A conversation with John Leeke, the “original heritage video blogger” (audio podcast)

Update: John’s started a blog called “Save America’s Windows,” which uses video conferencing, a forum and videos that complement his book on the subject.

John Leeke was videoblogging for nearly a decade before YouTube was even invented. And he was taking about heritage preservation. His “campfire chats” have created a community throughout the world and inspired countless folks to take up the preservation trades. In this interview, he talks about getting started in video blogging, the modern tools he uses, and why he’s an active, if reluctant, Facebook user.


Jeff Guin: John, welcome to Voices of the Past. What’s the mission of Historic Homeworks?

John Leeke: Helping people understand and maintain their older and historic buildings–that’s even a formal mission statement for my business, but it is really what I am about.

As a kid in the 1950’s, I grew up in my father’s woodworking shop. I was about 10 years old when I started and it was the usual thing: cleaning up and helping out. But by the time I was 12, I was doing some formal, regular jobs. My first one was fixing a broken picket on a neighbor’s fence. At least that’s what I thought I was doing. But later as an adult, I talked about this with my dad, and he said, “Now John, you thought I was teaching you about working with wood? Actually I was teaching you about working with people.”

When my dad passed away, I was clearing out his shop and came across the job sheet for that first fence picket project. And my dad had written at the top of the sheet “Help Mr. Williams fix his fence.” See? The work was really about helping our neighbor, not about me or the picket.

And you are still doing that today. And one of the ways that you are doing that is with web communication. And maybe some people don’t realize that you were producing social media even before the term came into existence. For many years now you have been producing video and communicating online. What lead you down that path?

I’ve got some inner need to share what I know. I am still not very sure where that comes from, but all throughout my work career it’s been there.

In the 1980’s I started writing articles about my work on historic buildings, woodworking and preservation magazines. National publishers like “Fine Home Building” and “Old House Journal” and so on. But there was a disconnect between me and my readers. And an occasional Q&A from a reader via the editor, but no real connection.

I am an inveterate do-it-yourselfer, so by the end of the ’80’s I was publishing my series of printed booklets and practical restoration reports. This put me in touch with contact with my readers and a dialog developed with many of them. Definitely social interaction, but the media was print. The booklets and letters, many phone conversations. Some of that interaction was on the Internet on bulletin board services.

By 1994, the World Wide Web was developing and I had my own website. So that interaction with the readers continued and expanded to many others this new media, webpages over the Internet.

By the end of the 90’s, the social media was developing and widely recognized, and I’d already been in the “thick of it” for five to eight years.

We’ve talked about your content, and it’s very rooted in the principles and ethic of social media. But what you have chosen to do is maintain simplicity within your own website and not overload it with all of your social networking icons and things like that. Why did you go for simplicity in actually maintaining your website and communicating with your audience?

Part of it is just the practical side that I can only put so much time and effort into it. I am out earning a living, working on old buildings, and that takes … full time. And then I am spending another half-time sharing what I know and writing and other projects, going to conferences and giving workshops and such. So there’s time and a half. And just like only so much could go into it. But I’ve always thought of my website as a destination. A quiet place for me and others to learn and share what we know. If you notice there is almost no advertising like some of the other old house websites. Ads flashing on every webpage and distracting from the real message. Well, maybe with some of those other old house websites, the advertising is the message. Tricking visitors into wanting more than what they need and the underlining purpose is making money.

One of the big struggles in preservation today, as you know, is the consumer marketing and building products. Like the vinyl pirates and the cooperate monsters in the consumer economy have mind-washed the American public into trashing all their final windows and replacing them with plastic, imitation windows–Don’t get me started! Well, they spend millions of dollars a year doing that. May of those dollars taken by the owners of old houses websites. When folks come to the historic home works, they immediately see it’s a different sort of place. They have some confidence, I think, that they will get objective information not hyped up and spun up with advertising dollars.

And I never got into blogging. The discussion forum at my website was highly active before blogging, so I just continued with that formal, well-known format of discussion forum. Now the forum has display video, and I could add features like live audio, but I really want to keep it simple enough that folks are comfortable using it.

