Friday, March 2, 2012

last of the Potlatch

I made my solo way to Seattle for what, at present, looks like the last in the annual series of Potlatch, a literary-oriented SF con. Book of Honor was A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, and many of the panel topics intelligently spun off from topics suggested by this novel. I was a bit surprised at the choice, for though we've never been loath to criticize our BoH at Potlatch, at last year's panel on the similarly post-holocaust Earth Abides, the only book which got slammed more than that BoH was A Canticle for Leibowitz, a book I'd never heard anything seriously negative about before. I mentioned both these points while participating in the "How We Pick a BoH" panel, which produced a lot more suggestions for future BoHs than offers to run the convention.

But though there was a panel this year specifically labeled "BoH Deconstruction", it was not in fact very critical of the book. One of the other panels spun off the book was a librarian panel, libraries and the preservation of documents being an important topic in the story. Although I had offered to participate in this panel, I did not find out until two days before the panel that not only was I to be on it, but that I was to moderate it. And since I was already in Seattle by then, if I hadn't brought my e-mail with me I might never have found out at all. As it was, I did have time to outline the panel topics, and tell my fellow panelists that I wanted this to be more a panel to explain what librarians actually do than a forum for airing current issues of concern, though we could and did get into that too. For after all there was another whole panel on data preservation. We had a good variety: a public reference and children's librarian, a corporate information resource person, myself a cataloger, and another cataloger who preferred to call himself a "metadata specialist", a term I avoid for myself whenever possible. For my set piece I talked about how keen-eyed librarians in the 1960s, aware that card catalogs would someday migrate to computers, created a pioneering hypertext markup language (called MAchine Readable Cataloging or MARC), that encoded every possible datum, search need, and sorting mechanism that one could possibly want to get out of a catalog card. It became my job, in the 1980s and 90s, to convert retrospectively the existing catalogs of several different colleges (the last one of which I did almost entirely by myself, with the help only of one assistant inputter: it took two years), so I define myself as the person who took your card catalog away and stuffed its contents into a protesting computer. Next step, putting the books themselves on computer, but that is quite another story.

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