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!

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