As one of our assignments for Digital Scholarly Editing, we were tasked with designing and implementing an outreach activity with the members of the Letters of 1916 team for the project. After thinking about the possibilities of what a successful method of outreach could be, I decided that digital outreach via some sort of web-based platform could perhaps achieve an outreach that went beyond the analogous kind procured from localised events.
I noticed that in the last couple of years podcasts have really become more and more established as both leisurely forms of entertainment that can also have pedagogical value. I had recently been thinking of the potential of possibly recording and releasing a podcast of some description based around the letters in the collection, and the assignment seemed to be the perfect way to implement the idea. It also appealed to my background, having had some experience using sound software. Before delving into the project however, I must say that from the outset the entire project wouldn’t have been possible without the help of my classmate John Chambers; the whole podcast has been a completely joint venture and was all the better for it. I’d like to thank him therefore for putting up with all of the trials and tribulations that are a necessary part of the process.
Planning The Format
The already established digital presence of the Letters project seemed like a good platform from which to present some sort of content to its audience. We liked the idea that a podcast, while often informative, can also be a passive leisurely experience; you can have a podcast on in the background while doing something and it doesn’t require your full visual attention in the way that a YouTube video would to get the full experience.
We set about first planning a format for the show. It was initially decided that we should pick letters from the collection that we found were particularly interesting and present them to the audience 100 years after they were written and accompany them with as much interesting facts about the characters to flesh them out and make them relatable. We believed that this would help people get a sense of the people of the era, not just the mythical characters that are sometimes portrayed in connection with the Rising. We think that in a way this is an extension of what the Letters project does in essence, and we’d like to think that someone could listen to this podcast as a companion piece. The idea was also to establish a template that could be used in each episode that we could fit any letter to.
After initially trying to record the podcast as an informal chat to accompany a reading of the letters, we decided that having pre-written scripts that we could edit to flow into one another would work better. This made it easier as we could split the material into manageable chunks that could later be edited into a cohesive episode. We decided that we would have a dramatic reading of the letter, and will try to have a new reader every subsequent episode. The idea here is to make the podcast more inclusive and to involve as many people as possible, in the vein of the Letters project itself. One idea we had was to go out among the public and try to engage with people to read letters. We hope to experiment with this idea later along the line.
We started the project with a working plan of what we would try to achieve with the days we were available. We encountered some setbacks trying to get the best audio quality which set our deadline a little further back than we would have liked. One of the main unfortunate results of this was the fact that while we had the episode recorded as planned for the 13th, had we been finished a few days earlier we could have had it published to the Letters website. This meant that unfortunately the episode couldn’t be published exactly 100 years after being penned. While it was worth finishing the episode properly, this was a good lesson in planning that showed us that planning the organisational aspects of an outreach project is just as important as getting the content made.
Choosing a Letter
Once we had a format that we thought would work, we set about trying to find letters that were written sometime before the deadline for the outreach, but also ones that would give us a decent amount of time to write scripts and actually record and edit the episode. Thanks to Letters team members Neale Rooney and Richard Hadden, we were able to quickly secure letters from the month of December. We decided on a letter from December 13th 1915, from one Alfred Gerald Crofton to Lady Clonbrock. This was ideal as the letter was a suitable length but was also written at a suitable date. The content of the letter was perfectly suited to what we wanted to display in the podcast, but there was also a substantial amount of background information available about both the sender and recipient. We were helped largely by the Salt Spring Archives in Canada, who had a wealth of information about the family and story of the sender. They very generally provided us with a lot of information and images that helped us fill in the gaps of our narrative.
It was at this point that we realised that this was one of our successes with the project, as we had achieved a level of outreach we hadn’t anticipated; in writing to the Salt Spring Archive, we had actually brought the letter to their attention and it had in turn filled in some of the gaps with regard to their own understanding of the Crofton story. This was one of the most satisfying aspects of the whole project, and really enhanced my understanding of the outreach experience. I hadn’t previously considered the idea of outreach that wasn’t to an undefined audience and this was something I took away from the experience.
Recording & Processing the Audio.
We also had to figure out how we would actually record the podcast with the resources that were available to us. The department provided us with a microphone and a room in which we could record, and we chose to use Audacity to edit our audio tracks, the main reasons being its ease of use, the fact that it was free software, and that we were familiar with its layout and functions. We played around with methods by which we could get the most acoustically pleasing sound. This was a bit tricky due to factors such as high ceilings and a wooden desk, although using some strategically placed foam padding we managed to get decent results. We contacted the Military archives and got permission to use a sound-byte of W. T. Cosgrave for our intro segment, and used a public domain version of ‘My Irish Molly-O’ for our outro music, both used to give the listener something to attach themselves to, without trying to sound too twee. We also decided to segment the dramatic reading of the letter, and to add a foley track of some crackling flames underneath it, the aim being to transport the listener and evoke an image of the sender penning the letter by a fire.
Although I was familiar with much of the steps needed when processing audio, it was my first time exclusively recording vocal recordings. As such, learning how to properly equalise the vocals while also trying to ensure that there was as little background noise as possible initially proved tricky. However, Audacity has noise removal functions that allow you to take steps to avoid this, and after some tinkering with the software we were able to alleviate much of the background bleed of noise from the recordings. Much of the recording and editing side of the project was an exercise in trial and error, which made it a good learning experience. As most of these kinds of projects go, our recording sessions turned out to take much longer than we had anticipated, and it was better in some cases to completely start from scratch once we had found a more desirable sound. Overall, the recording process took several days of experimentation before finally settling on a format and sound that worked.
With the benefit of hindsight, the initial idea of using a podcast as a form of outreach was probably a task that might have been more successful with more careful planning of its release as opposed to just planning the creation of the content. I think that the project has the potential of being great fuel for on-going outreach. The benefit of having established a template that we can apply to any letter is something that I think would lend itself well to the continuation of the project, also the aspect of an evolving format. The project surprised me in ways I wouldn’t have considered, and I think that a bit of thinking outside the box helped us create something we can stand by. The next step is that hopefully more people will listen and get involved with the project, and if they do I think we’ll feel like we directly had an impact and contribution to the Letters project. Please feel free to listen to the podcast, which is located below!