SERIALST and the Global Serials Community:
The Five Year Evolution of an Electronic Discussion Forum


Birdie MacLennan
University of Vermont

April 1996
(revised June 1997)
This article was first published by JAI Press in Serials Review 22, no. 3 (fall 1996): 1-21.

Web version copyright ©1997 by Birdie MacLennan.

N.B.: Some parts of this text -- particularly Internet addresses that are cited -- have been revised and updated as of June 1997. In particular, it is important to note that SERIALST moved to a different machine and had a change of Internet address in May 1997. The former address (SERIALST@UVMVM.UVM.EDU) is now: SERIALST@LIST.UVM.EDU. See the SERIALST web page for additional information.

SERIALST and the Global Serials Community:
The Five Year Evolution of an Electronic Discussion Forum



Strong Draughts of Their Refreshing Minds
To Drink -- enables Mine.
-- Emily Dickinson[1]

If we manage things right the electronic medium will continue to grow responsive to desire, a mutable villa of the mind wherein ideas are discovered in dialogue and experiment, become strong through exercise, and are published to communicate their substance and energy -- their potency of life, vigorous as dragon's teeth. -- Willard McCarty[2]

SERIALST, an open, informal, electronic discussion forum for serials-related concerns in libraries, was established in October 1990 with systems and technical support from the University of Vermont's Division of Computing and Information Technology. Using the Internet's electronic mail (e-mail) capability and the electronic conferencing (or mailing list) software known as LISTSERV, subscribers to the forum utilize SERIALST to discuss most aspects of serials processing in libraries. Topics of discussion may include: acquisitions, cataloging, collection management, selection, serials budgets and pricing concerns, publishing practices, union list activities, news, and job postings that are of interest to serialists. In short, subscribers pose serial questions and concerns from the remote privacy of desktop computers in their offices and homes on SERIALST, an electronic discussion forum and networked array of more than 2,400 like-minded colleagues on the Internet. Within a matter of a few minutes, or hours (depending on the speed of the network connection), they are no longer alone as members of the SERIALST forum respond, offering advice or solutions to problems. Information about workflow practices, or answers to thorny questions about a confusing publication may be obtained. Other contributors may choose simply to theorize, empathize, comment, or commiserate on any topic that pertains to the broad scope of serials and libraries. Once the question or concern has been posted to the list, it is distributed to all subscribers. The author of the message gains instant access to the shared knowledge and experience of others in the serials world. Useful information can be obtained for doing one's job better or finding solutions to improve one's work situation.[3]

Serials specialists, or those who deal with publications "in any medium, issued in successive parts bearing numeric or chronological designations and intended to be continued indefinitely,"[4] have for many years existed in a broad-ranging library context with their own special issues and concerns. They have their own language or way of thinking and speaking in the library world -- apart from their monographic, single-item (i.e., once-ordered-and-processed; once-done) colleagues. While some large, academic research institutions have been, and still are, organized with entire library departments dedicated to the ordering and processing of serials exclusively, others are cross-training staff and finding innovative new ways to constantly do "more with less" in this time of fiscal restraint and reorganizational "downsizing," "rightsizing," or "streamlining" of operations. Professionals and support staff who once worked solely in serials are retraining in new areas, such as team management, systems, multi-media, and electronic resources. Likewise, those who once were set apart from the realm of serials are cross-training to learn more about the ordering, processing, and budgetary aspects of serials, which consume substantial amounts of staffing, workflow routines, and materials budgets.

Since SERIALST encompasses all aspects of serials-related issues in libraries, both those who are new to the field and those who are seasoned serials professionals are able to use the forum to gather useful information and meaningful perspectives about issues affecting their work, to keep up-to-date with current trends and standards and, in the most general sense, to educate and re-educate themselves about the world of serials. With such a large and diverse subscribership, veteran serialists may help educate and enlighten those who are new to serials work, while those who are new may raise issues that long-time practitioners have never considered. Although the scope of SERIALST adhers to serials in the context of library related concerns and, demographically, SERIALST's largest subscriber segment is practicing librarians and library support staff, SERIALST has always welcomed and encouraged the participation of a diverse serials constituency. Publishers, subscription agents, library systems developers, library/information educators and students, and others interested in serials work have signed on to the list in increasing numbers over the years.[5]


In 1986, the library community had few alternative outlets for professional networking, continuing education opportunities or ongoing discussions in a particular area of librarianship beyond local, regional or national meetings, printed professional literature, and telephone calls or postal mail to knowledgeable, like-minded colleagues.[6] Only the most technologically sophisticated researchers, scholars, and academics had access to national or global electronic networking technologies -- and even then, a pioneering research study by Gurd and Picot indicates that several barriers were encountered in the use of this relatively new communications medium. During the course of this study, the medium fell short of users' expectations and did not appreciably change or affect work habits.[7]

Times change. Within a few years of the Gurd and Picot study, increasingly more scholars, librarians and information professionals were "meeting" on the networks to exchange news, information, ideas, and scholarly and professional concerns. Electronic mail and electronic conferencing forums were catching on as a convenient means of "conversing" with colleagues without having to find an occasion in which people were at work, or at their desks in "real time," to receive the message or query. The BITNET/CREN[8] academic network, established in 1987, brought a sophisticated automated mailing list software known as LISTSERV into the network arena. LISTSERV and other kinds of network conferencing software[9] allowed for the development and growth of global conferencing facilities to improve abilities to communicate and collaborate with remote colleagues about important and timely issues.

The late 1980's through the early 1990's brought a veritable wave of electronic forums onto the networks and to the desktops of academic scholars and information professionals. Two notable forums, among the several that were established on BITNET in 1989, include: The Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues and PACS-L (Public-Access Computer Systems List).

In February 1989, the first issue of the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues was launched as one of the premier electronic newsletters. The Newsletter, edited by Marcia Tuttle, evolved out of the work of the ALA/RTSD's (American Library Association's Resources and Technical Services Division) Subcommittee on Serials Pricing Issues, which was created to "gather and disseminate statistics and other data on the rising costs of journals to libraries."[10] In addition to being available electronically, the Newsletter was also available in paper format. The first issue of the Newsletter cites a response rate "of ten to twelve subscribers and inquiries each day."[11] The third issue, two months later, had a subscriber base of more than 200.[12] In less than a year, paper options for receiving the Newsletter were dropped in favor of electronic access only.[13] The Newsletter continued to flourish and within two years, had approximately 760 subscribers in more than ten countries.[14]

In June 1989, four months after the Newsletter on Serials Pricing made its debut, the landmark PACS-L (Public-Access Computer Systems List) was established by Charles Bailey, from the University of Houston Libraries. PACS-L was founded to discuss "all computer systems that libraries make available to their patrons." Within its first year, PACS-L had nearly 1,000 subscribers in twenty-five countries.[15] The Public-Access Computer Systems Review, an electronic journal, and the Public-Access Computer Systems News, an electronic newsletter, were established to complement the discussion forum. Within two years, the forum had more than 2,400 subscribers in thirty-one countries.[16] All of the PACS resources were available solely in electronic format on the network until 1992, when ALA's Library and Information Technology Association (LITA) began printed publication of the peer-reviewed Public-Access Systems Review.

By the time SERIALST was being conceptualized, in the fall of 1990, the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues, PACS-L, and a number of other electronic newsletters and discussion list forums were already well established on the BITNET academic network. They served as models for the kind of forum that SERIALST was to become.

