May 30, 2017
Listening and Learning: Welcoming Liz Covart and Ben Franklin’s World to the OI
8 min read
by Karin Wulf
We’ve got big news to share. Today we’re welcoming Liz Covart –and Ben Franklin’s World—to the OI full-time. Liz is our new Digital Projects Editor, with primary responsibility for the podcast and the many new platforms we’re exploring to highlight outstanding early American scholarship.
In January of 2016 we announced a new partnership with Liz, a series called “Doing History” within her podcast, Ben Franklin’s World. When we launched the “Doing History” series the idea was to share information about the work of history: “If history is the past, then doing history is the process of locating, selecting, assembling, and interpreting historical materials.” Through 14 episodes of “Doing History: How Historians Work,” scholars, archivists, and historians working in all sorts of places and ways discussed with Liz how to frame a topic, research in challenging archives, research historical subjects that most archives were never compiled to serve, critically seek out and evaluate online materials—and that was just the beginning!
When the series commenced I noted that “we don’t know yet how such ventures will influence scholarship or help us to support scholars and scholarship in new ways.” What we’ve learned is that a podcast about history and historians can attract a lot of listeners. Liz hears from folks all over the country and around the world who are downloading Ben Franklin’s World. They have downloaded the podcast over two million times in just over two years—an extraordinary feat for any podcast. In the regular episodes of Ben Franklin’s World Liz interviews authors about their scholarship, developing a conversation about their findings, their research adventures, and the larger discussions of which their work is a part. In the “Doing History” series, listeners go behind the scenes to hear more about how the work takes place.
Reactions are pretty marvelous—and immediate. Listeners write in to say that they have heard or assigned the podcast for a high school or college class, and that they want to know more about specific subjects. They write in with suggestions for new topics, and questions in advance of each week’s show. Listeners have shared artwork inspired by the podcast, bought the books discussed, and asked for follow-up reading. Liz engages the audience on social media, through discussion forums and has local meet-ups when she’s traveling. In short, this is a great way to share history.
Liz will continue her regular format of author interviews, and she’ll continue to develop new seasons of “Doing History.” We’re already well underway with “Doing History: To the Revolution!” which offers listeners a season’s worth of historical perspectives on the American Revolution. (I wanted to call this “Historiography Can Be Fun!” but wiser heads prevailed.) Still, what this season does is demonstrate how historiography works—how historical interpretations are developed over time and in conversation with other histories. Mary Beth Norton’s December teaser was a blockbuster and the most downloaded show—that is, until the next preview episodes appeared. The latest, “Paul Revere’s Ride Through History,” asks why some stories stick and other fade—or never gain traction at all. What are the national investments in particular histories, and what do they tell us about the moment in which those histories are created and then re-remembered? This is a complicated set of issues. The set of supplemental materials for this episode, including a digital version of the Massschusetts Historical Society Publication “Paul Revere’s Three Accounts of his Famous Ride,” an interactive version of Longfellow’s poem, and an image of Copley’s painting of Revere with bonus audio content with Jane Kamensky, is truly splendid. You can find all of those on the OI Reader. And the Revere episode broke the Ben Franklin’s World download record in its first month. Look for the next teaser for “Doing History: To the Revolution!” on July 4th, and then for the series to begin in earnest in September. It’s a team effort, with input from Rob Parkinson as well as Joe Adelman, Martha Howard, Paul Mapp, Josh Piker, and me.
But Liz runs her show. Though the analogy is imperfect, in many ways Liz is like the editors of our books and journal programs. She has the editorial independence to do the work she wants to do. Her decisions shape the intellectual content of the podcasts. Ultimately, she chooses the books to read, the authors to interview, and the questions to ask. Coming to the OI also means Liz can continue to rely on the team that’s helped to develop “Doing History,” and will have a ready sounding board for Ben Franklin’s World.
In concert with all OI programs, Ben Franklin’s World aims to both reflect and encourage the field of vast early America. Its success both in terms of its high quality and its large and energized following, but also the developing multi-platform content, suggests that it offers a new way to think about communicating scholarship. We look forward to hearing your feedback as you join us to listen and learn.