I do participate in some of the social media. Folks learn about my work and end up on my website to learn more. One of the things that we all value highly is an original, historic house that still looks like it did when it was first built. So it seems OK to me if my website looks just like that: how I first built it. It’s a bit quaint, perhaps, but I get a lot of visitors and many of them say how easy it is to navigate. They can find what they need to know, so I don’t have any compelling urge to update it. No need for modeling and renovation.

You’ve got a book about historic windows. Tell me about it.

Save America’s Windows started out as two or three articles back in the 1980’s that I wrote for “Old House Journal” and a couple of the others. And by the end of the ’80s, I was consolidating those into a report on window preservation, restoration, maintenance and repair methods. So the content has kind of a history. And through the ’90s that developed and expanded. And by 2005 and 2006, it was thick enough to be a book. So I gave it a new title. Instead of “Save your Wood Windows,” “Save America’s Windows.”

And, I have to say, it is selling like hotcakes because there is this real strong interest in saving windows. I mean, that’s how I got the title. There is a thirst all across the country to take care of old windows within the field of historic preservation and maybe some of the practical affairs at the lower economical scale. Those who can’t afford to replace all their windows at such a high cost are just taking care of their windows. And so that’s what the book responds to.

You have actually pioneered the use of live chats regarding heritage topics. And you kind of had, for lack of a better term, a campfire chat about preservation topics over the course of many years. Tell me how that got started.

In the 1980s there were internet bulletin boards, and I got started on those as a user. And that was strictly a text message system. And after that I was a systems operator for a Compuserve board about old houses. And that was late ’80s or very early ’90s. And that had text and photos. You could upload photos to the files area. In ’94 or ’95, I had a contract to provide preservation information to a section of AOL called “House Net.” Part of that was hosting a two-hour text chat. Man, that was something. I learned how to think quick, be brief and type fast. And I felt that I could still help people pretty effectively with their old houses even with that kind of brief format. But I think it was so effective because it was live and interactive. It was actually conversations with few and many people involved.

Then in ’97 the first International Preservation Trades Workshop was held in Fredrick, Md. This four-day assembly of preservation trades people has continued every year since. But that was the first one and the participants had access to a bank of personal computers for their exploration of the Internet and other electronic resources. The timber framers are there, and the wood carves and so on. So this was kind of the newest thing back then.

Well, I couldn’t afford to go, so I set up and hosted an online conference through my own website. For two hours, with 15 folks there in Maryland and me in Maine, we chatted about using computers in the field of preservation and live text and realtime video. A rarity at the time. It was certainly the first time I’d done it. When high-speed access became common in 2001 and 2002, I started posting videos on one of my webpages and updated the webpage every day. I updated it by hand with HTML editors and ordinary text editors. Just like I was doing work by hand in the daytime with house restoration projects, planing  the old wooden boards by hand. This was way before any of the automated blogging services, so it was essentially a blog before blogs because we were updating it daily, and then I heard about video blogging in 2005. There was a group of 15-20 people who called themselves the “video bloggers.” And I kind of fell in with them. They were doing blogging just like I had been doing on my own by updating web pages, and then others were figuring out ways to do that easily on the new video blogging services. Well, this group of folks had this weekly online video conference meeting using the flash meeting service, and there was a lot of camaraderie as they developed new video methods.

Every week were were checking out each other’s new video blogs and helping each other figure out what looks good and what works and so on. And so even some of them were writing books about blogging and video blogging that were being published that year and the year after. And they really liked me because they were all video blogging about video blogging. And I was out in the real world video blogging about saving historic buildings. So they loved that and really helped me get up to speed quick using interactive video, mostly by using that Flash Meeting service. Now Flash Meeting is a live, interactive video conferencing service, they are kind of common now, but they were a rarity back then. And it was developed by the Old Media Institute of the Open University over in England in the 1990s. And they have on going developments and improvements on the Flash Meeting system.