The Foundation of a Serials Forum

SERIALST was conceived in the autumn of 1990, literally out of my sense of isolation as a serials cataloger working in a remote geographic locale with an ongoing need to ask questions and develop resources to assist with processing serials for the University of Vermont Libraries' voluminous and complex research collections. As nearby professional contacts for answering and resolving serials questions were few in number, costly and time-consuming long-distance telephone calls were frequently the best or only option for getting timely, expert help.

Meanwhile, in early to mid-1990, many University of Vermont (UVM) librarians and staff members were subscribing to BITNET discussion forums that pertained to their areas of professional interest, including PACS-L, the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues, NOTIS-L, and others. That summer, LIBER, an in-house discussion forum for communication among the Libraries' staff, was implemented with LISTSERV software on the University's IBM mainframe computer. LIBER was quickly embraced by the Libraries' staff for its ease and convenience of use -- particularly in its ability to transmit messages quickly and simultaneously to potentially everyone (100+ recipients) in the Libraries. Indeed, the importance and timeliness of LIBER messages provided rationale and impetus to ensure that staff at all levels in the UVM Libraries were equipped with their own computer and network connection.

Thus, after observing the potential for, then in actually making use of this relatively new electronic medium, I asked myself two questions: (1) Did a discussion forum for general serials-related issues as they pertained to libraries exist?; and (2) if not, would the University of Vermont support the creation of such a forum and would computer staff be willing to help set it up and support it?

After one particularly frustrating afternoon of trying to sort through some complicated serials cataloging questions, making long-distance telephone calls to colleagues who weren't available, I began to make inquiries of colleagues on campus, both within the Libraries and at CIT (the Division of Computing and Information Technology), to investigate the feasibility of setting up an electronic discussion list forum for serialists. Responses to initial queries regarding UVM's technical support for an electronic forum were positive, although it was noted that additional information would be needed before colleagues at CIT could set up the list:

Furthermore, inquiries would need to be made to establish whether or not there was already a discussion forum in existence that covered the scope of serials in libraries -- i.e., the list's coverage and scope should be unique and non-duplicative.

In the days ahead, a number of colleagues were contacted and the global listing of BITNET lists was consulted to determine whether a serials list already existed. In fact, there was none, and library colleagues, whose opinions were solicited, were in favor of the proposed list. In particular, Marcia Tuttle, editor of the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues, served as an early proponent and advisor for a new electronic serials forum with a broad, general scope. Also, the late Kathryn Wright of Indiana State University and original listowner of a forum for Rare Books and Special Collections Catalogers (NOTRBCAT)[17] provided some invaluable advice, insights, and encouragement for getting started. Colleagues at CIT offered an overview of a few basic commands that a new listowner should know, and instructions on where to obtain additional information. At the time, these preliminaries seemed simple and straightforward to an enthusiastic, albeit innocent and unknowing serials cataloger with minimal electronic networking skills. With no foreseeable detours on the horizon, all that was left was to complete the remaining tasks: Define a list name and one-line scope statement so that the listserv manager at CIT could proceed with the set-up and creation of the discussion list that was to become SERIALST.[18]

What's in a Name?

Since the inception of the list, many SERIALST subscribers have been perplexed by the ostensible misspelling of SERIALST's name in relation to the word "Serialist." As many electronic discussion forums were being launched in the late 1980's and early 1990's, it became somewhat conventional to designate list names with an ending of "-L" (e.g., PACS-L, GOVDOC-L, NOTIS-L, etc.). Since the "-L" designates "List" and could already be implied in the name of a list for serialists, the name "Serialist" seemed most logical. However, there was a problem: The name had to be eight characters or less in length. Since "Serialist" has nine characters, one character had to be eliminated. Thus, the second "i" was dropped in favor of preserving context through sound, but at the sacrifice of conventional spelling.

Over the years, SERIALST's administrators have received many requests for subscriptions to the "Serialist" and there has been a need to help or redirect would-be subscribers and message-senders to the proper address and pathname. However unconventional the spelling, the eight-character "SERIALST" (noticeably in upper case) has served to distinguish an electronic discussion forum from the usual, conventional, and more universal human breed of "Serialist." Thus, the "serials list" became SERIALST, operating on the University of Vermont's (UVM) IBM mainframe computer (or "Virtual Machine"), with the name and address: SERIALST@UVMVM.BITNET. One year later, it became accessible through the Internet, with the address: SERIALST@UVMVM.UVM.EDU. In May of 1997, SERIALST was moved to a new machine, with a new address: SERIALST@LIST.UVM.EDU.

Conceptualizing a Framework for SERIALST

SERIALST was launched on a very loose and broadly defined framework. The main topic of discussion was to follow the subscription list's subtitle, "Serials in Libraries - A User Discussion List" which, for the first year, served as the descriptive line in the Global Listing of LISTSERV lists. The underlying intent was to establish an open, informal, and free-flowing (i.e., not moderated or edited) discussion forum about general serials issues, questions and concerns that arise in the day-to-day work of those who work with or process serials in libraries. A by-product of the idea was that, over time, we would create a repository of serialists' knowledge in a searchable archive as a source for commonly asked questions, issues, and concerns.

In the early planning stages, it was also decided that SERIALST's scope would not include serials pricing issues as this topic was already well-covered by the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues and Marcia Tuttle and I wanted to avoid duplication of forums. Later, in 1991, when SERIALST became a moderated forum in a collaboration with Marcia Tuttle and the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues, the scope changed to include pricing matters. Subsequently, in 1992, the descriptive line (or subtitle) was revised as "Serials in Libraries Discussion Forum." SERIALST, the first open library-related LISTSERV forum to emerge from the University of Vermont, came online on Thursday, October 18, 1990[19] -- with more of a whimper than a flourish. The archives from that time reveal several test messages and queries -- primarily from in-house subscribers. From these tests, we learned that senders of messages did not receive copies of their own messages (a LISTSERV default setting that would eventually be changed). The first official "test" question, posed on the first day of operation, regarded serial CD-ROM publications and whether or not libraries were placing them on campus-wide networks for remote access. Although this question did not elicit responses from early subscribers -- probably because there weren't enough of them -- within the first five days, twenty-eight new subscribers, primarily from U.S. and Canadian libraries, joined SERIALST and discussion and information exchanges began to flow in earnest. Early topics included:

Questions, answers and ongoing dialogue continued to flow at an approximate rate of two to five messages a day. Within the first two weeks of operation, SERIALST had developed a subscriber base of more than 150 recipients, primarily academic librarians from the U.S. and Canada, though subscribers in Taiwan and Australia were also evident.

Almost immediately, SERIALST demonstrated an uncanny ability to transcend oceans and international borders to communication. At the same time, it produced rapid and almost immediate responses to questions that some of us had been wondering about for days and weeks -- if not years! A gathering of people had formed, as serials-related discussion was taking place in asynchronous time[20] on the desktops of subscribers from around the world.

