me at the time and I struggled with the ending, what am I really talking about here. Because I do, I do see these as storytelling.

Right, right.

It’s not journalism, it’s not, you know, I’m a layered amateur historian, but, but from a document to read perspective, from a documentalist perspective, what’s the, what’s the story here? And that one I, I struggled with. So that’s, that’s, you know, that, that again, you know, for the, for the Pentagon papers, they were, you know, they were secret papers that got leaked and then there was Supreme Court case and then, so you had all these layers to it, and, and there’s only so much you can say, in about 10 or 12 minutes, which is about as long as I think anybody can listen to me. Even, even me, so yeah. So, but I, but I do, I was a little bit surprised that I found myself coming back to, well, hey that sounds like interesting, that, I mean the whole point of this thing was it sounded like fun.

Right, right.

And, and very me, you know, just, it’s a sort of topic that appeals to me, it’s the sort of form that appeals to me, so what the heck.

And so was, was it your original idea to turn it into a book? Or did a publisher come to you? Or how did that come about?

Ah, it was, it was a meeting of minds, let’s put it that way. I, I hadn’t, when I started it, it was, I never had any, any notion that it would do anything other than be a podcast series. You know, I thought, oh maybe there’s a, you know, PBS series in the Sunday, I too could be Carl Sagan. But I’m no Carl Sagan and we all know that. But, yeah, the, then, you know, you get to amass enough of stuff and I got into, as I said 47 chapters, topics etc and, you know, yeah, then a few conversations, a few, you know, meetings at ALA and hey, you wanna make that into a book? Oh I don’t know, I never thought of it that way, I’m not sure you could do it. Oh, oh, oh. And then, you know, months pass and what do you know, I got a book, so, that’s kind of cool.

And you changed the name a little bit, was there any deep thinking behind that? Or just, cause the podcast is Changed The World and the book is Changed The Way We Live.

Yeah, not deep thinking, but thinking. There had been a previous book called a Hundred Documents That Changed The World and it was one of those, you know, cause they’re all over the place now, diagrams that changed the world and buildings that changed the world, whatever. A lot of which, including me, was inspired by the series that the British Museum did a few years ago on the history of the world and a hundred objects, which they did as a radio, radio show with the BBC and I fell in love with that, it was just fantastic and I bought the book and listened to the episodes on the radio, so. So, I think that kind of inspired the form and I didn’t want, and then that book came out, like a couple of years ago, and, and I didn’t want to, people to think it was a sequel, I didn’t want people to think that I was trying to build off the name, even though my podcast had come first, I didn’t want to get any legal issue even though you can’t copyright a title, blahbitty, blahbitty, blah. So, I, you know, I, this was a, a compromise, and I, I think it gets the point across. It is a weird, I grant you, cause it’s so close but, you know, we’re all smart people, we can work it out.

Well, based on the title, is, and I warned you about this before we started talking, is there any one document that you can remember that, sort of the first thing that you read, or experienced that changed sort of the way that you thought and not like in a broader sense of I have, the Constitution because it guaranteed my freedoms, but just, something that you sort of directly read and kind of, or observed, or watched, or whatever, that changed the way you kind of thought about something.

Yeah. Thank you for the advance warning, cause I would have gone completely blank had you asked it on the spot. The, when you mentioned that to me earlier, the first thing that popped into my mind was the acceptance letter I got to get into college. And, I don’t know what they popped in, but I remember, I remember what it looked like, I remember opening it in the mail, and this was in the days when you just got an envelope and you never knew, you know, if this.


What did it say, right? Now, it’s much more elaborate and they’ve got, you know, flyers and all kinds of thing.

And it was computer generated, it was like a little certificate, but it was computer printed and this was the late 70s, so it wasn’t nice computer printing, it was pretty crappy computer printing. Not dot matrix, but more like a teletype.

You weren’t having to rip the things off the side of it or something.

Well, it was before dot matrix, that’s how long ago it was, and, and it just meant so much to me. It, it just was the, it was the gateway to the next chapter of my life, and, and, and it, it’s not as though I doubted I was going to get in, I, you know, I was always kind of a bright kid so I never really had a lot of trepidation about it, but it was just, I, I remember opening the, I remember how it felt, I remember the feeling of the paper, I remember what it looks like, my name printed in that crappy computer printing, it was a really powerful thing, and, and it was the, you know, beginning, and I’ve, and I am one of those people who went to college and never left. So I’ve been higher ed, and.

And you’re still there now.

I, here I am, you know, I’ve been in the academy now, if you count that, almost 40 years. And never looked back, and have never worked a day in my life, because it, well I worked one day in a warehouse and my father nearly killed me, but, yeah, it, it was, it was the first step on the path of the rest of my life would take me and, and yeah, so that was the first thing that jumped into my head when you asked that.

