Suspicious Activity in the National Emergency Library? No, just the best kind of activity…

An obsession with Asimov: Steven Cooper’s rapid book borrowing set off alarms at the Internet Archive.

Perhaps Steven Cooper’s pulse quickened when he found this ominous email heading in his inbox:

Subject: Re: your extensive downloading activity on archive.org

For weeks, Cooper, a software engineer in Melbourne, had been checking out ten books at a time from the National Emergency Library, returning them quickly, and checking out more. And more. And more.

The pace and regularity of this patron’s book borrowing seemed to us, well, suspicious. Was this just an automated bot, systematically and rapaciously tearing through our book collection? We assigned our head of security, Mark Seiden, to investigate. Cooper responded to Seiden’s inquiry with this reply:

Thanks for your note. I apologise if I’m causing a problem for you, but let me assure you that there’s no automated process whatever involved — every access to archive.org from my account has been done manually, by me.

Since mid-2017 I’ve been conducting a long-term research project into the works of Isaac Asimov, with the aim of producing the most complete bibliography possible of this incredibly prolific author. The initial version (http://stevenac.net/asimov/Bibliography.htm) was finished at the start of this year, and I used archive.org as one of the major sources of information. However, about a month ago I started a second pass through archive.org’s data, using text searching rather than metadata searching in order to carefully examine every single mention of Asimov to find items I’d missed.


—Sincerely, Steven Cooper

Since 2017, Cooper, a life-long Asimov fan, had been working toward a towering yet very personal goal: compiling the world’s most complete annotated bibliography of the works (in English) by Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) in time for the centennial of his birth, January 2, 2020. “I wanted a complete listing of his works,” Cooper told us. “His fiction, nonfiction. Particularly his nonfiction which is the hardest to assemble because he wrote so much and published it in so many places. This has never been done before, probably will never be done, because he wrote so much.”

A selection of Steven Cooper’s personal collection of Asimov’s writings. According to Cooper’s research, Asimov penned more than 3600 books, essays, reviews, and introductions.
Asimov credits his far-ranging knowledge to his access to the public libraries of New York.

Cooper was able to start compiling his bibliography using several excellent sources including Ed Seiler’s website, Asimov Online, which Seiler compiled decades ago by hand, through painstaking research in libraries and archives, including the index cards that Asimov wrote himself to keep track of his work. Asimov, whose day job was professor of biochemistry at Boston University, penned some 500 books—science fiction novels, of course, but also Asimov’s Guide To Shakespeare, Asimov’s Guide To The Bible, Lecherous Limericks, What Killed the Dinosaurs?

“I write for the same reason I breathe – because if I didn’t, I would die.”

—Isaac Asimov

When Cooper began his task in 2017, he was able to do his research almost entirely online. By his reckoning, one can find almost all of Asimov’s books and anthologies in the Internet Archive. But the real challenge is finding the prolific author’s many other works: introductions, magazine articles, essays and reviews. When Cooper first searched the bibliographic data in archive.org he came up with 1755 results, including 1100 texts, television and radio interviews, translations in Tamil and Hindi. Then he decided to search inside the texts, to look up every time Isaac Asimov’s name appears. The result: 35,000 mentions. 

A sampling of the 630 books by Isaac Asimov in the Internet Archive’s National Emergency Library

Since then, Cooper has been going through them chronologically, one by one, “thanking my lucky stars that he has such a unique name.” That’s how he caught the attention of our security experts. “In the vast majority of cases I’m borrowing a book and returning it within a couple of minutes,” Cooper explained. “Just long enough for the text search to run and for me to look at the results and decide that there’s nothing that I’m interested in.” (It turns out that the majority of National Emergency Library patrons borrow the book for less than 30 minutes, suggesting they, like Cooper, are using them for research, or simply to browse.) Every so often, Cooper has a Eureka Moment—stumbling across a new piece of writing he has never seen before. So far he has checked the references up to 2004 and has about 15 more years of Asimov mentions to parse. “I’ve found about 300 new items to add to my archive,” Cooper told me. “That includes a dozen or so articles I was not aware of, so there will be new finds!”

“There is so much more of his work available through the Internet Archive than people generally realize,” Cooper went on to explain. “When I see Asimov forums, it’s really always about his fiction…But his nonfiction is still well worth reading. He’s such a good explainer. If you want to gain a basic understanding of mathematics, physics, chemistry, any kind of science, and history as well, he wrote a great deal of history that is still very readable. You can find it through the Internet Archive.”


In the Internet Archive you will find the March 1939 issue of “Amazing Stories”, which contains Asimov’s first published story, “Marooned Off Vesta

And how does Cooper find researching online from his home office in Melbourne, during this time of proactively staying in one place? “It’s kind of perfect for this current period we’re living through,” he mused. “The Archive has a pretty complete collection of the old Sci Fi magazines that his stories were first published in from the 1940s and 50s. I was able to see them in the original situation and in some cases see the differences between how they were originally published and how they appeared in book form.”

