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. :-)

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