May 30, 2003
Follow me on Twitter

Some Librarians

It's nice of ELO to send me an open letter. No doubt they thought it looked like fun. I think everyone in the field understands the issue by now. (Matt Kirschenbaum say he doesn't understand, but I think he's too modest. Don't you?)

But, if you want to go into it more deeply, let's take a look at one item in the ELO list of lost or threatened works.

Kathryn Cramer, Jacuzzi, Subpeona, Vacation, Black Mark . HyperCard stacks on floppy. Scattered copies on threatened platform

ALERT: This is about to get all pedantic. Sorry. The PAD People want to be archivists and librarians. Let's take a closer look at this first, preliminary bit of archive-making.

Jacuzzi was written in and around a jacuzzi at a conference. Some other famous writers were in the hot tub, too, and they lent a hand. It was sketched in Storyspace, not HyperCard, and was later incorporated in the Brown's Hypertext Hotel MOO.

Subpoena Vacation is one work, not two. Note that the ELO entry misspells Subpoena, too. (Spelling complaints are pernicious, but librarians care about getting the spelling right because a misfiled work is proverbially a lost work) Subpoena Vacation started in Storyspace, and later was moved to Macromind Director. It never was a HyperCard stack. It remains unfinished, and has been under contract to Eastgate for many years.

Black Mark was a joke, a small, satirical pamphlet Cramer and other student volunteers produced at the end of Hypertext '96 with caricatures of Ted Nelson, Michael Bieber, Mark Bernstein, and other Hypertext research folk. It was not a HyperCard stack, it was not even an electronic work.

We started with an impressive list of four threatened or endangered works. Poof: there's not much left.

Fact checking this wouldn't have been hard. Cramer is a well-known and exceedingly well-connected anthologist and editor. She's in the phone book. She's in the Eastgate catalog. She's a regular at many conferences and conventions. She runs The NY Review of Science Fiction. She has a Web site. When I phoned, she returned the call in fifteen minutes.

Nobody bothered to check. The rest of the list is full of stuff like this. Works attributed to the wrong author. Works that moved to a new server and are easily found by Google. Works that are in print -- works you can pick up the phone and order from their original publisher.

Scholarship matters. Scholars have a public duty to the truth -- just as policemen, judges, and physicians have their own special duties. Let's face it: reasonable care would have caught these errors, and reasonable care is what we expect from scholars -- and librarians. These aren't subtle questions of classification or technology; before you tackle those, you simply have to get the basics right. And, when mistakes get published, correcting them is vital. It's that simple.

Benediction: Everyone, take a deep breath. Calm down. I'm a scientist; scientists, too, have duties. I've been in this field for 20 years, I'm hoping to be around for a long time. Let's get back to work. The work matters. Getting it right matters. You know this.