Monday, April 10, 2023

Writing My Own Story Finders

Yesterday I wrote about all kinds of possible public domain projects, but I also mentioned how important it is to go beyond the public domain, especially when it comes to working on stories from Africa and India, along with Native American stories. Over the past couple years, I've acquired a large collection of used books in these areas... and now with this serious danger threatening the Internet Archive, I'm glad that I made an effort to acquire used copies of the books that I found there, along with other used books that I found through devoted use of (with eternal thanks to a friend at Twitter who turned me on to that).

So, I ended up with literally a ton (yes, a TON) of books here in my new place, and they are all now safely shelved; I just finished getting everything shelved and sorted last week. Thousands of books, dozens of bookcases. My library makes me happy, and I am going to be relying on these books even more than I anticipated, all because of Judge Koeltl.

The next question is how to go about using these resources in a way that can also be useful to people who do not have access to the books. For the past two years, I've focused on books at the Internet Archive because I knew that every book was "just a click away," so anyone who wanted to follow up on my blog posts and/or to participate in the Anansi Book Club, etc. could read everything I was reading. Now, if that will no longer be possible, then how I can write up my notes in a way that will be useful for me but also useful for others too?

And... the best model that comes to mind is the wonderful Story Finder by librarian and storyteller Sharon Elswit. For years I've wanted to write some books like her Story Finders, and perhaps the moment has now come. I absolutely love her four Finders, but they are pretty pricey, even used. So, I think I could write some good Finders of my own which I can publish as OER with Pressbooks, just like I've been doing with all my books for the past few years.

So, what are the Story Finders? They are story bibliography resources intended for storytellers, but they are also a great resource just for readers too! For each of the subject areas, Elswit picks out stories that she thinks would appeal to storytellers: LOTS of stories. The Caribbean Story Finder has 438 stories, the East Asian Story Finder has 468 stories, the Latin American Story Finder has 470 stories, and the Jewish Story Finder has 668 stories. Elswit provides a detailed summary of the story as told in the source she likes best, and then she also provides notes on variants in other sources, along with suggestions about related stories in the Finder. 

Since two of Elswit's books are at the Internet Archive (at least for now), you can access them right now to see how it works; here's the East Asian Story Finder. You can also access her Jewish Story Finder. Take a look and see how they work!

Here's a sample page featuring a Chinese folktale (click on the image for a larger view):

In some ways, it is like a "tale type index," but Elswit goes her own way, choosing her own stories; she is not interested in the traditional tale-typing project. I share that feeling; in the same way that public domain materials always seem trapped inside a Eurocentric colonial framwork, the same is true for tale-typing. The project started out and has essentially remained a largely European project. There are exceptions, of course; for a fascinating effort beyond Europe, take a look at El-Shamy's amazing Types of the Folktale in the Arab World, which is also available at the Internet Archive... at least for now. 

Comparing El-Shamy's book with Elswit's Story Finders is a great way to see the dramatic difference between the two of them: El-Shamy is a scholar writing for scholars, while Elswit is a librarian and storyteller, writing for fellow storytellers and for curious readers too, which is the kind of book I want to write. A story-finder project like that would be a great way to make good use of my personal libray, along with the libraries I have access to here in Austin (the awesome UT Library and the also awesome Austin Public Library). In some cases, of course, people would want to get their hands on the books of that contain the stories that I am citing, but, at least in some cases, good notes and summaries might be a do-able substitute for having access to the book.

One change I would make in my approach, though, is that instead of just doing a summary of the story as Elswit does, I would like to actually retell the story... not a super-long version, but writing tiny stories is basically my specialty, ha ha. I won't be doing them as 100-word stories (of which I have written thousands; see but I probably would limit myself to around 1000 words, and hopefully much shorter than that. I'm guessing in many cases my stories would not be much longer than an Elswit-style summaries... but more fun to read for their own sake.

When I first started thinking about doing my own Story Finder books, I was excited about the idea that I could rely on books at the Internet Archive, linking to the individual stories there; that's why I built my African and Diaspora spreadsheets with thousands and thousands of links to pages at the Archive. I'm sad to give up on that vision, but I still think I can make some really useful Story Finder books even if I am only linking to public domain stories at the Archive. And since I will be CC-licensing my own story finder books, I'll be able to upload copies to the Archive as a way to share them with others!

I've got some friends coming to visit this week, so I probably won't be posting again here until the weekend, but I'm excited to have written out some of my plans for going forward.

