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"Book Beat" airs again in Don Swaim Digital Collection

Kate Mason
January 3, 2020

The Ohio University Libraries’ Don Swaim Collection, featuring over 700 audio interviews of well-known authors from “Book Beat,” the nationally produced CBS Radio News program, is now digitally available online—including digital transcripts of the syndicated news program.

From 1982 through 1993 “Book Beat,” hosted by OHIO alumnus Don Swaim (1959), ran daily snippets of the candid taped interviews of famous authors such as Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, John Irving, Ray Bradbury and many others.

Reel-to-reel tapes of "Book Beat," from the Don Swaim Collection
Photo by Patrick Taylor/Ohio University Libraries

“ ‘Book Beat’ was  two- or three-minute broadcasts that would come on five days a week. Sometimes, there would be a few different [clips from] ‘Book Beat’ about the same book or author… Don would take a couple of little snippets from the interview and intersperse those with his thoughts and commentary about the book. The broadcasts weren’t just complete cuts from the interview; they also included additional thoughts from Swaim,” explains Stacey Lavender, special collections librarian and curator of the Swaim Collection. “They were really polished, and they were radio-quality professionally produced.”

The full-length interviews, from which “Book Beat” broadcasts were created, are longer in length and much more free flowing in nature. Swaim’s journalistic interviewing technique of casual conversation brought out a broad range of topics from his celebrity authors, editors and people in the publishing world. 

Their conversations ranged from current-day world politics, music and the arts, which rippled across the United States during the 1980s and 1990s; to the author’s writing style, specifics about characters or themes in their books; to what they ate for breakfast that morning. His discerning questioning brought out the unique personalities of each of his featured guests.

“The real meat of the collection are the long interviews [half-an-hour to forty-minutes in length]. The little broadcast snippets are just a kind of teaser… [but in] the full-length interviews, they just talk about everything,” says Janet Carleton, digital initiatives coordinator and one of the Libraries’ project coordinators to digitally preserve the collection in 2017.

In 1997, when Ohio University Libraries became stewards of the Don Swaim Collection, consisting of open reel-to-reel tapes and cassette tapes, the archivists of the collection understood the preservation threat to the magnetic medium and the potential obsolescence of the collection, so they worked with WOUB Center for Public Media, which produced “Wired for Books,” an online educational project. In 2016, however, the site went dark, which in turn meant the loss of accessibility to the online broadcast collection.

With the support of Swaim, the Libraries began a two-part preservation and accessibility project in order to make this collection playable online, particularly because of the known fact that the original magnetic tapes degrade and will not play forever. The two phases included professionally reformatting and transcribing the “Book Beat” tapes to meet audio preservation standards (Phase One, completed in 2018); and to digitize the full-length interviews to join the Don Swaim Digital Collection, (Phase Two, completed in 2019).

The digital collection was a collaborative project within the Libraries that not only included the unit of preservation and digital initiatives, but also metadata services with Nicholas Ver Steegh, metadata technologies librarian, who built and managed the database. 

“It was very complicated, and a challenge, to figure how to make these things accessible—the broadcasts, the full interviews and the transcripts… [We decided to make] one compound object, so someone could listen to a whole interview, listen to the broadcast, and to read the transcript,” says Carleton. “Nick had to completely rebuild the whole thing. He did this through coding and learning how to do different kinds of scripting. Basically, he created a brand-new collection.”

According to Erin Wilson, digital imaging specialist and lab manager within digital initiatives, who is enjoying listening to the high-quality files during her free time at home, the digital collection should draw the interest of people interested in podcasts, which are very popular right now.

Wilson also reasons that the collection has a broad interdisciplinary appeal to students and other scholars interested not only in literature, but also in journalism.

“Many people who are interested in journalism can also benefit from looking at his [Swaim’s] process. It was a craft for him to distill those, sometimes hour long, interviews into succinct segments,” explains Wilson. “[But] the thing that makes me happy about it—is just knowing that it is accessible now [online].” 

For more information please contact Janet Carleton or Erin Wilson