Caveat: A grad school musing of what may be boring (but could possibly be interesting) content. This post is actually an essay analysis I have just written for LS 500, so some of you will read this and wish you had 1) poked both your eyes out, 2) drank a bucket of snot, or 3) drank a bucket of snot after having poked both your eyes out.
I hadn’t a clue as to what on earth Nancy Babb’s essay Cataloging Spirits and the Spirit of Cataloging would be about when I first saw the title. My initial thoughts were that perhaps this essay was about the ghosts of those individuals who had suffered early cataloguing woes, those thoughtful pioneers of cataloguing-past who, like the settlers of the early American frontier, had traveled down the bumpy and rutted bibliographic roads before us, blazing a more standardized trail, leaving us with the rules and regulations of information organization neatly marking the path. But no, Ms. Babb’s essay Cataloging Spirits and the Spirit of Cataloging was about the problem of spirits…the spectral kind…and how, when an information package (politically correct term for book) is found to be authored by a spirit, cataloguers should enter that information in a way that is easy to understand and be retrieved by users. Who would’ve thought such a thing could be an issue, authors who had authored from the after-life? Evidently it was a legitimate issue in the cataloguing of the past, and still is an issue in cataloguing today.
What exactly is the confounded issue, you ask? Well, according to Babb, the issue is this: spirits have been communicating with humans for ages. While these spirits communicated with humans (via ouija board, séances, mediums), humans recorded in some form or fashion these “conversations.” Once these conversations were recorded (be it in book, audio, video, photo, etc.), cataloguers faced the conundrum of determining who the author was, spirit or medium, and giving proper credit to that author.
As alluded to in the previous paragraph, necrobibliography (yes, that is a real word, and no, it is not a dirty term) has been around for a long time. Spectral authors began to gain popularity during the early 19th Century religious movement known as Spiritualsim (“communion between departed human spirits and mortals’”). These authors would communicate from the grave by rapping out their communication (tapping or bumping), spelling things out via a ouija board, automatic writing, or speaking through a medium. Numerous volumes of works were credited to spirit authors. Not surprisingly, one text entitled Jap Herron, was authored by none other than the very deceased-at-the-time-of-publication Samuel Clemens himself.
So, how do cataloguers deal with the issue authorship when the information contained within a book was created by a spirit, but was written down by a human? In the past, authorship was defined as the person who was the maker of the information (book), the person responsible for the existence of the information (book). Also in the past, the human medium was given credit over the spirit for the responsibility of the existence of the information, with the spirit given secondary credit in some form or fashion. But thankfully, through the years, and through many different cataloguing codes (the Paris Principles of 1961 to the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules), we saw a simpler and more standard way of cataloguing a text when the author is a spirit, and we saw the cataloguer not being subjected to making a call that may or may not be of personal debate. Ultimately, the spirit won top billing over the medium (the spirit, after all, is the true author). Go spirits!
I don’t have a problem with spiritual writings in the least, for if I did NOT believe in spiritual writings, then I wouldn’t have any truck whatsoever with books like the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, and any other text that was written by some type of divine inspiration. What I do have trouble with, and actually take offense to is someone writing a text (while under the influence of something, spirits, alcohol, or drugs) and then trying to pass it off as the words of Mark Twain from the grave (I believe that Ol’ Sam would not only turn over in his grave at such a ridiculous notion, but would also dig his way out of his grave to slap upside the head the fool who would try to hustle such a scam). I ask of you, what is stopping me from getting out my ouija board this very weekend, and for the next year, devote every weekend to the writing of a sequel to my all-time favorite book Absalom, Absalom, and then claiming that Mr. Faulkner himself gave me the words from the grave to pen this tome? Bloody ridiculous! Or bloody brilliant? Hmmm....this makes me think of a story that was told to me recently, a truly frightening story of a head librarian in small Alabama town. Small-Alabama-town-librarian made the following statement: “I sure wish Charles Dickens comes out with a new book soon.” Well, small-Alabama-town-librarian, evidently there’s hope yet.