Dorothy-L: An Interview with Diane Kovacs

From Barbara Fister’s Place, May 16, 2015

Readers have used pretty much every internet-enabled pathway to talk about mysteries since the early days of the internet. Some of those paths have closed or migrated from platforms that are no longer available to new ones, but some of the most durable conversations are hosted on a server but delivered to subscribers via email. One of those platforms is the LISTSERV software, developed in 1986 by an engineering student in Paris. It quickly became a commonly used discussion platform for email lists maintained at universities. Dorothy-L was born on that platform in 1991 and continues to host its conversations among over 2,500 members from its host server at Kent State University.

I reached out to Diane Kovacs, a fellow academic librarian who, with other Kent State University librarians, created an incredibly useful subject directory of discussion lists back in the day, as well as more than one library-related discussion lists. Currently she is (in her own words) a “Librarian at Large and Web Teacher” who teaches library science courses, has a book forthcoming on online teaching from ALA Editions, and is the recipient of a prestigious Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for the Design 4 Learning project. (Full disclosure, she also co-edited a book that I was involved with.)

But most mystery lovers know her as the founder of Dorothy-L. She kindly answered some questions about the origins of the mystery-focused mailing list that holds the record for longevity and membership. It has been a significant site for online conversation for readers and writers for a quarter of a century.

I know the idea for the list came up at an Association of Research Libraries conference. LISTSERV was still pretty new. (Say, weren’t you one of the people who maintained a subject directory of lists? Flashback moment! That was huge.) Why mysteries? Why not some other genre or fiction more generally?  Did you have any idea how popular it would become?

Yes, in fact the Directory of Scholarly Electronic Journals and Academic Discussion Lists 2000 edition is under my monitor keeping it at a good height.  It is three inches thick.  I loved working on that.

The reason that we have Dorothy-L is because of Ann Okerson’s ideas. She was one of my early mentors and I wanted to do something for her in turn. She proposed creating a discussion list on golden age mystery literature – specifically Dorothy L. Sayers – OR on chocolate. Because Dorothy L  was euphonious, I chose that topic. Back then you had to put an L at the end. I’m not sure if that was required by the software or just a convention. Besides, I also had to justify to Kent State University that this was a scholarly topic. My English Faculty were thrilled at the idea and I had two full professor faculty sponsors (long since retired).

What was the list like in the early days? How did people find out about it and join it?

In the early days it was all word of mouth  and email. While my English faculty felt the project was scholarly enough, my boss in the Library wasn’t so convinced. I started Libref-L [an active discussion list for reference librarians] and it is still going strong after all these years also.

How has Dorothy-L changed over the years?

We were very much a group of academic types in the first five years. The Internet didn’t go public until 1994 and initially I think almost everyone was either a librarian or an English professor. Kara – aka Dangermouse – kept everything going.

What do you think made it a thriving community? What were the challenges?

Moderation and rules. We didn’t let anyone intimidate us into letting them post politics, hate speech, or flames in the name of “freedom of speech”. At one point we had some assistance from the University Counsel. He was thrilled to be in on the issues of early technology. But he verified we were on firm legal ground to create a “defined public forum” online. We could define and maintain the topic – our topic – because people who didn’t like our topic could go start their own listserv discussions and so they did.

I believe we have created a safe space where people can post their reviews and ideas and market their books a bit without being attacked and belittled and shouted down. I’ve watched other forums crumble under the domination of the bullies. I’ve put up with a lot of personal flaming over the years. Simply informing one particular person that he could not post about his politics or political actions caused him to go off and start his own forum. It is long gone. Another person accused Kara of interfering with his right to free speech when she stopped him from posting semi-pornographic attacks on some authors. We also lost some of my very favorite people because of the flame wars that erupted over self-publishing and formulaic writing, which is why those topics were banned – or rather why we let them go a bit and then rein them in when they start to get personal.

There are so many other social platforms like Goodreads and LibraryThing devoted to books, plus Twitter and Facebook and other opportunities to share reading experiences. Do you have any thoughts about how social media are changing the way we form communities? 

Goodreads has turned into a nasty flamewar and they do not give authors any protection. It is almost as bad as Amazon. I’m avoiding it. LibraryThing doesn’t seem very community-like to me. I’ve not had the patience to sit and input my reading. It just seems a chore. I’d like to see Dorothy-L move more into Facebook and even Google Plus because I like the Facebook format and communications possibilities. I incorporate them into my courses as well. Email is increasingly difficult to keep free of spam. I suspect that many of our continuing subscribers are folks who are just very comfortable in email communications and not really interested in changing.

I’ve expected the Dorothy-L listserv to wither away for the past five years. But it keeps trundling along. I’m glad I started it.  Most of the really awesome things that we did were initiated by the subscribers and not by us moderators.