Dorothy-L: An Interview with Diane Kovacs

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.

Many thanks to Diane for answering my questions, which she did far more quickly than I composed this blog post. 

3 Responses to Dorothy-L: An Interview with Diane Kovacs

  1. Reine says:

    I find this interview to be a very interesting look back at the time when I began using the computer to access information that was not solely academic and included social interaction.

    Until I read this blog today, and although I am aware of Diane Kovacs’ presence through a common interest in mysteries, I wasn’t consciously aware of the significant part that librarians played in the development and participation in computer lists at that time.

    It surprises me that I wasn’t more aware, because I discovered the internet as a graduate student and was part of a very small computer access movement in my school. One of our professors, Bernadette Brooten, held a meeting to talk up personal computer access and to see how many students were interested in having computers available for students to use at school. She brought along a computer expert to explain how we could use the information available to us on the internet.

    My friends and I were shocked that less than 10 students came to the meeting. But as a result of that meeting, and with Prof. Brooten’s leadership, we initiated a project that led to reassignment of space at the school library. The student lounge in the basement became a computer room with several PCs and Macintoshes. The computers and room were devoted to casual student use for research or personal use like reading, email, and social interaction through lists much like what you discuss here today in your interview.

    When I talked with Professor Brooten months later I asked her how she was able to get approval for this great innovation. The school and students were very familiar with computer labs where we used terminals to perform statistical analyses and research databases like ATLA. We had nothing, however, like the personal computer and its possibilities that you discuss here.

    What seems to have turned faculty point of view on this new thing called a personal computer, was a question Professor Brooten put to us on a piece of paper. It was a very simple questionnaire where we were asked to answer one question. It went something like this: Would you be willing to add $100 per year to your tuition in order to have a personal computer lab at the school? Please circle yes or no, and sign your name.

    My first personal use of the student computer lounge in the basement of Andover Harvard Theological Library was to access a Pennsylvania librarian’s website with links to information regarding all things Native American. At a time when almost anything you could access on the computer was difficult-to-read typeface, charts, and graphs, this great librarian had colorful and attractive graphics to highlight her pages. There I found information and connection.

    Thank you to everyone who made that possible, because it changed my life.

    • Barbara says:

      I think Diane was pretty unusual in her activity in this area – she was instrumental in creating online communities very early, just as I was discovering with delight the capacity to connect. I still remember the first time I got an email. The sender had to call me on the phone to explain how it worked :D

  2. Patty Andersen says:

    I remember the early days of DorothyL, and RRA-L as well, Diane with “The Saint” and “Dangermouse” created a warm, safe area for discussion, for BSP (blatant self promotion) and even some mild disagreements. I’m still a member, 25 years? Hard to believe!

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