"Scope" and Composition of SERIALST: The First Year

Word of the existence of a "Serials Users Discussion Group" spread quickly and informally. One of the first announcements was made at the 1990 NOTIS Users Group Meeting (NUGM) in Chicago, a few days after the list came online. Subsequently, a brief electronic message, which also served as the first "Scope" statement for SERIALST, was drafted and cross-posted to a number of library-related BITNET lists, including PACS-L, NOTIS-L, NOTRBCAT, and the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues. The original announcement read:

Date: Sun, 28 Oct 90 13:16:04 CST
Author: Birdie MacLennan <BMACLENN@UVMVM.BITNET>
Subject: Serials Discussion Group
Reply-To: Public-Access Computer Systems Forum <PACS-L@UHUPVM1.BITNET>

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
A Serials Users Discussion Group has recently been established on BITNET via Computer Operations support at the University of Vermont. Those who are interested may subscribe to the group by issuing the command: tell listserv at uvmvm subscribe SERIALST <your First name Last name>. SERIALST is intended to serve as a forum for most aspects of serials processing in libraries. Topics may include such things as: Cataloging, acquisitions, collection management, binding, preservation, microfilm, union listing, etc. The SERIALST discussion group should not deal with serials pricing issues as this topic is already covered in the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues.[21]

Each of the first four cross-posted list announcements brought more subscribers. Additionally, passing references made to SERIALST on other public forums, such as AUTOCAT and NOTISACQ, which were being created and launched within the same general timeframe as SERIALST, brought new subscribers in intermittent waves. The subscriber base grew very rapidly in the first six weeks, averaging fifty new subscribers each week so that in early December 1990, approximately six weeks after the list was started, there were more than 300 subscribers. Over time, the subscriber base has steadily expanded by approximately thirty to fifty new subscribers per month during SERIALST's first five years. However, the largest wave of new subscription activity remains within the list's first two to three months of operation, when SERIALST attracted thirty to fifty new subscribers per week.

The character of SERIALST formed quickly and perhaps somewhat analogously along the lines of the "information and service" orientation principles that many librarians are taught in library school. From the outset, SERIALST's participants were clearly eager to exchange information about their work and to help each other find solutions to common problems and dilemmas faced in their day-to-day jobs. There was a need to gather this information in order to be able to improve services to information end-users and library patrons. There was also an interest in gaining increased understanding of international trends and standards relating to serials. This underlying "service" orientation -- i.e., the willingness of participants to provide helpful information -- has been constant throughout SERIALST's five year history.

As for specific content, SERIALST, at least in its first few messages, addressed serials cataloging concerns -- perhaps because this component of serials librarianship was an integral area of responsibility for me, the listowner. Thus, in order to get list discussion "off the ground," I posted a number of practical, work-related questions with a desire to stimulate discussion.

These initial and somewhat tentative (i.e., tentative in terms of not knowing what would result from them) queries had several positive outcomes. From our Library's perspective, it was very quickly realized that the list could be used for obtaining practical help and suggestions for solving a number local serials workflow dilemmas. One of the first questions that was posed to the list queried fellow subscribers about how they were handling computer floppy diskettes that accompanied printed serials. The question elicited some quick replies (or relatively "quick" at the time -- it actually took three days before replies to initial questions posed on Monday, October 22, 1990 began to trickle in on Thursday, October 25) from librarians at the University of Florida and the University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada), who were able to offer brief, informal descriptions of how these materials were handled at their institutions. The replies were subsequently helpful to us in generating a policy for coping with these kinds of materials in the University of Vermont Libraries. This, in turn, led to another kind of instant "payback": discussion began. The message that posed the question about floppy diskettes and printed journals also inquired about how various institutions were handling electronic journals. This elicited follow-up regarding issues and concerns associated with processing electronic serials. As questions were posted and replies received, new "first wave" subscribers were seeing how the list could be used to communicate. They, in turn, contributed by posing additional questions and their own perspectives on various issues.

Discussion topics quickly moved beyond serials cataloging and into the broader realm of serials and related library and technology concerns that reflected subscribership interests. List archives over the course of the first year include messages about serials cataloging, check-in and claiming, binding, job postings, announcements of professional meetings, calls for papers, serials cancellation projects, publishing or numbering related queries about individual journals, questions about choices for subscription agents for obtaining publications in Australia and New Zealand, a discussion of ISSN check-digits, electronic journals (revisited on several occasions from various perspectives), and miscellaneous topics.

Interspersed with the potpourri of serials-content related messages were a number of subscription requests which were sent to the SERIALST@UVMVM address (which forwarded mail to the list of subscribers) rather than the LISTSERV@UVMVM address, or the machine address, which handles automated subscription processing and other automated command functions. There were also several inquiries regarding why message senders weren't receiving copies of their messages, and other kinds of very general messages, list-management questions, or subscriber's "test" messages to see if their mail was getting through to subscribers (indeed, it was!).

Although e-mail exchanges on SERIALST have always been, for the most part, friendly, helpful and informative, there were, in SERIALST's first unmoderated year, occasional moments of chaos and pandemonium. For example, several people might respond with the same answer to a specific question, which sometimes resulted in other subscribers' disgruntlement. An acute example from the April 1991 logs finds a subscriber asking for pointers to sources for a "definition of what a SERIAL is." During the course of the next two days, fourteen subscribers sent messages directing her to the glossary in the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR2) -- many of them quoting the same AACR2 definition to the list ... over and over again. This, in turn, generated another round of replies addressing the repetitiousness of the list.[22]

In another example, from the August 1991 logs, there is a series of messages with the subject line, "test from X.400 gateway administrator." The original message read:

Hello, I am currently troubleshooting a problem that my X.400 gateway is experiencing with your incoming mail to Please identify yourself.

The twelve or so messages of follow-up to the X.400 gateway administrator's question resulted in a number of people "identifying" themselves on the list, followed by several subscribers' "confused" messages.[23]

Thus, as list participants were realizing that they had a lot in common as serialists (e.g., we could certainly share the same definition of a serial!), list administrative questions and non-serials related topics were also posted. Since SERIALST was founded as an "open" discussion list forum, anyone with access to the network could submit a message -- either inadvertently or on purpose -- and it would automatically be sent to all subscribers.

While LISTSERV's automated functions were making it extremely easy to convey information to a large group of subscribers, the medium also demonstrated a distinct set of drawbacks. It became evident, fairly early on, that overlap and redundancy would always exist. Because of the nature of the networks and subscribers participating in discussion from different time zones, not all outgoing mail would reach and be read by people simultaneously. Depending on local mail handling systems, subscribers might or might not have the ability to review an index of incoming mail to know what messages already had been posted or the content of those messages. Therefore, in SERIALST's first year, it was not uncommon to see duplicative content as multiple subscribers had similar answers, or to see subscribers go off on a tangent in regard to various posted messages -- whether these messages were serials-related or not. Also, one can find the occasional misdirected message or a reply to a message intended for the individual author of the message and sent to the list with a quick automated "reply-to" button which inevitably, and by LISTSERV default setting, pointed back to the SERIALST address.

These assorted list management messages, coupled with some discussion in December 1990 about whether or not job notices would be appropriate for SERIALST, resulted in some rethinking of the original "scope" of the list. In order to address questions regarding the appropriateness of job postings, it seemed necessary to intervene as the "owner" and to respond with a decision that reflected a refined and broadened "scope" of SERIALST. Hence, the first "Scope" statement was posted to SERIALST on December 9, 1990. Essentially the wording of the broadened "Scope" remained consistent with that of the wording in the first posted announcements about the list's existence, although topics posed for possible discussion now included "cataloging, acquisitions, collection management, binding, preservation, microfilm, union list activities, announcements, news, & job postings that may be of interest to the serials community" (italics indicate expanded scope).