The Open University is a distance learning school that is students worldwide. In fact, it is an interesting place. They have a campus with 2,000 or 2,300 people on it, but there are no students at the campus. It’s all staff and instructors and professors at the campus and their student body is truly all around the world. So they made the Flash system to serve their students all around the world over the web. Well, I got in touch with Peter Scott who leads that program, and he gave me a grant of services, so I could use Flash Meeting for my own work. He did that because he sad they were stuck in the academic realm, and I was out in the real world to train preservation trades people to save historic buildings. And one of the principle things they do at the Open University is study how knowledge spreads around the world, and they actively support what they call the horizontal spread of knowledge rather than vertical. The traditional way of learning is a vertical system where professors at the universities know it all, and they teach their students who end up becoming teachers themselves teaching their students to go out in the real world and do work using what they learned. Well that’s a vertical system they say. And what they are promoting is horizontal systems of knowledge transfer, where if trades people like I’m working with in preservation need to know something, they go side ways (horizontal) to other trades people and get the information they need to know directly from them. And that’s what I was doing with their Flash Meeting system. So they wanted to use me as a case study for how their system is used out in the real world.

Which kind of made you the original heritage video blogger …

Well, I was doing it pretty early. And all of the stuff, all of these tools whether it’s a table saw or a wooden hand plane or the Internet and my computer and a video camera are all just tools that I use to help people take care of their old buildings. And so this is just the next set of tools to learn about, and I was picking up kind of early on. As soon as they were helping me, I was using them. One of the things that they study at the Open University is how knowledge spreads, so that’s what I was doing. And I think that’s why I kind of looked interesting to them. And this Flash Meeting system is highly useful. After a live video conference is recorded, that recording is available and even more people watch it. Maybe six or eight participants have logged in and participated in the live meeting, but some of these recordings that I have done have been viewed 10s of thousands of times. And the Flash Meeting system keeps track of all that, and you can see in a worldwide map where the original participants were located in the video conference and the location of the recorded viewers all around the globe on six continents. And Peter at the Open University jokes, and he says, “They’re just waiting for someone on Antarctica to start watching my restoration videos so they can say ‘worldwide,’ seven continents.”

And recently, for example, we’ve had a live video training session with New Orleans Renewal and Building and Crafts Training Program, where Bill Robinson is training a crew of preservation trades people learning about wood window repairs and maintenance, and it’s an ongoing program of training that lasts for months, and windows is just one of the components. And so one Saturday we set up and had a morning and afternoon session over these live conferences, and those are still available.

Livestreaming and using video, recorded and live, is really where the Internet is going right now. Do you have any advice for heritage organizations that are considering livestreaming their training?

Yeah. I think the real key is to first understand that all of this is very doable. All of the tools have kind of…it is like they’ve merged finally into ways that actually work. And it’s not a big struggle to plug in your camera to your computer and hook your camera up to the Internet and be doing it. It may take a bit of learning and a bit of practice, that’s the other key–is to just do it. It’s like start doing it, don’t get worried about trying to meet high-production values. It isn’t Hollywood. It isn’t broadcast television. And you don’t even have to do it like anyone else is doing it over the Internet with their video camera. Just start doing it and do it enough. And that’s the key. To do it enough. Do it regular. Like once a week. Once a month. Or everyday, but just depending on what time you have available. And that’s the key. Just do it and practice. I mean, the first few times I did it, it was stilted. It’s not Hollywood. Like the true grit of what it’s like to work out at old buildings is where things get dusty and dirty during the work, and it’s OK if your camera shakes a little bit. It’s the content within it that’s important. And the way you get to that is just by practicing. By doing it. But don’t practice and then put it away in a drawer. Practice and get it out there. Because now, it’s not like it’s a television show where it’s highly edited. You might edit a little as you learn about that, but you get it out there and people respond to it.

