The Tao of Law Librarianship: Are You Ready for Podcasting?

[Editor's note: See also Frederick L. Faulkner IV's related article in this issue, I'll Take My Legal News to Go Please: A Intro to Podcasting, as well as titles on podcasting in the LLRX Bookstore.]

It was just over two years ago that I was sitting in a local Asian noodle house after my usual Saturday morning workout, blithely reading Neal Stephenson's engrossing epic Cryptonomicon and slurping my soup. I was, in other words, a long ways away from work, law, and libraries. It was the last place I expected to learn about new breakthroughs that would, incidentally, alter my professional life forever.

My friend Euan, whom I've known since my undergrad days, happened to walk in, also seeking a bite to eat and respite from the cold. He was soon sitting with me, telling me about a conference he had just attended. Euan works at a publishing house and had come away from an academic conference newly energized by what he had heard. In particular, he was excited about this up-and-coming technology application called "podcasting" on which broadcaster and futurist Tod Maffin spoke. He told me that, among other things, lawyers would be able to download the days' or the weeks' current information in an audio file and listen to it on their car stereos on their way in to work.

The subject of our conversation captured my imagination, and I was soon exploring Maffin's website and blogs to learn more. That was one of the ways I learned about blogging originally, which I quickly started to experiment with. Blogging has since significantly changed my life, opening up endless possibilities in my professional development.

Podcasting, however, is a whole other ball of wax! While a text-based blog can be set up in about five minutes, creating and maintaining a podcast is a little more involved. It has taken some time, but podcasting is only now finally emerging as a tool to be used by lawyers, law schools, and librarians. The recent rise of the ubiquitous iPod has certainly helped in this endeavor. The question is, what is podcasting and how can law librarians use it to our advantage?

Jim Milles is the first law librarian I know to be putting out a podcast, so I decided to consult him on the subject. Jim is Associate Dean for Legal Information Services, Director of the Charles B. Sears Law Library, and Associate Professor at the University at Buffalo Law School, and is known for a few blogs including the group legal research and education blog Out of the Jungle. I hope you have already heard about Jim or perhaps even had the pleasure to speak with him.

A few months ago he started his unique podcast Check This Out! on law and libraries, two subjects about which he is obviously quite passionate. After a few episodes, he invited me to be his "Canadian correspondent." His motive from what I gather was two-fold: to add more voices into his weekly audio post and thereby increase interest for his listeners, and to introduce me, a potential fellow librarian podcaster, to the world of podcasting. How could I refuse?

I therefore turned to Jim to learn more about his methods, motives and master podcasting plan. Many of us think of podcasting as merely an audio recording mounted somehow on the Internet, but Jim has a more specific definition:

"We've had streaming audio on the Internet for a long time; you can listen to Real Audio and things like that, but the problem with that is that it ties you to the computer, to the desktop usually or maybe to a laptop. So, one of the big differences is portability. You certainly can listen to a podcast on your computer, at your desk, but the really innovative aspect of it is the fact that you can download to an iPod or other MP3 player and carry it around when you are taking a walk or working at the gym or cleaning house, like I do, or bring it into your car or whatever. So that's part of it. So it's portable and time-shiftable. You can listen to it anywhere that's convenient for you.

Another part of it is that it's syndicated. You don't have to go to a website and press a button to listen to it each time you want to hear it, that you get the updates automatically. That's what the RSS feed part of it does. It's like an audio blog; that's essentially what the technology is. Once you subscribe to it using a podcast aggregator, sometimes called a "podcatcher," like iTunes or one of the other things that are out there, you get the latest episodes.

And that leads to the third part of it, which I call "seriality," the idea that a podcast is a serial publication. To do a podcast, you are really committing to doing something on a regular, periodic basis. Just doing a one-time recording and putting it up on the Internet, even if you provide an RSS feed for it, I don't really think of as a podcast. That's just an audio recording."