The December 1990 Scope statement also reminded subscribers that pricing topics should not be addressed on SERIALST but instead sent to the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues. And an addendum was included to note the fact that "SERIALST [was] not moderated. Mail that is sent ... is automatically distributed by the listserv to all subscribers. No one reviews, edits, or verifies the accuracy of the messages. Authors of the messages are solely responsible for their content."[24]

Six months later, in June 1991, The SERIALST Scope & Purpose statement evolved to include additional use information regarding LISTSERV navigational commands --that is, commands that could be issued by subscribers directly to the LISTSERV@UVMVM.UVM.EDU address to adjust mail distribution options (e.g., to temporarily turn off list mail), search the list's archives, review the list of subscribers, et al. The Scope & Purpose document would continue to be periodically posted to the list as a "Welcome" message for new subscribers and as a reminder to all subscribers about the list's scope, purpose, and uses. The periodic posting was intended to inform and educate users, and to prevent messages and inquiries to the list in regard to basic information or LISTSERV command requests.

As the list grew and new subscribers continued to join, it became increasingly important to ensure that the Scope & Purpose document was sent to new subscribers as part of the "signon" or automated subscription process. Thus, in January 1995, the Scope & Purpose document was set up for automated distribution as part of new subscribers' "Welcome" documentation. Subsequently, in August 1995, the SERIALST Scope & Purpose document was rendered into HTML for easy access and availability from the World Wide Web.[25]

Statistics from the first year show that more than 850 messages were distributed between October 1990 and September 1991 (see table 1). This averages out to approximately seventy messages per month, or two to three messages a day -- although it can also be noted, if one peruses dates of messages in SERIALST's archives during that time[26], that levels of mail activity fluctuated greatly around the amount of interest generated by any given topic. While some topics generated high volumes of mail on any given day, there were also days when the list was quiet, with no mail at all.

SERIALST's first year was hallmarked by regular use and steady subscriber interest and growth. The fact that SERIALST was both popular and useful was important from both a listowning and a library management/administrative perspective because it led to a commitment for ongoing support for the list. From a local, practical perspective, many of the discussions were helping librarians at the University of Vermont to address issues and concerns associated with serials workflow. As the subscriber base grew and constituents from the National Libraries, subscription agencies, and the publishing community began to join, the list showed potential for shaping and influencing actions, policies and outcomes at the national, international, and grassroot levels. As professional associations and organizations began to post conference notices and announcements, SERIALST developed as a "current awareness" tool. Subsequently, when contributors began to post conference summaries and minutes from meetings, a "continuing education" quality evolved. SERIALST made it possible for those who hadn't attended a meeting to gain some sense of having "been there."

Beyond the First Year: The Decision to Moderate

As SERIALST developed a subscribership base of approximately 700 recipients within its first unmoderated year, and as increasing numbers of list maintenance and administrative questions were being posted directly to the list, it became evident that someone with appropriate authority needed to be visibly present on a regular basis to help subscribers and answer administrative questions. While list participants could sometimes advise those subscribers who had posted misdirected or inappropriate message(s) to the list, subscribers couldn't supply direct help for questions that necessitated modifications to the subscriber listing (e.g., manually changing an address, or adding or removing a subscriber). These could only be attended to by the listowner or by local systems administrators.

Over time, the occasional "test" message and the occasional misdirected message began to generate large accumulations of unnecessary mail and put a strain on local computing resources. While the LISTSERV software offered some options for changing the default setting which specified that replies to SERIALST messages automatically point back to the list address, other options were never seriously considered since, for the most part, replies to the list were desirable for stimulating discussion. The drawback to this set-up was that subscribers pushing the "reply" key often weren't aware of the LISTSERV default setting that directed their replies back to the list rather than to an individual. Hence, it seemed that there would always be a likelihood for personal replies being distributed to the entire list of subscribers.

Meanwhile, for every message sent through the server, a number of error reports -- i.e., "bounced" or undelivered mail messages for subscribers who had had changes of address or whose mail systems were temporarily non-functional -- were being generated back to the listowner's personal account and filling limited amounts of disk space for handling list mail, personal e-mail correspondence, and other work-related applications. Thus, both computer and human were beginning to show signs of fatigue, if not imminent collapse.

As I found myself giving increasingly more amounts of time to list management and administrative issues, I began to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of an unmoderated as opposed to moderated discussion list. The unmoderated forum offered communication and interaction that was spontaneous and, aside from the quirks and idiosyncrasies of occasional network delays, fairly immediate. On the other hand, it seemed that moderating the list could reduce some volume of mail (and the error returns it generated) while simultaneously making it easier to handle list administrative queries and misdirected replies, which could be intercepted and dealt with, rather than distributed to subscribers. By ensuring that posted messages were within scope, discussion would be more focused, thus raising the quality and usability of the list and the archives that were automatically generated with each posted message. Moderating was beginning to look more and more appealing as a way to make optimal efficiency of computer resources that were, indeed, beginning to show signs of stress.

The decision to moderate SERIALST was not made lightly, but rather, occurred as a gradual process. The initial "footwork" in realizing possibilities for moderated list configurations actually came about indirectly when, in March of 1991, Ann Okerson, then Vice-President of the North American Serials Interest Group (NASIG), asked if I would be willing to chair a NASIG Task Force that would be charged with investigating electronic mail and electronic network capabilities for NASIG. The NASIG "E-Mail Task Force" (whose other members included Charles Bailey, Ann Okerson, and Marcia Tuttle) was subsequently formed. The Task Force explored a possible affiliation between NASIG and SERIALST, and conducted a survey that queried listowners of twenty moderated and unmoderated electronic newsletters and discussion lists on the range of services they provided to subscribers and what resources (both human and technical) were needed to maintain those services. The survey results were the first step in learning about a wide range of different possibilities and software options for electronic discussion forums and newsletters. This eventually formed the basis for a report and recommendations for establishing electronic communications services for NASIG.[27] NASIG and SERIALST opted to remain independent of each other, each with its own distinctive scope and purpose.[28] However, the NASIG Task Force survey, which generated responses from several owners of moderated electronic forums, was instrumental in positing ideas, possibilities, and rationales for moderating SERIALST.

In the summer of 1991, I began making inquiries about technical specifications for a moderated LISTSERV set-up. A number of questions were posed to on-campus colleagues at CIT. Network inquiries were made on the LSTOWN-L[29] discussion forum for listowners, and the ARACHNET discussion forum, whose main subscribership consisted of editors of e-journals, discussion forums, and newsgroups, and whose main conversational component centered on social and cultural issues involved in electronic conferencing.[30] Several possibilities for moderated list configurations were received and reviewed, along with miscellaneous advice regarding the social and ethical dilemmas of discussion list moderation. Through this process, it became evident that a greater level of human commitment for list maintenance would be necessary in order to ensure timely turn-around of incoming mail and that, by implication of a moderated presence, there would inevitably be some decision-making processes associated with screening the mail. I realized that if SERIALST were to become moderated, it would require more than one moderator and a set-up that would facilitate a shared, collaborative arrangement.