And what do we think the Great Explainer, this clear-eyed observer of history and science would have to say about this time of the COVID pandemic? Perhaps this:

The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.

—Isaac Asimov

The fruits of Steven Cooper’s labor are now available for anyone to use. His list is 676 pages long, at the moment. Yet, this software engineer with an obsession for Asimov never expected his passion project would be seen by the public, let alone a constellation of science fiction devotees. He did it for himself, to explore the many dimensions of Asimov’s thinking, where the writer’s curiosity would lead him, the clarity with which he would explain the world.He is known as possibly the most wide-ranging writer of the 20th Century,” Cooper ruminated. “I was just interested to see how wide ranging that was. I don’t think anyone has ever read everything he wrote.”

Now, with this new Asimov Annotated Bibliography, perhaps someone will.

35 thoughts on “Suspicious Activity in the National Emergency Library? No, just the best kind of activity…

  1. SJ Dhyani

    Technology is both a blessing and a burden. It allows us to access people and information all across the globe and has facilitated countless opportunities that would never exist without its advancements. But this doesn’t come without setbacks. Technology is moving at an increasingly rapid pace, a pace that society is struggling to match. A quote from Isaac Asimov sums this thought up quite well, “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” This truth is only made more evident every time we see the misuse of social media or turn to a search engine to do the thinking for us. There’s a growing gap between technology and wisdom. Instead of embracing our ability to do more, we’re using it as a crutch to do less.

  2. Kathryn

    Libraries are always a good source of information and knowledge. It never let anyone down. Whenever I feel that I need to get motivated I once visit a library and read some good books, and the same is on the internet.

    1. Rock lover

      libraries is a good source but it could be changed by source in some times
      I think Blockchain Libraries for historical content is better than books
      because anyone has a copy of them and nobody can change the content

  3. ion

    I loved Isaac Asimov books, when I started reading one of his books I did not put it down until I finished it. These were the 80’s and he was still such a contemporary author. I was in 5th grade and his books were so different from all other books I was reading, I really think he shaped me as the adult I am today, I feel I owe so much to this guy. Therefore I think we should all be grateful to what this guy Steven Cooper did. Making a list of all Asimov’s books is not easy, therefore a complete bibliography is very useful. I don’t know how many young people read Asimov now, but at he did shape an entire generation. So congrats and many thanks to Steven Cooper!

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    The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” This truth is only made more evident every time we see the misuse of social media or turn to a search engine to do the thinking for us

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    The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” This truth is only made more fevery time we see the misuse of social media or turn to a search engine to do the thinking for us

  7. Weehiphop

    I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re loading it on to say, a Kindle or similar ebook reader and reading it there. I know plenty of people do that with other library borrowed ebooks. On another note I love the library, it has a lot of interesting technology related books.

  8. Heather adams

    Technology is a burden for me , I get lost, I know I have seen it but finding it again it confusing, recently I came across a website which may be strange that had on tons of information I was curious about and abstracts but for the life of me cant finding maybe you can help

  9. Norman Boyd

    Great story. I’m a fellow bibliographer (and artist’s work) and I’m curious about public domain materials and the ‘suspicious’ activity. Does this mean you are monitoring loads on servers, or checking fair use of materials, or limiting each user? What’s the monitoring for? Just asking. Thanks

  10. Holly Mockovak

    what a wonderful story, and I can’t help but think that Hari Seldon (Asimov: Foundation) would give Steven Cooper a big smile.

  11. Gert B. Nielsen

    As a fellow Asimov fan, I can only applaud Mr. Coopers efforts. Well done, Mr. Cooper!

  12. Claudia A Reynolds

    Asimov is my favorite SF author. This bibliography is a great idea and very useful to readers like me. I have two bank boxes of his books and many of the Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. I loved his editorials each month. Thank you for this article.

  13. Amitabha Ghosh

    A most interesting story!

    I fell in love with Mr. Asimov’s writing in the best possible way – when I read “I, Robot” which proposed those “three laws of Robotics”. Every story in that book, through all the twists and turns, ultimately shows how the “laws” were obeyed! In fact, some stories created such a situation that even with the foreknowledge, I wondered how he would come out of that mix-up but of course he did – ingenious resolutions for an ingenuous me! Stories which combined suspense, thrills, mystery, detection, logic – all in a weave of such readable writing!

    Thanks both to Mr. Cooper and Internet Archive (of which I am a member but it never dawned on me to use it for such a research) – for the amazing research and for bringing out the story to all of us!

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