Sticking to a weekly posting schedule sounds like it would be a real challenge, but Jim maintains it is not so difficult. He quickly learned from his first few episodes that compiling notes and then talking for half an hour or even a full hour was not enough to hold an audience. Now each show is a number of segments strung together. He creates them over the course of the week, often thinking a couple of episodes ahead. He records the spoken word pieces, bookmarks websites of interest, and spends time looking for interesting music to complement the content. Interviews with me are usually conducted every second Friday morning; he calls me up and I chat with him over the phone while he records on his end. Sunday nights he puts together his notes and "show preps". Finally, on Monday night he records the introduction and then puts it all together, posting it to the site usually that evening.

For most of the recording, Jim uses an inexpensive iRiver digital MP3 recorder (the cheapest he could find, about $100) or an M-Audio Microtrack (about $400) which is about the size of an iPod, very lightweight, with its own stereo microphone, both of which are easy to carry to interviews. For editing, he is currently using his laptop, a Toshiba, and the free open source software Audacity. He has tried recording directly to his laptop, but to monitor the recording he discovered there is a delay, so it turns out sounding like an echo in the recordings.

When conducting and recording interviews over the telephone, he uses Skype (a type of VoIP or Voice Over Internet Protocol). It is free to speak with someone else with Skype, and inexpensive to call any telephone in the world. His Skype includes a voice mailbox which he is currently using for his audience feedback line. A laptop's built in microphone can be used for this type of recording, if it has one, but he prefers to use a headset with microphone such as those used for gaming. He completes the package with Hot Recorder (about $20) which allows him to record the conversations via Skype.

He told me a lot of other podcasters' websites will explain what kind of equipment they are using, and what they have found to work and not work. He notes that podcasting becomes habit forming: one continues to buy more equipment, more microphones, constantly upgrading the technology, just as with any hobby. To that end, he has decided to convert over to a Mac system and has his new Mac on order.

While I thoroughly enjoy being both audience member and participant, I was curious as to why Jim started his podcast "Check This Out!" in the first place:

"I started it because I was listening to a lot of podcasts, and I thought I was watching less TV and listening to more podcasts. …Once you start hearing people having fun doing something like this, then you start to want to try it yourself. Definitely that was part of it, just the idea that there is this community of podcasters who are listening to each others' podcasts and sending comments to each other, and I wanted to be part of that. That was part of the motivation.

Another part of it was thinking of ways that we could use this in academia, in teaching, and in promoting scholarship and so on. I had some ideas for some projects I wanted to undertake at the law school but I felt the best way to learn it was to try it myself, and to become familiar with the technology, what it could do and some of the capabilities of it.

It's not the first law school podcast. There are other law schools that have been doing podcasts, but primarily what they do is podcast guest lectures, conferences, things like that, and I don't listen to many of them. You just put up an audio recording, set up a microphone, and put up a recording of an hour, or an hour and a half, of people talking. I wanted something that had some entertainment value to it because I wanted to reach out to a broader audience. I wanted to combine some of the entertainment podcasts I listen to with some of the law-related podcasts that I don't listen to, and come up with something that would do both."
He told me his primary audience is law librarians, but also includes others from the legal academic community, such as other law professors and the law students. The podcast reaches out to prospective law librarians, and is good PR for people thinking of careers in law librarianship, or possibly not thinking about it at all. In addition, he attracts some listeners who were originally from Buffalo and happen to recognize his name.

A lot of the podcasts he listens to are produced by hobbyists who have podcasts separate from their work, "completely divorced from each other." The content of Jim's podcast, on the other hand, has grown naturally out of his work, coming from ideas or projects he is tackling and blogs he is reading. In recent episodes he has talked about the law library administration course he is teaching and conferences he has attended. It's an eclectic mix. He tries to create something he himself would want to listen to.

Virtually all his feedback has been favorable. The statistics gathered by his web hosting service show there are a lot more people listening than he hears from; he has about 175 to 200 listeners per week. He has listed "Check This Out!" in all the popular podcast directories including iTunes, Podcast Alley, and PodFeed. Since there are many ways to access the podcast episodes, unless he hears from someone, he doesn't know where his listeners are located. That is one of the reasons he asks for comments and asks people to put a pin in the Frappr map he has set up. He hears mostly from other librarians, as well as faculty and students at his school.

