Guest blogger: Bradley Strauss (University Archives student employee)

July 18, 2022
Hanna Ahn
Bradley Strauss, student employee, assisting the University Archives remotely from Chicago, IL!

The contemplative life, or the active one? It’s the age-old debate on what the best approach to life is. Should we be spending our limited time pursuing more real and tangible achievements, such as engineering significant structures or producing medicine that slows aging? Or, conversely, is discussing and exploring what it means to be a human more valuable? Is there more to be gained from the life of rapid work, or rather from the slower life of questioning the world? This question is one that lies at the heart of philosophy itself, and certainly one that the hosts of Philosophy Talk, a Stanford-produced radio show that “questions everything (except your intelligence!),” would not shy away from answering. Started in 2002 by co-hosts Kenneth Taylor (1954-2019) and John Perry (1943-), who were both professors at Stanford’s Department of Philosophy, the show has been running for 20 years. It continues to air episodes to this day, although with different hosts. 

Over the past few weeks of my summer, I have spent countless hours working with the episodes of this podcast. Believe me, when they say Philosophy Talk questions everything, it truly does. From an episode about the philosophy of wine to one on basketball to another on neurocosmetology, there was never a shortage of topics to be discussed on Philosophy Talk. I had the opportunity to work with the Stanford University Archives last year during my freshman year, but never on a project quite like this. While I usually would spend time processing and organizing physical documents, being that I am at home in Chicago, Illinois, my supervisor, Hanna Ahn, had to do some brainstorming in order to figure out what I could do. In this case, I worked on completing a metadata spreadsheet for the Philosophy Talk program, but more on that later. In the process, I got the chance to listen to some episodes, which are preserved through the Archives and also made available on SearchWorks, Stanford Libraries’ cataloging system. 

One of my favorite episodes was with Alvin Roth, a Nobel Prize winner who teaches market design at Stanford, on repugnant markets. In a world where markets are increasingly used, whether it be public or private, for kidneys or for more comfortable jail cells, everything can be bought and sold nowadays. For philosophers, this all begs the question: where should there not be markets? When should markets be based on ability to pay versus need? Being an economics major, these questions obviously fascinate me, but even if you aren’t interested in such things, Philosophy Talk has something for you. Despite beginning 20 years ago, the questions they ask are more relevant now than ever, especially episodes on abortion and artificial intelligence, driverless cars and drug legalization, and many more. 

SearchWorks catalog record for the Philosophy Talk collection

Enough about the show itself though. My time working was spent doing three principal tasks: determining up to four topics relevant to each episode of Philosophy Talk that is held in the University Archives, ensuring that each episode can be heard on SearchWorks for Stanford-affiliated individuals, and finally cross-checking the metadata for each episode with a spreadsheet (which had an incredible 600,000 cells). This spreadsheet supports describing the Philosophy Talk episodes, including the title, recording location, the people who are featured in the show, subject matter, and so much more, using the metadata object description schema (MODS). It is used to ensure the uploaded digital materials are added to the University Archives with relevant data for each episode. I only contributed a minor effort to this massive project, with most of my time spent on listing the subject matter of each episode. 

Because there are 551 episodes of Philosophy Talk that have been digitally accessioned into the University Archives collection, this project required some efficiency workarounds. For example, most episodes of Philosophy Talk have listening notes posted on the website, so instead of listening to each episode, oftentimes I would read through the listening notes to get a brief summary of what was discussed, and then find relevant topics in the Library of Congress Subject Headings listing. Some could be summed up with just one subject, but others needed three or four to accurately describe the contents of what was discussed in the podcast.

Along the way, there were some bumps, such as some audio files on SearchWorks not working or some recording locations not being correct. These issues required quite a bit of fact-checking and attention to detail. Through this process, there was much more to be learned than just the philosophy. I had to come up with some ways to speed it up, such as creating a document with commonly referenced topics in episodes to copy/paste into the spreadsheet, but I also learned about the complexities of metadata and how digital collection materials find their way onto the websites of Stanford Libraries. And of course, I can entirely recite the introduction to each Philosophy Talk episode now.

Philosophy Talk metadata spreadsheet screenshot

There’s value to the contemplative life. That’s what Philosophy Talk offers. It leaves you wondering, searching, and questioning the world around you in a way that not only benefits your own critical thought but allows you to engage in conversations with others that stimulate the mind. I owe thanks to Hanna Ahn and Josh Schneider of the Stanford University Archives for allowing me to do this work, which never felt too much like work anyways. I feel quite lucky to have gotten the opportunity to work on such a fascinating work of art, scholarship, and innovation, that was created here at Stanford.

Bradley Strauss ‘25 is a rising sophomore who studies Public Policy and Economics at Stanford University.