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Documents that Changed the World

joe-janes-fb.jpgDocuments that Changed the World: A new audio series by Professor Joe Janes

What does an 1854 map about cholera have in common with the papal bull issued by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582?

UW Information School Professor Joe Janes believes they are both excellent examples of documents that fundamentally changed how people think about or interact with the world.

In a new audio series entitled, "Documents that Changed the World," Janes and Andrew Brink, a recent graduate student in the iSchool's Master of Library and Information Science program, tell stories about important documents that merge history, politics, science, observation, culture and insights to change or challenge human beliefs or behavior.

(The ongoing series and complete episodes are compiled here.)

The goal of the series says Janes, is to "reinforce the power that information plays in everybody's life all the time, even if you don't notice it or pay attention to it. These things matter. And the way by which they are done matters."

Brink, who graduated in June 2012 and works as a research analyst at the BlackRock corporate library, says he appreciated the opportunity to work with Janes on the project and further explore the questions raised in his classes.

"What is the power and significance of information objects? How does the form or shape of a document affect its ability to influence society? What are the ancestors of new and evolving information technologies? As a student preparing to enter a profession where I'm expected to make information work in various settings, it was essential to explore these questions," notes Brink.

Janes was inspired by the 2010 BBC series, "History of the World in 100 Objects," which was a joint project with the British Museum. The 100-part radio series featured objects of ancient art, industry, technology and arms, all of which are in the British Museum's collections, as an introduction to parts of human history.

The first installments of "Documents that Changed the World" tell the stories of John Snow's 1854 cholera map and the birth of the Gregorian calendar in 1582.

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John Snow's cholera map

John Snow, a famous London medical practitioner known for his skill with surgical anesthetics, had attempted on several occasions to convince others that cholera was spread by contaminated drinking water rather than by the popularly accepted miasma (air) explanation.

The breakthrough came when he used a London street map and graphed the number and locations of cholera deaths next to neighborhood drinking water pumps. The result clearly showed the Broad Street pump to be at the epicenter of the cholera outbreak: Proximity to this well was directly proportional to mortality risk. The pump was closed, the epidemic abated and the results helped give rise to the discipline of epidemiology.

Brink notes in the story that "Snow's use of mapping is the contemporary equivalent of Google maps or social networking sites like Yelp that allow users to enhance existing maps. Just as we use Google maps and Yelp to record where we've been and what we've experiences, Snow added layers of local and personal knowledge to available maps in order to tell the terrible story of an epidemic."

Why did Brink choose this example for the series?

"Andy chose Snow's map because it touched on a lot of different things: mapping, geography, history, public health, epidemiology, statistics, data overload," says Janes.

"The map was a way to visualize and simplify a wide range of data sources that were just starting to emerge: statistical, narrative and observational. If you just had one piece of the puzzle, you weren't going to solve the mystery of where the cholera was coming from. It took a lot more than just the map, but the map was the key to changing people's minds about how disease was transmitted and what could be done about it."

Listen to John Snow's map. (12 minutes)

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Inter gravissimas: a papal bull issued by Pope Gregory XIII creating the Gregorian calendar

This is a story of "power, precision and faith" says Janes in his introduction.

Calendar systems were created thousands of years ago by various cultures including the Egyptians and the Mayan. The Romans, under Julius Caesar, created their own version called the Julian calendar, but there were problems with this one when determining when exactly to celebrate Easter. This concerned the Pope.

In a move that was very innovative for its time, Pope Gregory XIII convened a commission to study the problem and give recommendations. The resulting report was circulated to universities and nobility for feedback, which was understandably mixed. Regardless, Gregory issued a papal bull on February 24, 1582 establishing the new calendar system and eliminating 10 days from the current year.

The adoption rate spanned centuries with the most recent taking place in China in 1949. The Judaic and Islamic calendars have never adjusted.

"Who could do this today?" asks Janes. "What single person could, just by virtue of their position, write a document and establish a brand new calendar with any hope that it would be broadly or universally adopted? Nobody."

"As the power of any one individual person has diminished, the power that a document could have might in fact have grown."

Listen to Inter gravissimas. (12 minutes)