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.”
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.
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.”
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.