Of course, if some miracle happens in the court of appeals, this Story Finder project will be even better because I would be able to use all the thousands of stories I indexed at the Internet Archive already... so I will keep hoping for a court-of-appeals miracle!

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Back to the Public Domain

Following up on yesterday's post, I'm going to be "thinking out loud" (writing out loud, ha ha), trying to figure out which way I'm going now that there's a real possibility that the Internet Archive library is going to be shut down. I've been thinking hard about how to shift my work and focus going forward, and a nice exchange at Twitter today prompted me to share some thoughts here about renewing my work with the public domain, since that is safe from predatory publishers!

For the 20+ years that I taught folklore and mythology courses, I relied on public domain materials. Here's the Un-Textbook I made for my students where each week they chose their reading selection from a set of 100 options built around public domain materials. There were also public domain options in the Indian Epics course that I taught, including my own public domain editions of the epics, pulling on different public domain resources: Public Domain Ramayana and Public Domain Mahabharata. I also wrote a blog called Freebookapalooza which featured public domain and other open access reading materials for mythology and folklore topics. 

One of the problems with public domain sources, however, is that they are trapped in the white supremacist, imperial, colonial, missionizing past. That's why I was so excited when I discovered the breadth and depth of the Internet Archive's library: at last, here was a way to take my interest in mythology and folklore, especially the stories of Africa and India, beyond the narrow and dangerous limitations of the public domain.

But........ I was able to do a lot of good work with public domain materials in the past, and I suppose that is going to become part of my work again going forward now. So, here are some specific thoughts about that:

LibriVox. I am such a huge fan of LibriVox, and of course the Internet Archive is a vital part of the LibriVox project. This year I had already started volunteering as a "proof listener," and that has been really fun. I didn't even know that LibriVox used proof listeners to help readers make sure everything was going well, but that's part of how the system works! So, now that I have seen how the behind-the-scenes works at LibriVox, I think I am ready to start recording my own book. And there are so many books I would like to record. One in particular I am thinking about is Carter Woodson's African Myths and Proverbs which just recently entered the public domain; it was published in 1928. On the India side, I was thinking about the three books of stories by Shovona Devi, Indian Fables and Folklore and Orient Pearls: Indian Folklore and Indian Nature Myths, Apparently she also wrote another book, published in 1920, called The Tales of the Gods of India, but I have not been able to find a copy anywhere.

More audio. In addition to doing whole books for LibriVox, I'm thinking I would like to be doing some occasional audio too; I was even playing with the idea of doing an Internet radio station with readings from public domain sources in mythology and folklore of all kinds, including not just stories but riddles and proverbs too. And since LibriVox recordings are in the public domain, I could choose my favorite stories from my favorite LibriVox books to include as part of the Internet radio broadcast. And I can upload my audio to the Internet Archive too!

Public Domain PDF Anthologies. Last year I did two Internet Archive projects using software to extract PDF pages from public domain books and then assembling new PDF anthologies using those pages, adding a table of contents with the page numbers for the resulting PDF. And of course I uploaded the results to the Internet Archive; here are those links: African Folktales in the Fairy Books of Andrew Lang (300 pages, with all the illustrations by H. Justice Ford) and Texts of African Proverbs and Riddles in the Public Domain (almost 1500 pages!).Those anthologies demonstrate one of the best things about the public domain: you can remix and rematch in any way you want. I'm thinking I could create a lot of nifty anthologies like this by choosing out stories from other books based on themes: fox stories! a giant book of Aesop's fables in English! and, of course, tricksters!

Public Domain Bibliography. Admittedly, it's not as satisfying to have to limit my bibliography work to public domain books, but it's still valuable. I had almost completed by Reader's Guide to African Diaspora Folktales at the Internet Archive when the judge's decision came down, so now what I need to do is to shift that book to public domain items only, and maybe combine it with the public domain items from the Reader's Guide to African  Folktales at the Internet Archive that I already completed. Plus there are new books that enter the public domain every year, so I'll be keeping track of that even more closely. You can see my items for Public Domain Day on January 1 2023 here.

Working with Public Domain Review. I've been an avid reader of Public Domain Review for years, and I think the time has now come to write an essay for them. I'm excited about finally doing that, and they have a very helpful page about how to craft a submission.  Those of you who read the Public Domain Review know that they often have the Internet Archive's public domain books embedded right there in the article, as in this lovely essay: East of the Sun and West of the Moon, illustrated by Kay Nielsen (1922 edition).

