Thursday, November 1, 2007

Email discussion lists rant

I have been participating in email discussion lists for a long time. I think it was around 1989 or so when I subscribed to the cataloger's list called AUTOCAT. It was on "Bitnet" which was a precursor to the internet. I was a new cataloger, and I loved having a place to ask questions about what I was doing, and even answer a few when I knew something. AUTOCAT is still around, and is very active, and there are many other library-related lists as well. I have been on and off of several of them over the years. I can't keep up with reading all this email, but since I discovered RSS, I've put the ones with web archives on my reader and that makes it easier.

One of my pet peeves is the reluctance of people to actually post to the list. When I ask a question or ask for input, usually I get great responses from helpful people, but many people respond to me privately and not to the list, even though they are not conveying anything private or confidential. And then several people write to me asking me to summarize to the list whatever answers I get, or share with them because they are interested too. That's what the list is for! What good is a list full of questions and no answers? It's a DISCUSSION list, for pete's sake. If people won't discuss anything publicly, it becomes nothing but news items and job listings. I don't have time to summarize responses, and I never know whether to forward private responses to others without asking permission. And it takes time to do that too. I try to thank everyone who responds to me, and I've started adding the following questions:

Is there any reason you did not post your response to the list?
Is it ok if I post it to the list?
If so, would you like to remain anonymous?

I did this recently, and the answers to the first question were that they didn't want to "clutter up" the list.

Last year, I was trying to launching an initiative to step up my department's assistance with the archives. (Subject of another long post.) I knew very little about archives, and so joined the archives list and posted a number of questions. I got great answers, but none of them were to the list! I got frustrated and posted a rant on that list, and several people used the same rationale-- that rather than everyone answering, the questioner should summarize the answers to save everyone's time.

Now if I'm taking a poll, then yes, a summary is appropriate. But if I'm asking how you do something, like, say, what kind of numbering scheme you use for your archives, or how you are managing workflow for e-journal cataloging -- or if someone else asked this, and I was interested -- it is much better to read the responses and where they are coming from than to read a summary. I think wanting to reduce the list traffic is mainly a result of not knowing how to manage one's email application (ever heard of filters, anyone? Another topic for another day) or, as I've said, not knowing about RSS.

I think many people are just afraid to see their words posted for everyone to see. They are insecure and think they don't know enough to be so public, or they are afraid of looking stupid, etc. I remember one person saying that she didn't like to post on a list because she couldn't take it back or correct what she wrote. That's pathetic. There was a huge controversy on the AUTOCAT list about going public with the archives for the same reason. Come on people, it's list traffic, not a thesis.

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