Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What a difference a decade makes

So, taking a break from the Spring Break Bargain Box Bonanza over at He is a Thark, I'd like to present a little mystery - or rather, what might have been a mystery but actually turned out not be one at all. The circumstances revolve around this book:

I have long been a fan of Steve Saylor's Gordianus the Finder mysteries, and while Saylor does not have a story in this collection, he did write the introduction, so I gave it a whirl. It has some fine yarns in it, and a few clunkers, but overall it has been very satisfying. The editor has arranged the stories by historical chronology, so in addition to the variety of mysteries, murderous and otherwise, there's a bit of a stealth history lesson going on. 

Our potential literary mystery surfaced on page 321:

So, a story that was published in a 1966 mystery magazine and then again in a 1978 anthology had an unknown origin? And the editor printing it once again in 2003 not only still didn't know its provenance for sure, but cast doubt on its authenticity as an authentic Victorian-era story?

Unpossible, I said, and decided to do a little digging.

I looked for a phrase that I thought would be unique to this story and settled on the beginning of the sentence "Septimius laughed, half good-naturedly..."

I launched a Google search for the phrase in quotation marks:

And in less time than it takes to type it, Google returned two hits and two hits only. The first was from Google Books and it was the exact same story:

Our centurion went missing (or in the original title, escaped) in the May 23, 1863 issue of a periodical called (unimaginatively but I would presume accurately) Once a Week.

Google's scan was of a bound copy of the issues from December 1862 through June 1863 which is part of the collection of the library of the University of Michigan.

And there was another hit - this one was a PDF file from the website Old Fulton Postcards. The site is apparently dedicated to preserving the ephemera of old upstate New York and not only has in its files copies of the Albany Evening Journal from 1863, but has had them OCR scanned and made searchable. At any rate, the same story turned up there as well:

Whoever Anonymous was - and neither source names the author - he seemed to have gotten double-duty out of this story 150 years ago.

I guess what I am thinking after all this is how far we seem to have come so quickly. In 1966, 1978, and even 2003, the origins of this legionary escapade were presumed lost to mists of time. Just ten years later, the now-vast machinery of our information age and culture has not only found that source and archived it, but has made it accessible not just to scholars but to a casual reader with nothing better to do on spring break than waste a few minutes with a search engine. I mean, I can't take credit for any sleuthing or even researching: this fish just jumped into the boat. 

I am reminded of an observation that has currency among us teachers of research writing and the librarians who work with us: teaching research is no longer so much about helping students find information; that keeps getting easier. What students need to learn is the critical ability to assess sources, to separate the wheat from the chaff, the basement blogs from the scholars, the crackpots from the curators.

As the flood of information continues to stream towards us, that skill is what's going to be vital.

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