After much inquiry, it was established (by a number of people) that the technical possibilities offered by the LISTSERV software would accommodate collaboration between multiple moderators in different geographic locations. The next question was where to find willing and able colleagues to help moderate SERIALST.

There is an old Chinese maxim that translates as: "Crisis equals danger and opportunity." At about this time, an unmoderated SERIALST was distributing messages from subscribers on the topic of serials pricing issues -- despite the Scope statement that referred such messages to the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues. Additionally, the Newsletter's editor, Marcia Tuttle, was expressing a desire to disseminate pricing news more rapidly.[31] Thus, the editor of the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues and the listowner of SERIALST proposed a collaborative partnership to moderate SERIALST, while officially expanding SERIALST's scope to include messages on serials pricing and "a full range of serials topics." In this arrangement, selected messages from SERIALST, at the Newsletter editor's discretion, would be included in the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues. The proposal was announced jointly, just a few days after SERIALST's one-year anniversary date, to give subscribers of both electronic forums a chance to react and comment before the collaboration actually went into effect.[32] The response was favorable. Approximately a half dozen positive messages were received from SERIALST's 700+ subscribers -- two of which were posted to SERIALST. While no negative comments are recorded in the archives of SERIALST, two subscribers registered private concerns about duplication of content. Notwithstanding, on November 25, 1991, SERIALST became a moderated forum.

In Moderation: Some Formalizing of the Informal Medium

According to the current SERIALST Scope & Purpose statement, "Prior to November 25, 1991, SERIALST was an unmoderated forum. On November 25, parameters of the LISTSERV software (which supports SERIALST) were changed to support collaboration between multiple moderators in different geographic locations."[33] The collaborative element -- that is, the ability of the moderators to receive and read incoming SERIALST mail simultaneously (rather than individually) -- was accomplished with the technical support of the University of Vermont's LISTSERV manager, John Ryder, who introduced "SEREDIT" (a private sub-list for SERIALST's moderators) to the SERIALST/LISTSERV configuration. The reconfiguration, which has withstood the test of time and is still in effect four years after it was first introduced, works so that incoming mail (i.e., mail sent to the SERIALST address) is routed to the SEREDIT sub-list, where it is distributed to the moderators, who review it. The designated moderator then forwards appropriate messages to the SERIALST distribution list, where they are read by all subscribers.

From day one, SEREDIT worked largely as had been anticipated. Volume of mail to the list remained constant as contributors continued to send a steady stream of messages pertinent to the scope of serials in libraries. The two moderators monitored incoming mail via SEREDIT and took rotating shifts in posting messages to the list. Messages requesting subscription information were processed routinely as a listowner function, while messages that appeared to be misdirected or unintended for the general subscribership were returned to senders. Initially, all serials-related messages intended for the list continued to be posted as received, individually and with very little moderation. Eventually, however, the moderators became inclined to bring some level of order and formality to posted messages. Before sending mail to the list, the moderator ensured that each message had an appropriate subject line. Additionally, when a question or topic of interest generated multiple replies, the moderators began to "digest" or gather individual replies into one file for distribution as a single e-mail message.

These editorial functions evolved out of a service-orientation and a desire to offer some value-added qualities for maximum readability of submitted messages. Ensuring that subject lines accurately reflect the content of messages is intended to aid subscribers in deciding whether or not to read a message. Digests gather all relevant messages into a single posting, thus consolidating content and saving the time of subscribers, who would otherwise have to sift through multiple messages on the same topic. Digests also save bandwidth and alleviate some system stress by reducing the overall volume of mail for subscribers, and the amount of error returns needing to be processed as list management functions. Moderating has also enabled us to use discretion in editing out quoted text in the body of messages -- particularly when numerous replies quote the same text of the original message. This, in turn, reduces repetitious text in outgoing mail and in the discussion list archives.

The volume of mail remained constant between SERIALST's first unmoderated year and its second moderated year, averaging between two and five messages per day. An enthusiasm for the newness of the networked medium, and for the topics of discussion being submitted to SERIALST, led to the moderators' unspoken commitment to maintain the speed, immediacy and spontaneity of communications inasmuch as possible. Mail to the list at off hours led to afterhour and weekend postings. Zealous moderators, equipped with home computers, dialled into their academic computer accounts, at all hours, with unwavering interest. We were fascinated to observe that subscribers were submitting messages around-the-clock and from remote time zones. It was not uncommon to post "tomorrow's" message from Australia while it was still the day (or evening) "before tomorrow" by Eastern Standard Time in the United States. Our commitment to prompt processing and distribution of mail would, we hoped, continue to facilitate an ambiance of spontaneity and ongoing dialogue. Eventually, however, weekend postings to SERIALST ceased because of high volumes of undelivered mail and error returns generated by systems that routinely shut down for maintenance or upgrades during weekends and off-peak hours.

In the spring of 1992, when both moderators were bound for the United Kingdom Serials Group (UKSG) meeting in Edinburgh and the subscriber listing had grown to 800 recipients, it became evident that the commitment to ensure timely posting of almost-daily messages to SERIALST would pose something of a challenge, if not an impossibility, as neither moderator would be near e-mail for an extended period of time. This presented us with an opportunity to recruit a new SERIALST moderator. Ann Ercelawn, serials cataloger at Vanderbilt University and an active member of NASIG's Electronic Communications Committee, was first introduced as a "Guest Moderator" for SERIALST in March 1992. Her interest, enthusiasm, and commitment to networked communications in general, and SERIALST in particular, led to an ongoing collaboration and partnership in moderating SERIALST. By the end of 1992, and SERIALST's first year as a moderated forum, Ann's "guest" presence was firmly established as a permanent presence and as a regular associate moderator.

To what degree did the moderated presence change SERIALST and the volume and content of messages posted to the list? SERIALST's message statistics (see table 1) show that during its first unmoderated year of operation, 921 messages in 32,458 lines of text were posted. In its second year of operation, or first year as a moderated forum, 724 messages in 34,250 lines of text were posted -- that is, in its first moderated year, 197 fewer messages were transmitted with approximately 1,800 more lines of text. Thus, while approximately the same volume of mail was generated between 1991 and 1992, it was transmitted in fewer messages.

While a number of subscribers have expressed appreciation for the moderated format and the sense that messages posted to the list contain more "substance" than "chatter," there are also subscribers who have noted, with dismay, that SERIALST was more interesting as an unmoderated list. As one subscriber wrote in the 1995 SERIALST subscriber survey, "Even though people blooped every once in a while, there was much more lively and interesting DISCUSSION going on than after the introduction of editors. I think the addition of editors has formalized the list too much and causes much more lurking than otherwise."[34]

Indeed, the moderated set-up did bring about formalization, as was evident in the headers of the mail that was posted to the list. Although SEREDIT and the technical set-up were functioning well in allowing for simultaneous collaboration among the moderators, it also resulted in some changes to mail distribution processes that made the moderated presence quite evident. When contributors sent messages to the list, instead of receiving an automated-acknowledgement from the server that their message had been posted, they now received an automated acknowledgement that their message had been submitted to "the moderator:"

Your message dated Fri, 27 Oct 1995 15:27:29 -0500 (EST) with subject "Check out of Journals" has been submitted to the moderator of the SERIALST list: SEREDIT@UVMVM.BITNET.