Yeah, cause the, I mean cause there’s lots of documents like these big ones that you’re writing about, but there’s just these everyday ones like that.

Oh yeah.

Acceptance letters, there’s birth certificates for your children, there’s marriage certificates when you get married and that, I remember that, I remember that trepidation, I was like I’m very happy I’m getting married but I’m signing my name to this and making this a real thing right now.


It’s, it’s a good excitement, kind of nervous excitement, but it’s like, wow this is like an important thing I’m going right now.

Yeah. You mentioned birth certificates. One of the earliest episodes I did and, and one of the chapters I rewrote most heavily was the Obama birth certificate.


And, you know, so there’s the story of his birth certificate, which is frankly really dull, because he was born, he had a birth certificate, it was filed, and that was the end of it. So, you know, the story there is the, the, you know, the conspiracy theories and the fraud theories and all the rest of it, but then also what birth certificates are meant to do and the, and the purposes they serve, and the forms they take, and how they have evolved, and they’ve gotten far more involved and far longer and there’s far more detail on them and then, you know, I’m doing, I’m doing research about this, and I was digging around in the government documents section at the University of Washington library and I run across this pamphlet. I want to say it was from the 60s, that was aimed at African-American midwives, encouraging them to have birth certificates filled out for births that they help with. And, you know, it’s, it’s, most of its pretty obvious stuff, its, you know, you want to make sure that births are recorded because it gives people benefits and voting and all the rest of it, but there’s bible verses in it, and lots of pictures, and in a, why was this thing created? Why were they encouraging African-American midwives in particular, cause it’s clearly, it’s quite clear that’s the audience for this. Well, because maybe people weren’t comfortable going to hospitals.


And maybe if you didn’t go to a hospital, you were less likely to have your birth registered, and so your kid didn’t get, you know, into social security, your kid didn’t get into, you know, I mean it just made, it made your children’s lives that much more difficult.

Didn’t get to vote.

Going down the road. Well, and then you get to voting, and then you get to, you know, citizenship and all the rest of it. And, I, you know it’s one of those curiosities you find while you’re looking for something else, which is why I’ve always loved browsing in library stacks, and, and, you know, yet that, that pamphlet really spoke, and said something that, that this was necessary at the time, so even something as simple, you know, as a birth certificate, which almost everybody has, you know, there’s lots and lots behind that, not to mention if you don’t have one, or if you don’t have the right set of papers, you kind of don’t exist. And that’s the whole undocumented thing, and, and, you know, that’s, that’s one of the stories I wanted to try to convey with all of this is that, you know, you say the word to people and it just falls flat, it’s just dull, who cares, right, they’re just pieces of paper that, that help you do things. But, you know, you don’t have to go very far down before you get into to whoa, you know, if we didn’t have the Gregorian Calendar where would we be? If we didn’t have checks, where would we be? If we didn’t have travel documents, if we didn’t have birth certificates, if we, you know, the, the, and you know, some of these are grandiose, you know, where would we be without the, the zero, so I did the book that introduced the zero to Eastern Europe.

Yeah, that was one of the more fascinating one that it was, you were talking about the travel documents, the kind of passports, I didn’t, I had never thought of it in that sense before, that you had to prove, it is, it’s all kind of like we’re, well we’re proving reality here with these things.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, and, and, so that’s how I got, that’s how I justified doing the letters of transit from Casablanca was I made it all about travel documents, and passports and visas and this and that, and, and I didn’t know that the passport system almost fell into disuse in the early part of the 20th century because trains were going so fast that it, it accelerated the number of people who were moving, so their old system that was a very labor intensive didn’t work, so it was falling apart, so they were just going to let people go across borders because they couldn’t be stopped and there was no mechanism for, you know, dealing with this large volume of travelers, and it’s only World War One that kind of reintroduces the importance of having official travel documents, and then photography, because prior to photography, passports just described you physically, like the length of your nose and your, how far apart your eyes are and these kinds of things, very vague obviously. And, you know, now we have much more stringent travel requirements, particularly across many international boundaries, so yeah. The, the, like a lot of information things, you only notice them when they don’t work.


Or when they’re missing, and, and that’s part of the story as well.

Alright, well Joe, thank you so much for coming to talk about your new book, and I hope people go check it out and go back to listen to the archives of the podcast and the new episodes you’re working on as well. If people wanted to get in touch with you and find out more about your work or anything, how about, how would they do that?

I’m not hard to find, just Google me and you’ll find my email address and that’s probably the easiest way to get a hold of me.

Alright, well thanks a lot, Joe.

Thank you, appreciate the opportunity to come back.

Great, bye bye.