There’s a story we’re familiar with, the one where the kid does the thing their parents did first. There are a lot of things I do that my dad undisputedly did first in the chronology of the Plaut family — be born, attend Oberlin College, live in Kentucky, move to Hawaii. My dad, a school librarian of over a decade, and me, a podcast librarian for RadioPublic for all of a week, appears to be that same narrative at first glance, but it’s not. Let’s start at the beginning.
I didn’t start out as a librarian’s kid. I started as a library kid, shelving books in my elementary school library, in a library I considered my home away from home. This is not to say that the converse isn’t true, too: my home growing up was filled so thoroughly with books, one could say that my childhood bedroom was insulated primarily by the bound tomes double-stacked on the bookshelves that lined every wall.
I continued with my library lurking throughout middle school, shelving books, weeding books, checking out books, and getting permission from my teachers to spend time at the end of the school year to assist with book inventory. And whenever I wasn’t helping, my nose was buried deep within the pages of a good read.
At this point in time, a second important story starts moving in parallel with my own. While serving on the hiring committee for my old elementary school librarian’s position, the seed was planted that my dad would be an excellent librarian. When I heard this possible development, I completely agreed that this was an ideal course of action (well, it was a pretty selfish form of enthusiasm, since I thought my dad becoming a librarian meant he could buy me every book I ever wanted to read). He must have agreed with me, because by the summer before high school, I was a librarian’s library kid.
My final years of K-12 education found me in two states and four high schools, and with every move, new interests beyond reading began creeping in. I found photography, filmmaking, competitive cooking, and by the time I went to college, my world built of books now had other pillars for me to embellish upon.
I majored in cinema studies at Oberlin College, which I pursued because it let me watch movies instead of only reading and make movies instead of simply writing papers. Cinema studies was as much an in-depth dive into media studies as it was into media production, and in retrospect, it was the best major I could have chosen to get me closer to both journalism and communications — in a school that has neither department but somehow produces a staggering amount of journalists and communicators. I began my work in communications five weeks after graduating from college, and while the role shifted somewhat since my start, I’ve spent six years moving through the social media management, strategy, and storytelling space rather seamlessly and haven’t really looked back since.
Well, there were a couple of things I looked back on. I had a years (years!) long mental hurdle as I attempted to return to the comfort of books after college. Once I figured out how I could bring regular reading back into my life, there was no turning back after that (I found the time that no one could take away from me — a few minutes in the morning where I’m otherwise a shell of a human, when I’m drinking tea and trying to wake myself up enough to be nice to other people). The combination of an excellent college library and one of the best public libraries I’ve ever visited helped set me back on track, and books became my close-by buddies rather than long-lost friends.
Somewhere in the year in which I began reading again, I found podcasts. Good stories, it seemed, lived beyond the writing and the films and the photographs I’d so deeply immersed myself in for years. It started as an accompaniment on my walk to work, but as I took longer and more meandering paths home every day and found any excuse to go outside for a stroll, it seemed like my media diet shifted yet again, to accommodate a new (at least to me) form of sensory consumption.
My tumble down the rabbit hole of podcasts happened on a slippery slope: I listened to one, a recommendation on that podcast led me to another, a guest on that one led me to another, and after a few months of collecting new listening, I started trading recommendations with anyone who mentioned that they, too, were into podcasts.
And yet, that’s where the communal part usually ended. We’d each have our list, perhaps with some new additions after our conversation, and go off and listen on our own, sometimes alerting the other when one heard a really good episode. My social media and content strategist self began to feel antsy. Why couldn’t I find more things I liked based on the things I’d already heard? Not another whole podcast, necessarily, since a backlog of content made it overwhelming to know where to begin, but simply: “I liked this episode because _______. Where can I find something else like it?”
I didn’t see anything like it. I didn’t see it anywhere, and I wanted it desperately. So in June 2016, I did a two week pilot of a project called The Pod Party. A mailing list of participants received an episode a day so we could listen together, talk about, and make similar recommendations based on what we’d heard. The final product was hours upon hours of categorized new episodes for all, and for me, a newly found love of the process of seeking and finding and recommending, which I enjoy just as much as the listening.
Without even realizing it, I’d woken up my hibernating inner librarian. Librarians are in constant pursuit of knowledge, opportunities for mind-opening, and of connecting the beautiful things made by creative producers with the people who seek them, need them, love them. While the libraries of yore used to have librarians as gatekeepers handing over requested materials from closed stacks, this is almost unimaginable as we visit browsable open stacks in the libraries we know and love today. And with the world of on-demand audio, this form of production and distribution began so democratically that a librarian that inhabits the media-rich library of today must serve as an enthusiastic guide and gateway to all that’s out there.
I’m delighted by the fact that the term “podcast librarian” has floated into RadioPublic’s ether, and I’m even more delighted that it’s being applied to me. Whether you’re new to podcasts or a well-seasoned listener, I’ll see you at the reference desk on the RadioPublic Community on Slack soon.