In one memorable episode of "Check This Out!" (Episode 15), Jim interviewed law student Matt Lubniewski from Pittsburgh, who has his own podcast Shady Law. Lubniewski told Jim that the "Check This Out!' podcast has changed the way he thinks about the law library. While he previously took the law library for granted, the podcast episodes made him realize how critical the library is, that it is the "heart of the law school." That comment alone makes that episode worth listening to! Most of Jim's other listeners have never listened to a podcast before. Unfortunately, law librarians typically are shy about actively commenting on blogs or podcasts, so he rarely hears from his core audience.

"Check This Out!", however, has raised the profile of the University at Buffalo Law Library on the national and international scene. And he has also been exploring podcasting ideas with the rest of SUNY. Jim would like to incorporate podcasting into his teaching, as part of his law library administration course. Interviews about Tulane Law Library, devastated by Hurricane Katrina, have already been used in the class.

Some concluding thoughts from Jim:
"I would love to see other librarians doing this. I tried to make my podcasts interesting to a wide variety of people, at least within the library community; but, I don't try to speak for everybody. This is my own voice. I am trying to set an example or a model to show people it's not that hard. There are a lot of people out there I would love to hear from, who I think would be really good at podcasting and giving their comments on a regular basis. So I strongly encourage people to give it a try."
In getting started, he says it is important to be willing to experiment, and explore what can be done with this medium. He has found it useful to listen to other podcasts and watch the learning process that has gone into them. He himself first started listening to NPR programming This American Life and Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me.

Later he started listening mostly to independent podcasts. His particular favorites are: Quirky Nomads, by an American family who moved to Canada, with almost daily short recordings by mother Sage Turtle; Blue Dog Banter by three or four guys in central Illinois who produce short, frequent podcasts of intelligent banter on a variety of topics; and Friday Coffeeblogging in which three or four people get together most Fridays at a coffee house in Vermont, talking on everything from politics to music. He is especially attracted to podcasts with lots of interchange, whether between a couple or a group of friends. It is no wonder that he has sought to add interviews as a significant part of his own episodes.

With these words of wisdom in my pocket, I set out to start listening to podcasts. Searching in the podcasts section of iTunes, I found "shows" from a few law firms, some libraries (but not law libraries), and from a few others that caught my eye. I was impressed that free, short language lessons are available and I immediately downloaded spoken Mandarin lessons from ChinesePod based out of Shanghai which I have found very instructive. Whether I will ever actually speak Mandarin remains to be seen!

It has shown me, however, that podcasts are perfect for short, instructive pieces on difficult subjects. Anyone who needs to learn how to do something quickly can download individual episodes on demand and use as needed. Is this not therefore a perfect medium for teaching law students and lawyers? I discovered the Canadian Bar Association has (so far) two episodes on practice development. I then checked the American Bar Association website, and discovered a similar "podcast" section which offers one recent episode free for a limited time, and previous episodes for the significant cost of $49 for members and $59 for non-members. It is certainly worth downloading and saving episodes for later.

I am still in "listening" mode in which I am observing techniques used by others, and developing my own preferences. I am also gearing up to test out recording. Blogger has some faculty built in for loading up audio recording in a feature called Audioblogger, so no doubt I will put my first test posts on my existing blog. And I have my iRiver and external microphone almost ready to go.

The idea of taking up Jim Milles' challenge to add another law librarian voice to the world of podcasts is certainly calling my name. Is anyone else listening? Is anyone else willing to get out there and join us in this grand story-telling experiment? Perhaps we can get together over a hot bowl of noodles and talk about it. Of course, I might have to insist on recording the conversation.

Note: Listen to the audio recording of Connie's complete interview with Jim Milles in Check This Out! Episode 17 (February 27, 2006).

Do you have career-related anecdotes or ideas for professional development that you would like to share with Connie Crosby? Email her.