So, when I write out all those ideas, of course I get excited about it. There are lots of possibilities.

But at the same time, I will never forget the complete joy of discovering that the Internet Archive could free me from my previous focus on the public domain, and it breaks my heart that Judge Koeltl's decision could put an end to the Archive's beautiful book-lending library.

Meanwhile, I'll be back tomorrow with some additional thoughts about how I can use my own personal library of books in some related projects going forward! The public domain is not everything: I have some other ideas too. :-)

Friday, April 7, 2023

The Battle for Libraries Has begun

So, this is a hard post to write... 

Two weeks ago today, on Friday, March 24, Judge Koeltl issued his decision in the Internet Archive case; you can read the decision online here. It was not good. In fact, it was really bad. Instead of seeking a compromise between the competing interests of the parties involved (profit-seeking by the publishers and promoting the public good by the Internet Archive), the judge ruled in favor of the publishers in every particular.

I still can't wrap my head around it. Especially the judge calling the Internet Archive's library a "commercial" activity. I'm guessing that part will surely be overturned on appeal; if not, it sets a horrifying precedent for any non-profit entity that accepts donations, as the Internet Archive does. But as regards the rest of the judgment, I am not optimistic for what is going to happen. Again and again in this country, we see the interests of corporations outweighing the public good over and over again: in the legislatures, in the courts... and that is what has happened here.

There's been a lot of critical analysis by people better qualified than I am to comment on the legal details of the case. To find out more, I'd recommend reading these items... and if you know of a piece I've missed here, please let me know in the comments or at Twitter (or email
I met Sydney Johnson when she was at the Archive's SF headquarters last Friday, the same day that the judge's ruling came down. But that didn't happen till later in the day. That afternoon, we were having a wonderful time: Brewster took us on a tour of the Archive, and I will never forget him dancing with Dutch author Bette Adriaanse to the music of a 78 record playing on a vintage 1946 jukebox. The KQED photographer Beth LaBerge caught that moment here, and there some more great photos in the article at KQED, including a picture of the Archive's Terracotta Army of Archivists.

It was such a lovely day: I finally got to meet some of my friends and colleagues at the Archive in person, and I left the building even more inspired about the work that the Archive does. I then went back to the East Bay for shabbat dinner with friends there... and when I checked Twitter before going to bed, I found out about the decision.

That was two weeks ago.

Luckily, being in the Bay area on vacation the following week meant I had lots of old friends I could talk with (including friends from 40+ years ago when I first moved to San Francisco and attended Berkeley as an undergraduate). It really helped to be with people who know me well and who could help me think through this difficult moment. I have some plans now for going forward, and I'll share some of those plans here this weekend.

In this post, though, I am saying goodbye to the plans I thought I had.

For the past two years, I have focused all my work on the Internet Archive's books, blogging about them pretty much every day here at this blog. That's over 600 posts. Posts that feature what must be at least a thousand books now, probably close to two thousand. Books about Africa and about the African Diaspora. Books about tricksters. Books for the Anansi Book Club. Beautiful books full of folktales, myths, legends, proverbs, riddles... all the things that I study and care about, things that I want to share with other people.

I really expected that I would spend the next ten or twenty years writing more books like The Reader's Guide to African Folktales at the Internet Archive. I had almost finished writing the next reader's guide (for African Diaspora folktales), but now there's no point in publishing it, unless some kind of miracle transpires in the appeal. The books I had written about will probably become inaccessible for most readers very soon, although I'm hoping the scans will not be destroyed. If I understood the judge's remarks correctly, the Archive should be able to keep the scans online for people with print disabilities. That's something at least!

Meanwhile, there's a rally tomorrow, April 8, at the Internet Archive's headquarters demanding digital rights for libraries, including controlled digital lending. I sure wish I could be there in person, and I will be eagerly looking for news and photos. I've replaced the book slideshows that I previously had in the sidebar of this blog with information about the rally, and I'll update that as events unfold. I'm guessing we will have information soon about what kind of damages the publishers might be awarded and what kind of injunction the judge might be willing to grant while the case works its way through the appeals process.

Doing this work on the Internet Archive's library books has been the most exciting project I have ever participated in, and I'm trying to take what I've learned in these two years to think of other ways to keep on connecting people and books. I'll have more to say about that over the next few days, but for now I just want to say THANK YOU to Brewster Kahle and all the people who have built the Internet Archive's library over the past ten years. YOU ARE MY HEROES, and I know that some way, somehow, we will ultimately build the online library that the world both needs and deserves.

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