Volunteer Librarians

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, March 9, 2019

A couple weeks ago I went with my friends Mike and Betsy to a book signing for The Watch on the Fencepost (a pleasant cozy mystery) by Kay DiBianca. Mike had worked with Kay for years and I went along because this was Kay’s first book, written after she retired, something I’ve always wanted to do. Kay introduced Mike and me to her audience as former librarians, suggesting we might be experts on books. Mike and I worked in a university library back in the 1980s, but as clerks, not librarians. At the time, we both wanted to become librarians, but it required moving out of town to get a Master’s of Library Science degree, something hard to do since we both had wives with jobs too. To become a librarian where we worked required an MLS to get the job and then another master’s in a useful subject area to keep it.

Mike and I were never qualified to call ourselves librarians so we’re always embarrassed when that title was bestowed on us. We both left the library to go into computers, but I think we each wished we had become librarians. Now that we’re retired I’ve noticed that many of our hobbies require librarian-like skills. I’m starting to think of ourselves and others that share our hobbies as volunteer librarians.

I haven’t worked in a library for almost four decades, but back then they had several main departments:

  • Acquisitions
  • Cataloging
  • Circulation
  • Reference
  • Periodicals
  • Binding & Repairs
  • Government Documents
  • Special Collections

My new hobby of scanning old science fiction fanzines for the Internet Archive involves acquisitions, cataloging, periodicals, repair, and special collection skills. Mike and I’s project for the Classics of Science Fiction involves reference skills like indexing, making rules for the title and author entries, using online databases, and linking to standardized catalogs. Each of us collects books and periodicals. Mike is much better at cataloging his collection in the GoodReads database. Mike would have made a great librarian because he is so extremely detailed oriented.

I think of my scanning project as collecting and preserving documents that are disappearing. There’s a very librarian-like appeal to it. Mike and I used to work with cataloging periodicals using OCLC and Mark II records. I wonder if these are still in use today? (I just checked and they are.) Now that we’re building our own databases of records we’re concerned about standards and interoperability with other database systems. We’re designing our system so titles and authors entries follow exact rules. Like libraries using the OCLC system, we’ve decided to piggyback our efforts on a more universal system, which is the Internet Science Fiction Database (ISFDB.org). ISFDB.org is a vast worldwide effort of volunteer librarians indexing and cataloging all books and periodicals related to science fiction and fantasy.

We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. It’s better to join larger efforts. That’s why I’m noticing volunteer librarians building what I believe will one day become the Library of Planet Earth. Right now countless systems, collections, databases, indexes, bibliographies, are springing up on the internet, usually by groups with special interests. They seldom work together, but someday they will. For example, I think it’s very logical that Wikipedia, ISFDB.org, WorldCat, Internet Archive, and other separate systems start cross-referencing everything about science fiction. Everything I upload to the Internet Archive is already cataloged in ISFDB and has entries in Wikipedia. I can already see that Wikipedia will become the Card Catalog of the emerging Planet Earth Library.

Other scanners preserving pulp magazines use Galactic Central which works to index all stories in pulp magazines and related periodicals. It overlaps with science fiction but covers other genres. Sometimes I wish Galactic Central had features of ISFDB, and sometimes I wish ISFDB had features of Galactic Central. Before computers, lone bibliographers compiled lists and 3×5 card stacks by hand and then published them in printed indexes that had to be annually updated. Now all their work is being done by volunteer teams that build huge datasets in the cloud that update in real-time. Eventually, I see these systems merging into super-systems. For example, one day there will be one database that catalogs every short story ever published.

If you pay attention to the information you get on the internet, you’ll start noticing the volunteer librarians. Wikipedia is both volunteer encyclopedists and volunteer librarians. If you’ve ever used Discogs or MusicStack or All Music then you’ve seen the work of volunteer music librarians. Every subject hobby has them.

Some people just have a natural urge to collect, catalog, preserve, index, and organize diverse kinds of recorded knowledge. It’s a kind of hoarding of historical artifacts. We don’t want civilization to Marie Kondo itself and throw out all the tidbits of knowledge that keep piling up. In a way, volunteer librarians are like the dream mechanism in our heads at night that decides which memories are worth keeping. We can’t save everything, but we can try.

Volunteer librarians don’t need library science degrees, just a strong urge to collect,  catalog, and preserve.

JWH