I remember one of the first videos I did was about scraping paint, and so I demonstrated scraping paint and made this big screech like fingernails on the blackboard only worse. It’s like the scraper on the side of the house. And it was like this screeching scraping sound. And that was right in it, part of the true grit. And so a comment I got back from Simon Herbert out in Tucson. And he said that I showed that with my fellow office workers, he works at the county and their state preservation office. And he said that as soon as we came to that part, everyone turned around and walked away because they couldn’t stand that sound. So while it might be true grit on the worksite, but if it drives away viewers then you edit it out or you or you shoot your video so that you are minimizing that disturbance. And so it was just a lesson I learned early on and that’s how you get at it. But it’s like you have to overcome any embarrassment and so on, and the way to do that is just practice. So those are the two keys. Realize that it’s not costly and it’s very doable, and then just do it.

t_tbconf2007leekesash_126How have these technologies been effective in doing that? How has Historic HomeWorks changed because of these technologies?

My business is a little unusual. I’ve never paid for marketing or advertising. Through the 1980s and since, I have written articles for national journals and magazines, and that’s been a big part of my marketing. Like a lot of people learn about what I’m working on and then they call in and want some of that. But I’m not doing it for that reason. I’m not doing it for marketing it. I’m doing it because I have this compelling inner need to share stuff. And so that’s just like one of the happy results. And I started recognizing it just about the time it started happening. It was a big part of my marketing. For example, in an article I just tell stories about what I’m doing. And my first magazine article was about repairing the porch columns that I had to get done real quick because the couple was getting married on Saturday, and they were taking their vows right out on the front porch. So my work working on the Internet is just an extension of working on my projects and working in the print media. Now I tell my stories on the Internet and this means I can share my work and stories with a lot more people. One of the interesting marketing concepts, and now I didn’t develop it, is this idea called “long-tail marketing.” If you plot out a graph of let’s say all sales of windows. Big on the graph, coming up high on the graph are sales by Pella and Marvin. So that makes high in the curve of the number of sales over time. And so that’s like Pella is selling a lot of windows, and then like half way down of the regional companies like Black Mountain, windows over in Vermont, they are kind of like down on the curve. They were only selling a few windows compared to Pella in a regional area in New England. And then a little further out along that line, like maybe out here are the window restoration shops. One or two people working together saving old windows. And then, a little further out in the line, like maybe on this scale that I’m talking about here. Maybe 10 feet that way is John Leeke selling his book, selling a few books about saving America’s windows. It’s way out there on the horizon and then the long tail going out. And that’s the long tail of marketing.

The long tail is important because it goes way out. And even on this scale, the long tail goes out. Like here we are at a foot, it goes out 10 or 12 miles. Where way out at the end of the long tail, one neighbor helps another neighbor fix a window. And that neighbor gives his neighbor and friend $10 because he helped him out. So that’s like the far end of the long tail. And so that’s out on the long tail and that’s important because under the long tail, the size of that market because it goes out so far, is much more important that the area where all the windows are sold. And that works and happens largely because of the Internet. People can find out about each other. And sometimes, way out at the end of the tail, people are finding out about each other just talking over the backyard fence. And that’s a form of marketing, spreading ideas. But I think the real key is in this live interaction on the Internet. I mean, we all know how the Internet is used. How we use it to display words and pictures, and that’s the way it kind of started. Now, I learned back in the ’90s about this interaction that can take place over the Internet, and that’s something that the big corporations can’t do. They are trying to do it. But they do things like pay homeowners to write blogs about replacing their windows. And it has this inauthenticity about it that’s pretty recognizable. People know, or have a feeling, that that’s what is going on. The key with the social media now, Facebook and MySpace, is that it’s authentic. It’s real people talking about real things in their lives and sharing that.

What social networks do you use? You mentioned that you do use social networks even though you may not promote them on your website. You are out there on the social space. So what social networks are you actually active in?

The one I use most is the discussion forum on my own website. I really spend most of my time there. And enough people have found it and so it is pretty active. One of the reasons I use it is because of the outcomes from it. I can really directly help a lot of people. And also it is where I am writing most of my content now, both for my print publications and also for the videos. I mean, I do what people are interested in at my forum. And then I see what people are interested in at the other social media websites. But I can easily count the numbers, the system automatically does it, and I like that the numbers aren’t a secret and they are displayed right there at the discussion forum. You can see each of the topics, how many people are looking at them and how many people have left messages, and I use that. People are leaving messages, I am answering them. And that becomes the content for my articles. And because it is highly responsive, it helps the marketing of the materials I’ve developed there. So text and photos and videos are the tools there, but the real work flows around the community and work of the people that stop by. It’s a lot like the classical Roman forum where people stop by to ask questions and to see what’s going on and what people are interested in. At my website at the discussion forum, I say, “where people can stop by to ask questions, seek guidance, help others and keep in touch.” And nearly all my articles are developed there.