Additionally, once the messages were actually posted to the list by one of the moderators, fluctuations and discrepancies in the "from" line in the headers of messages became apparent. Depending on which moderator happened to be the designated moderator, or the one responsible for processing incoming mail and forwarding it to SERIALST, some mail appeared to come "from" the original sender of the message and other mail to come "from" one of the SERIALST moderator's personal address(es). The discrepancy has to do with the way the moderators' three different local e-mail systems interact with the SERIALST listserver configuration. While University of Vermont IBM mainframe's mail system allows messages to be forwarded to SERIALST while preserving the original message-sender's name in the "from" line of the header, the Vax and Unix mail systems used by SERIALST's Associate Moderators, replace the original message-sender's name in the header's "from" line with that of the moderator's.

As discrepancies in the "from" lines began to create some confusion for subscribers, especially in regard to the origin of the message, the moderators adapted the "subject" lines of messages to include the original author's names in message headers when the "from" line was replaced by the name of the moderator. From SERIALST's first moderated days, this capricious arrangement of list headers has been a technicality of list administration that the moderators have not been able to resolve with consistency -- and has been seen as one of the trade-offs in a configuration that allows for simultaneous collaborative moderating of the list from different geographic locales and with different e-mail systems.

Over the years, some subscribers have expressed confusion regarding the discrepancies in SERIALST's mail headers. In the winter of 1996, in private correspondence with one of the moderators, a new subscriber registered some puzzlement as to why the list headers appeared as they did and subsequently asked why, amidst all this confusion, we take the time and trouble to moderate SERIALST. The question elicited a reply to the list, partly in relation to other related administrative questions that had come up that week. The rationale, as noted in 1996, did not vary significantly from the rationale that prompted the original decision to moderate the list. However, in 1996 the question of moderation had become more urgent as SERIALST's subscribership had tripled from 700 in late 1991 to more than 2,300 in early 1996, the volume of mail to the list had more than doubled, and the moderators were beginning to receive increasing amounts of "spammed" messages[35] -- i.e., messages that were sent by non-subscribers with no interest in serials, but with much interest in advertising. According to the 1996 rationale for ongoing moderation:

... We moderate for two reasons:
(1) to keep the list on-Scope (per the SERIALST Scope & Purpose document); and (2) to make optimal efficiency of the computer resources available to us. Consider, for example, an average mail volume of between 80,000-100,000 messages per DAY on one mainframe computer supporting a half dozen listserv applications ... routing mail to thousands of individual recipients while also being busy supporting a number of other important, non-listserv-related applications. Consider the additional cost and burden (not to mention irritation and embarrassment) of needless e-mail distribution (2350+ subscribers on SERIALST alone) of the occasional misdirected message and the more frequent kinds of "SPAMS" (i.e., mass e-mail distributed messages, generally asking network users to buy something) that SERIALST's LISTSERV software filters (with a moderated check) on an average of once a week ... One could say, in short, that we moderate to digest like-messages and conserve bandwidth -- and, of course, to ensure that the focus of the discussions remains with "serials in libraries" and/or announcements and concerns related to SERIALST's "serials in libraries" constituents.[36]

While SERIALST as a moderated and hence more formalized discussion list medium has served to consolidate mail flow and keep the list on-scope, it is not possible to speculate on how the list might have evolved without the moderated presence. Would the content have changed dramatically? Would subscribership numbers differ significantly? Would there be fewer "lurkers" and more contributors? There is very little doubt that discussion would have been more spontaneous and immediate than it is now, but would it have always been within scope? And, in the long-run, would subscribers have preferred the trade-off? These and other questions are open to debate. The SERIALST moderators' philosophy has always been that not subjecting the subscribership to personal messages and the mechanics of subscription-types of messages is an important value-added aspect of SERIALST -- particularly as the networks grow and expand and as subscribers have increasingly more e-mail to deal with -- not only from SERIALST, but from any number of other electronic forums that they may subscribe to.

What can be noted among the general comments from the SERIALST survey results in the fall of 1995 is that subscribers find discussions to be focused, lively, stimulating, helpful, relevant, current, timely, immediate and useful for making connections to both people and issues that affect the serials profession. On the other hand, some subscribers find discussion to be too broad, general or insignificant (with requests for more pithy or substantive postings), along with a wish that some contributors "would check their facts before making statements that aren't always accurate." Out of 262 responses, 24 people expressed appreciation for the moderated forum, while four expressed a preference or wish for an unmoderated forum.[37]

Perhaps what these and other comments in the SERIALST survey convey best is that no two people think alike and that there are many different hopes, expectations, and aspirations for what an electronic discussion forum should be, what it should convey and how it should convey it. However, ultimately what exists in the archives as a matter of public record, is a body of information communicated through individuals. With SERIALST, as with any discussion forum, the sum of that information, along with any strengths or shortcomings associated with it, is in the collective body of subscribers and what they choose to contribute.

Professional Responsibilities and Ethical Dilemmas of List Moderating

The world is in the midst of an electronic communications revolution. Based on its constitutional, ethical, and historical heritage, American librarianship is uniquely positioned to address the broad range of information issues being raised in this revolution. In particular, librarians address intellectual freedom from a strong ethical base and an abiding commitment to the preservation of the individual's rights ... Freedom of expression is an inalienable human right and the foundation for self-government. Freedom of expression encompasses the freedom of speech and the corollary right to receive information. -- Access to Electronic Information, Services, and Networks: an Interpretation of the LIBRARY BILL OF RIGHTS[38]

During SERIALST's first three to four years, as both an unmoderated and a moderated forum, messages were posted, pretty much as received, within 24 hours of receiving them. While the moderated presence brought order and formality to the postings in terms of sender acknowledgements, changed mail headers, and digested messages, the matter of content was seldom questioned if it was conveyed in readable format and adhered to the broad scope of "serials and libraries."

SERIALST's Scope & Purpose document[39] evolved over time, in response to issues that surfaced in areas where policy was undefined or needed to be developed. Two such areas that emerged within the first two years of the moderated forum include: (1) The question of whether or not SERIALST should post messages for the trade or exchange of serials, and (2) the question of whether or not SERIALST should post other people's messages, which were being forwarded for submission without prior permission from the original authors (who, in many instances, were not subscribers to SERIALST).

For a brief period of time in 1992 and 1993, SERIALST posted submissions for lists of duplicates or withdrawn issues for exchange, or requests for needed issues. It soon became apparent that a number of subscribers were interested in back issues exchange opportunities and that these kinds of messages might very well overwhelm the more general kinds of serials questions and concerns that the list had originally been created to address. Thus, in August 1993, we opted to decline messages that involved the trade of serials. Subsequently, a number of other forums evolved to address this need.[40]

In regard to the question of reposting messages without permission, the moderators decided that a "net-etiquette" policy was needed to address our growing concern about posting messages that originated from authors who did not subscribe to SERIALST or were not aware that their messages would be redistributed to a sizeable audience. Thus, in June 1993, the Scope document was revised to ask that SERIALST contributors who wished to forward mail, obtain permission from the original author (except in instances where large cross-posting was obviously intended). This was requested primarily as a matter of courtesy, and also as a preventative to processing any resulting responses that might better be directed to original authors. In this sense, the SERIALST's Scope & Purpose has continued to grow and evolve, serving as a policy document and guide.

