News & Events

Documents That Changed the World

Documents That Changed the World is an ongoing podcast series by UW Information School Professor Joe Janes that explores the compelling stories of various "documents" from throughout history. 

Janes aims to take things that are less known or appreciated and tell their stories in a slightly different way; to leave people with something new to think about, with a background or perspective they didn’t consider. 

Read about each document and podcast via the list below. 

Series Introduction, 2012

08/08/12 The power and importance of information and information objects only continues to grow and diversify. Telling the stories of these information objects, their genesis, contexts, impacts, and fates also tells the story of human society and its never ending evolution.

All Podcasts:

Palm Beach County 'Butterfly' Ballot, 2000

03/02/16 Electorally, the only poll that matters is the last one – actually casting a vote, which seems comparatively straightforward. You vote for the person you want, somebody in charge counts ‘em up and then we find out the winner. As if. This is a story we all know the end of, and kinda know how we got to the end of, like it or not, but here we’ll focus on how we got to having to get to that end, an end that reverberates several elections on.

Stock Market Ticker Tape, 1929

12/28/15 So, what’s the latest? In our 24/7, up to the microsecond world, you can follow events a world away almost in real time, while keeping up with what your friends are wearing and eating via their Instagram accounts. We take that ability so much for granted that waiting for details or updates, reloading and refreshing, can be frustrating, and it’s difficult to imagine what it would be like not to be completely connected all the time. This is a story of fortunes lost, lives ruined, a world plunged into a decade of depression, the end of an era. It’s also a story of infrastructure, which is, almost by definition, pretty dull. So I’ll do my best to make it interesting or at least suitably gory – and there’s even a parade at the end.

FDR Thanksgiving Proclamation, 1939

11/25/15 What date is Thanksgiving this year? All holidays move around, because 365 doesn’t divide evenly by 7, so days like New Year’s and your birthday creep their way through the week as the years go by. And holidays that are pegged to particular days of the week, such as Labor Day, fall on different...

Nupedia (Wikipedia predecessor), 2000

11/09/15 It’s possible to view the Nupedia as the last gasp of authority in the face of knowledge-by-“community” but the jury might still be out on that, given Wikipedia’s various plateaux. It’s hard to deny, though, that what “we” “know” depends strongly on the “we” and on how we process, record and use that knowledge. With a different set of assumptions, rules, and structures, and a different community who responds, reacts, and eventually changes those, you get a different Wikipedia, and thus a different “knowledge.”

Declaration of Independence deleted passage, 1776

11/09/15 How do you read something that isn’t there? Well, you can’t, unless somehow you know it used to be there. There are lots of examples the creative process at work in all its messy, myriad varieties - multiple drafts of novels, plays, poems, symphonies and so on, showing us how works are tweaked and pruned and sometimes taken apart and put back together again.

Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 1896

11/09/15 Today, we largely think of recipes as simple or at least straightforward: ingredients, what to do, time, temperature, and so on, follow the path and you’ll be OK. Which sometimes leads to frustration when for some reason – never yours – it doesn’t work. And yet for a long time, it wasn’t often like that, until a remarkable woman from Massachusetts helped to codify much of what we take for granted in recipes and cooking and helped to change how, and perhaps why, we think about food.

Richter Scale, 1935

08/13/15 As the study of the movement of the earth became more systematic, attention began to focus on ways of measuring the actual size of an earthquake. This is where Charles Richter comes in. His work, tedious and exacting, by hand, with a slide rule, led him to the insight that the amount of shaking reduced as you get further from the site of an earthquake, and moreover that this relationship could be represented on a single curve.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1982

07/23/15 The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is, clearly, a document, straightforwardly recording names and sequence; it also memorializes the war in general, our experience of it, and our coming to terms with it.

Statistical Methods for Research Workers, 1925

07/22/15 You've probably never heard of Ronald Fisher, one of the founders of modern research methods, but his work and ideas have affected nearly every statistical study -- and the way we understand the world.

Alfred Nobel’s Will, 1895

04/23/15 Do you ever wonder what you’ll leave behind? For most of us, it’ll be our friends and loved ones’ memories, and for many, our families will be our legacy.

Annals of the World, 1650

04/23/15 When did it all start? We’re always told that good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The Star Spangled Banner, 1814

08/12/14 O say do you know...the story behind the Star-Spangled Banner? An American icon and an anthem that’s nearly impossible to sing.

Joseph McCarthy’s List, 1950

07/04/14 Sometimes a document can be devastating — can ruin lives and change history — even if it doesn’t really exist.

Exaltation of Inanna, 2300 BCE

06/01/14 What does it mean to be an author? Let’s go back 4000 years to examine one wildly creative high priestess’ job to find out.

Donation of Constantine, 750

05/21/14 The story of one of the most famous forgery incidents in history involves blind faith, a pope, an emperor and potential eternal damnation.

Barack Obama's Birth Certificate, 1961

05/05/14 The authenticity of President Obama's birth certificate was called into question and has remained a topic of debate. There's an even more basic question here: What is a birth certificate? It's one of the most personal documents we have.

Alaska Purchase Check, 1868

03/19/14 That time when we bought Russian America, one of the biggest oil fields in the world, with a little piece of paper.

Zapruder Film, 1963

11/13/13 The 26.6 seconds of color film shot in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, became the most widely known, discussed and analyzed bit of film in history.

Rosetta Stone, 196 BCE

09/05/13 From plain stone to venerated symbol of ingenuity, this is truly a rock of the ages.

Book of Mormon, 1830

07/20/13 Joseph Smith: finder of long-buried golden tablets revealing lost truths or the most successful humbug ever known?

Riot Act, 1714

06/09/13 When does a gathering of people become a riot? Literally, when someone reads The Riot Act and closes with “God Save the King!”

Alfred Binet's IQ Test, 1905

05/15/13 Standardized testing. The very idea of taking one of these tests, facing those little bubbles, #2 pencil grimly in hand, is enough to make anybody shudder.

Casablanca Letters of Transit, 1942

12/30/12 Star-crossed lovers in wartime; chaos and intrigue; champagne cocktails and dinner jackets; and the origins of a completely fictional document.

What is the Third Estate?, 1789

11/12/12 A meandering pamphlet that suggested 95 percent of the population was doing all the work and getting no representation. Sound familiar?

Robert's Rules of Order, 1876

10/20/12 An appealing framework for civil discourse and the democratic process that may seem quaint in an increasingly partisan and polarized world.

AIDS Memorial Quilt, 1987

09/19/12 Is a quilt a document? The AIDS quilt, which comprises more than 48k panes representing more then 94k names, certainly documents the many stories associated with the AIDS epidemic.

18 1/2 Minute Gap, 1972

09/04/12 For a time, a great deal of attention focused on one strip of magnetic tape, about 90 feet worth, with an unexplained buzz where there should have been conversation between two of the most powerful men in the country.

Gutenberg Indulgence, 1454

08/23/12 What Gutenberg printed first, the unexpected effects his works had, and the lucrative business of printing indulgences.

Internet Protocol, 1981

08/15/12 Global communication platform to some and just “a series of tubes” to others. But how exactly does the Internet work and how did it get started?

19th Amendment, 1920

07/19/12 Was the 19th amendment to the US Constitution written by a woman? And is there even an actual Constitution?

Mao’s Little Red Book, 1964

07/17/12 Mandatory reading for 99% of the population of China and a lesson on how controlling the information can control a whole culture.