I’m active on Facebook. I’ve been about a year. I come to it a little late because I’m busy over at my forum. But I am not sure if I am actually helping there or not. For one thing, it is kind of complicated. The system works and then they keep changing how it works. Too complicated to easily learn and use effectively for me, and I practice with this stuff. And I have been using it for a year. I maybe log in there weekly. And so after 50 to 100 times logging in, I still don’t have a grasp on what’s actually going on, and that’s because they keep changing it. It’s sort of like that corporate marketing strategy where you keep your consumers off balance so you can take advantage of them. And so I am a little weary about that and Facebook and some of the others. And it’s pretty clear. Facebook is designed to benefit mainly it’s owners. And who knows whether or not it is truly helping its users possibly. So I am still dabbling there. I have gotten a few small pieces of work through connections at Facebook, so I am not saying it is a bad thing. Just, it’s questionable.

And then I post some videos and stories pretty regularly on “My Old House Online” account, which is another social website. They use the ning service, N-I-N-G, and that’s partly because it is hosted by one of my publishers, and occasionally I stop by Voices of the Past, and LinkedIn occasionally. LinkedIn to me seems even a little less useful than Facebook. But a lot of people are on it. And it is sort of, sort of, like there is an expectation that you will be involved in some of this stuff. And so that is a part of what brings me there.

You are expected to maintain the same level of activity on Facebook that you do on your own website, and it really, I think, dilutes your capabilities somewhat because your efforts are going in all these different directions ...

I think you are right there. And that’s exactly my response to it and why I’m being actually somewhat careful about spending too much time there. When I first logged in, everyday for about a week I spent about an hour there just trying to figure that out. And then everyday for…about an half a day a week for about a month, I spent time there. And now I limit my time to no more than 10 minutes a day and total half hour per week. And I am spending only about twice those numbers at my own discussion forums. I am only spending about an hour a week, sometimes more if I am writing for a project on the discussion forum, which I do frequently, but just on the interactive part of it and responding to new people and new posts, that’s less than an hour a week that I spend on my own discussion forum.

You talked about your involvement in traditional media a moment ago with the Old House Journal, and the fact that they have an Ning site now. Because you were actually in this industry before the social media really took hold, what has changed in the print-based industry and just the industry in general that you have seen since the advent of social media?

For me, having my first articles on wooden porch columns published in Old House Journal and Fine Home Building in the early 1980s was a real turning point in my work and career. And then I continued writing which helped me get established in my career and building it through the ’80s to the ’90s, but now print media is definitely declining, not only in the broader economy in almost all quarters, certainly national and regional newspapers. Local newspapers still seem to be thriving. But especially the magazine or book industries, not book publishing, but magazine industry. That’s definitely declining. And so they are all scrambling to do things, like Old House Journal, and getting online like last year or the year before. Now actually, the Old House Journal was online maybe it was 10 years ago or more. But that had been 10 years after some of us had been online and developed some rich content and ways of working with it. And I still write for the print publications occasionally.

My self-publishing efforts put me in direct touch with my readers. And like when my own readers pay me for a book, I get far more money than with the big publishers, who used to take most of it. And when I get more money, I can put more of that back into the publications, helping my readers even more. Essentially this happens pretty well in a niche market like mine. I mean, even Old House Journal and Journal of Light Construction, they’re pretty much a niche market, but mine is like a little micro-niche. And mine’s like hands-on, historic preservation, building specific, and the big publishers just get in the way. They are in the way now between me and my readers. I can help more people without them. Now that’s partly because I am pretty practiced at it. I’ve been writing for more than a quarter of a century. But this is true for somebody who has something to share and that other people want to know. I mean, they can just jump right in and start doing it too. I don’t think that I am anything special. I just sort of got an early start with both my hands-on work with these ways and sharing it.