As the list has continued to grow and change, so have networks and networking technologies. SERIALST was founded and, as of this writing, continues to operate on the BITNET academic network, with a gateway to the Internet. In SERIALST's early years, its subscribership consisted primarily of academic librarians who connected to the service using BITNET through their college or university network system. In 1991, the University of Vermont joined the Internet and SERIALST was opened to access by a much broader constituency. Between 1991 and 1992, the overwhelming majority of new SERIALST subscribers came from the academic community. Publishers and subscription agents also began to join the list, but they were relatively few in number. Indeed, in 1991, Vinton Cerf, then chair of the Internet Activities Board, was quoted as saying, "Until the last few years, connecting to the Internet required the approval of a U.S. government sponsor. This requirement has been relaxed ... but only institutions involved in education and research can connect directly to the Internet."[42]

In September 1993, the National Information Infrastructure Agenda was proposed. This document identified goals for providing information access for all Americans through a collaborative effort from both the public and private sectors. It also generated public discussion and debate about the respective roles of the commercial and private sectors, and the government and public sectors in the development of the Internet.[43]

Thus, in 1993, SERIALST began to see a distinct wave of diversity in subscribers, with the active involvement of more participants from the private and commercial sectors of the serials information chain. Rather than being solely or even primarily a forum for serials librarians in academic/research institutions to discuss issues amongst themselves, publishers, subscription agents, systems vendors, and other groups and individuals interested in serials were subscribing and contributing to the discussions in increasing numbers. The diversity in SERIALST's numbers contributed to the list's knowledge-base and the free exchange of ideas and perspectives -- particularly in regard to ways in which different constituents approached any given issue. For example, when librarians' perspectives on a change in frequency or publication pattern and the resulting change(s) in pricing policy(ies) differ significantly from the perspectives of a publisher or a subscription agent, SERIALST is able to serve as the medium for presenting differing points of view.

The diversity of SERIALST's subscribership, and resulting differences in perspectives and opinions sent to the list, evoke some philosophical and ethical considerations relative to the roles of listowner and moderators. While the mechanics and technical issues associated with listowning and moderating have already been discussed in some detail, the philosophical fiber that underlies some of the decision-making processes that go into day-to-day monitoring of submitted messages is certainly more complicated. Indeed, as a moderator and listowner, I have always looked for guidelines. Curiously, but not surprisingly, the LISTSERV listowner's manual describes a merged or dual role:

By default, the listowner becomes a moderator of sorts, even if the list in question is neither edited nor officially moderated. This means that, as a listowner, [one] must be prepared to maintain order if it becomes necessary. At the same time, [one] must moderate [one's] self so that [one] does not alienate users and cause [one's] list and/or host institution to suffer as a result.[44]

In this regard, the SERIALST Scope & Purpose document has, for some years, maintained a disclaimer that holds authors of messages accountable for their submissions:

The University of Vermont offers SERIALST as a public service. It does not verify the accuracy of submitted messages, not does it endorse opinions expressed by contributors to the SERIALST forum. Authors of messages to SERIALST are solely responsible for their content. The moderators reserve the right to reject postings that do not fall within the scope and purpose of the list.[45]

While the vast majority of day-to-day decision-making associated with monitoring and moderating incoming mail is generally straightforward in terms of following the Scope document and assuring readability of text (the moderators generally return mail if the text does not contain proper line formatting or is, in other ways, garbled upon receipt), the moderators have, on occasion, made decisions that have generated controversy. Although the Scope document covers general usage guidelines, interpretations of the guidelines vary with various constituents.

One such controversy is documented by Reich, Brooks, Cromwell, and Wicks in a review article, "Electronic Discussion Lists and Journals: A Guide to Technical Services."[46] In their discussion of SERIALST, the authors note that they "highly recommend moderated lists. We rely on them to keep us aware of important issues. The moderators weed out careless postings raising the list's overall quality. However, sometimes the actions of a moderator can be controversial. In the summer of 1994 ... discussion of the FAXON company and news about its sale negotiation were stifled. The moderators of ACQNET, SERIALST, and the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues were concerned that an open forum ... could stimulate panic ... They didn't want to contribute to a highly volatile situation."[47]

Indeed, the reviewers' perspectives in describing the events of that time bring to light much about the professional responsibilities and ethical dilemmas of moderating. What the article doesn't say, and what most people probably don't know, is that the SERIALST moderators worked with each individual who sent a message that didn't get transmitted on the list to put them in contact with others who had also sent messages and were facing the same dilemmas. Additionally, permission was obtained from serials professionals at various institutions who had done recent vendor evaluations, to give their addresses to those who submitted questions. In other words, much effort was expended to put people who requested information in touch with each other so that they would have an avenue to discuss issues privately. The rationale in calling for the moratorium is documented in the SERIALST archives of July 27, 1994; the rationale for calling an end to it is noted in the August 9, 1994 archives. List discussion about this topic resumed after August 9 -- that is, after the first round of sale negotiations had been completed, but before the Dawson/Faxon press was posted on September 2, announcing that an agreement had been reached.[48]

This discussion is not intended to allay an old controversy, but rather, to point out that the choices of the moderators are not always easy or clear-cut. Although we have an inherent belief in democracy and free speech, and defend the rights of subscribers to transmit and receive information on a daily basis, in instances when unsubstantiated information, rumor, or idle speculation can have wide-ranging repercussions, one must carefully weigh the power of the networked medium in relation to the issues at hand. If all else fails, conscience and an attempt to live up to professional and ethical responsibilities, must ultimately dictate one's actions in moderation.

Another area that has generated controversy and some difference of opinion in recent years is the advent of the commercial presence on the networks and the increasing abundance of commercial news and commercial press releases that have been submitted for transmission on SERIALST. As an academic and professional communications tool, SERIALST has always been committed to maintaining a non-partisan, level playing field in its rejection of messages that are blatantly commercial or self-promotional in terms of advertising content. However, in recent years there have been a number of "grey areas" in the definition of what constitutes commercialism. While some subscribers (primarily from the commercial sector) have asked to see more "vendor announcements" and "commercial press releases" on SERIALST and other electronic forums, recent surveys from ACQNET and the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues have indicated that the majority of subscribers are adamant that these list's forums should not be places where advertising should have free reign -- that they are not interested in reading these kinds of messages on electronic forums.[49] At the present time, SERIALST's moderators continue to review such messages as they are submitted, by weighing informational content in relation to appropriate context for discussion and inquiry.

Thus, as the moderators have an inherent obligation to maintain freedom of expression and to defend the rights of subscribers to receive information, certain instances in recent years have necessitated decisions out of a need to maintain or restore order, or out of concern for ethical responsibilities, or in consideration of the academic institution and its scholarly and educational mission, which support and govern SERIALST. While the need for making some of these decisions is fairly immediate (in order to preserve the sense of spontaneity and immediacy in posting messages to the list) there are probably a number of such undocumented decision-making instances in any given day that could very well provide fodder for some interesting case studies.

Conclusion: As the Evolution Unfolds, Where Do We Go From Here?

SERIALST is a great service and provides a form of continuing education on a daily basis. I've learned all sorts of practical things scanning the questions and responses, and I know there's a wealth of fairly current information in the archives when I need it ...

