Princeton offers extensive archive of public lectures as podcasts

Princeton has converted nearly 800 digital files of public events and lectures to make them easily available for free downloads from a new podcasts website. The podcasts feature a dynamic lineup of distinguished guests who visited the University dating back to 1998.

Audio of lectures by such notable figures as movie director Martin Scorsese, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, children's book illustrator Maurice Sendak and Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- in addition to such Princeton professors as computer security expert Edward Felten, poet Paul Muldoon and mathematician Ingrid Daubechies -- can be easily downloaded as MP3 files for audiences on and off campus.

The files have become part of a growing audio index of available public lectures that will continue to be updated with each new event digitally recorded by the academic services department of the University's Office of Information Technology (OIT). According to Serge Goldstein, director of academic services, that amounts to an estimated 100 new campus lectures and events each year.

"It's a treasure trove of material of interest to anyone because most of these public lectures are on cutting-edge topics given by outstanding scholars and personalities in their fields," Goldstein said. "It ranges from the political, to the social and economic. And then we also have famous artists and performers who come to Princeton and give lectures, but many people outside of Princeton have never heard them."

For years through digital video, the University has offered anyone with an online connection a virtual front-row seat to hundreds of public lectures by some of the world's pre-eminent political leaders, creative artists, scientists and policymakers that take place on campus.

But while the videos have been available via the online WebMedia site, the University continued to receive routine inquiries for audio recordings of public events that reach capacity in venues on campus.

"We received requests from people who had viewed the streaming files on the WebMedia site saying they did not want to be tethered to their computer," said David Hopkins, manager of OIT's New Media Center in academic services. "They wanted the freedom to listen to a file on their MP3 player. Others wanted the benefit of 'push technology,' which means the latest MP3 file is pushed to the person's computer rather than having to go to the WebMedia site and search for the latest public lecture."  

To add portability to existing digital videos, OIT encoded them as MP3 files, and then created an easily updated data file known as an RSS -- short for Really Simple Syndication --   that will allow computer users with iTunes or one of the other digital media players to access the list of lectures.

"Our goal was to increase the availability of this resource, which was always intended to be available to the public for people interested in our events for scholarly or academic purposes, or simply because they find the events interesting," Hopkins said.

Students studying the Big Bang, music enthusiasts interested in rapper Talib Kweli and financiers on Wall Street researching economic policy can now subscribe to a collection of files for automatic delivery to their MP3 player. The lectures aren't live, allowing users to listen at their convenience.

OIT currently records only public events and lectures -- not course lectures or material -- but routine recordings of events such as Commencement, Opening Exercises and various academic conferences also are on WebMedia and have been converted for the podcasts site.

"We're regularly adding to our vast array of materials on public events and lectures," Goldstein said. "We're always exploring innovations and finding new ways to make them available because they were always intended to be public material."

The move to podcasts parallels other efforts across the University to open Princeton resources to national and international audiences. The Princeton University Library recently announced joining the Google Books Library Project to digitize up to 1 million books in the library collections that are no longer under copyright, and the University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs' University Channel initiative offers podcasts and vodcasts of some of Princeton's academic lectures and many others provided by member educational institutions beyond campus.