If people want to find out more about your work or purchase your book, where do they go?

The central location is my website. That’s historichomeworks.com. And there I have the discussion forum, you will easily find it, and also the retro-video online conferences. Both those there’s no cost, it’s highly responsive. It’s the place to actually get the latest info. If you want to know what’s going to come out in my publications next, go to the forum. And if you don’t see what you are looking for, ask for it, and you’ll get it. And then it’ll be in print next month or maybe next year. And then there are also my publications, the result of that. The practical restoration reports. Gordon Bock, the OHA editor said, “They have my trademark hands-on, step-by-step instructions and famously lucid illustrations.” He said, “photos in particular are photos of clarity.” Well, that’s because I went to six years of art school. And to have the knack of getting it out on paper, in print and now all over the Internet. And then there is also workshops and training. There’s a section of the website that shows what’s coming up. Hands-on guidance around the country, my shop here in Portland, Maine. Or live videos all over the Internet. I also do consulting, personal advice for homeowners, contractors and building owners. I will even write back if you send me an old fashioned letter on paper. My address is 26 Higgins, Portland Maine. Zip 04103. Or give me a call. 207-773-2306. My personal computer and the Internet are like my bench saw or my hand plane. Just another tool that helps me do my best work. And it’s like the telephone, it’s a tool. So if you see me at a conference, be sure to come up, tap me on my shoulder and introduce yourself. There’s nothing like personal meetings, and if you are ever up in New England and get down east along to Portland, stop in and see me. I do that too.

Is there anything else you want to add?

Well, I think that the web and the social media is changing the heritage field, but we have to be a bit cautious about that change because it opens up a lot of opportunities for us like you and I (Jeff and I) and each of the listeners and viewers of this podcast to get in touch with each other. But it also opens up other possibilities. And the consumer economy and the corporations who benefit and control that are not blind. And they are busy taking over the Internet, and the World Wide Web, for their own purposes. Which, of course, is just to make money. And by law, these corporations are only to be concerned with making money. And so that’s the issue and you really do see it on the Internet. A lot of the early video blogging companies and websites are now shifting over to be a substitute for broadcast television. They have series of shows and channels. And some of them even set it up so it looks like a television. And so that’s what we have to be aware of. Is that that’s happening. And I think that when the World Wide Web really was like the Wild West. it was easy to jump in and do your thing. And it’s getting somewhat difficult now to do that. And it’s still possible to do it. And all of my methods were very low cost. Once you have access to the Internet, which is not low cost, but it’s available to many people even at local libraries and so on. And access to a few pieces of equipment like the computer to log on, or the video camera which is now modest in cost. This one that I am using right now is just a couple hundred dollars, and you can even get video cameras now for $40 or $60 that can act as a web cam or record video that’s editable. So you can get into a very low-dollar cost, and I think that it’s important to jump and do it before it’s taken over and you have to start paying the big bucks to participate. And that’s beginning to happen.

OK, well there was one more question that I had and that was on the blogs and websites that you personally enjoy. Whether they are related to heritage or not. Are there people out there on the web who are  your heros?

Yeah, there is one. And it relates directly to a video on the Internet. His name is Steve Garfield at SteveGarfield.com. And he was one of the people in that cadre of video bloggers that I first got in touch with when I first became serious about video over the Internet in 2004 and 2005. And so go to SteveGarfield.com and see what Steve’s up to. He just came out with a book. “Get Noticed” is the name of his book. And it is how to do this Internet video thing, and it’s a great book. And he’s a great guy. And so, that’s one person, but usually I am too busy fixing old houses and writing or shooting video for casual reading or casual web browsing to relax and have fun. I turn around and see who needs help next.

Well that’s awesome. John, I appreciate you talking to me. And thanks for being on Voices of the Past.

Leeke: It is great to meet up with you.

(Photos courtesy of Lisa Sasser on Flickr; Additional teaser graphic elements by SOYBEANTOWN and Damon Duncan)

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