SERIALST plays an important role in fostering discussion on current serials matters on a worldwide basis. It is a thrill for me to know [in South Africa] that I am reading SERIALST at the same time as librarians in North America - SERIALST is part of the shrinking (shrink-wrapped?) world. -- Two subscribers' testimonials[50]

Politics and technology separately have tremendous power to control the lives of people. When used together, the control is magnified, and one only has to look at the fight for control of the media to appreciate this. Democratic processes and the free flow of information can be either retarded or advanced. -- Dianne Leong Man[51]

SERIALST, with its humble beginnings as an informal, grassroots effort -- a handful of participants "meeting" in an electronic venue to "talk serials" -- has grown into a global communications network of over 2,400 participants in 35 countries. (See Table 2: SERIALST Subscriber Statistics). Over the years, interest in the forum has generated a steady stream of inquiries to the moderators from people who want to know more about SERIALST, what it is and what it does. In order to answer these questions and facilitate use of the forum and access to its archives, several auxiliary services have been implemented. These "SERIALST satellite resources" also function to demonstrate practical applications for other network technologies (i.e., beyond LISTSERV and the discussion forum) and to educate and encourage serialists in the use of, and potential for electronic media. They include:

In utilizing new technologies to link people and systems -- thus facilitating access to networked resources within a common area of interest -- SERIALST fosters a world-wide sense of community among serialists. So long as need dictates, resources allow, and listowner and moderators have time and commitment, the forum will continue to evolve and change.

It is remarkable that, throughout its five year history, SERIALST has been run free of charge, and free of any granting program or agency, by the University of Vermont -- a "gift," if you will, to the international community. Although in many academic institutions, and increasingly in the public and private sectors, such support has become commonplace -- and indeed, is considered essential to scholarly and professional communications -- it must not be taken for granted. As Willard McCarty noted in a similar discussion about the HUMANIST electronic forum and its academic sponsors, "Such gifts are seldom given, since institutions tend to look to themselves, especially when money is not plentiful. If we are to convince our institutions to support [electronic conferencing seminars and discussion forums], then we have to be able to say what it is that they are being asked to support and so to justify the expense."[55] Indeed, McCarty's point is well taken. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that "Professors who manage Internet mailing lists say they are under increasing pressure from budget-conscious administrators to minimize the burden their services put on college computers ... With little money for expanding computer systems on many campuses, the massive amounts of data churned out by some lists are forcing an evolution in the way they work. Even with those changes, which improve the way lists use resources, some institutions may be unable to continue contributing to the Internet as freely as they have in the past."[56]

If the electronic medium as an open forum, dedicated to the free flow of information and ideas is to be preserved, it is essential that we be able to justify its use -- to be able to say that freedom of expression, in the context of open discourse, critical inquiry, and professional and scholarly communication, is worthwhile, and warrants the cost of ongoing support. We must be able to argue convincingly that what may, at first glance, seem like an endless stream of casual inquiry, offhanded thought or speculation, or ephemeral remarks made in the context of transitory discussion, nevertheless has meaning and purpose, providing nourishment, sustenance, a sense of community and shared concerns in the work that we do as serialists and as participants in the scholarly communications chain.

At the most practical and pragmatic level, SERIALST illustrates how electronic communications and the Internet may be used to foster discussion of issues, concerns, and problems. The forum can facilitate workflow decisions, educational and research opportunities, and local, national or global information policies. With some amount of editorial tailoring and care, it has used technology to support open and informal dialogue and to feed the free flow of professional exchanges and scholarly communications.

With the growing level of diversity on SERIALST, there is a growing awareness of different cultures and perspectives -- and different hopes and expectations for use of the medium. As the network continues to evolve and expand, so do those who are utilizing network technologies continue our evolution in the realization of what we have to offer and learn from each other. The more limited our world is geographically, the larger it becomes with the power of the networked medium. The formidable "word," raised from the remote privacy of one's desktop computer and absorbed globally in the immediate and simultaneous ambiance of stable text and dynamic speech, is a powerful tool. The words of SERIALST's contributors have removed us from isolation and augmented our sense of community in a shared knowledge of global understanding. One can only hope that the next five years will be so fruitful, and that the serial qualities of the electronic medium will continue to support and sustain us, as we go about our daily business in working with serials, scholarly communication, and each other.


Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson's Poems (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., c1961), 177.

Willard McCarty, "A Potency of Life: Scholarship in an Electronic Age," If We Build It: Scholarly Communications and Networking Technologies: Proceedings of the North American Serials Interest Group, 7th Annual Conference, June 18-21, 1992, University of Illinois, Chicago (Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, c1993); published simultaneously as The Serials Librarian 23, no. 3/4 (1993): 95. According to McCarty, "In the third book of the Roman mythological compendium, the Metamorphoses of Ovid, the poet tells how, before establishing the city of Thebes, Cadmus killed a rampaging dragon and sowed its teeth in the ground. From these teeth sprang armed men."

Some subscriber perspectives about SERIALST, obtained from a SERIALST Questionnaire and User Survey conducted by Birdie MacLennan in the Fall of 1995. The survey was posted on September 13, 1995; the compilation of responses was posted on November 17, 1995. Both the form and the summary are available from the SERIALST fileserver at: LISTSERV@LIST.UVM.EDU with an e-mail message that reads: GET SERIALST SURVEY (to retrieve the survey form) or: GET SURVEY SUMMARY (to retrieve the summary/compilation of the survey) [cited March 11, 1996].

The standard definition of a serial in the "Glossary" of Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules. 2nd ed., 1988 revision. (Ottawa.: Canadian Library Association; Chicago: American Library Association, 1988): 622.

It is impossible to document specific list demographics from the subscriber listing, which contains only the names and e-mail addresses of subscribers. However, in November of 1995, the SERIALST Survey Summary, compiled by MacLennan, indicated that from a total of 262 replies (an 11.3% segment of SERIALST's 2,300 subscribers), 94% of the respondents were librarians or library support staff, and 6% included publishers, subscription agents, systems managers, faculty, students, and others. (Op. cit., see note 3).

Diane Gordon Kadanoff discusses the importance of professional networking (i.e., by joining professional associations and attending their meetings) before the advent of electronic communications in her article, "Communication & Cooperation," Library Journal 111, no. 7 (April 15, 1986): 58-59.

Geoffrey Gurd and Jocelyn Picot cite many barriers to network use in "A Study of Atlantic Canadian User Reactions to Two Inter-University Electronic Networks," Canadian Journal of Information Science 11, no. 3/4 (1986): 106-107.

In 1987 CSNET (Computer+Science Network) and BITNET (Because It's Time Network) merged to form CREN (Corporation for Research and Educational Networking) and software was developed to form a gateway that would allow BITNET/CREN traffic to be carried over the Internet. Cf., Richard W. Wiggins, The Internet for Everyone: A Guide for Users and Providers (New York: McGraw-Hill, c1995), 18.

LISTSERV, written and developed by Eric Thomas in the mid-1980's, is one of the earliest and most popular mailing list management software applications, which is why many people refer to e-conferences or discussion forums as "listservs." Other kinds of mailing list software applications include: listproc, mailbase, and majordomo. The characteristics of each vary, but many of their basic functions are similar. Cf., Kara L. Robinson, "People Talking to People: Making the Most of Internet Discussion Groups," Online 20, no. 1 (January/February 1996): 27.

Marcia Tuttle, "Editor's Introduction," ALA/RTSD Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues, no. 1 (February 27, 1989). Available on the World Wide Web at: [cited April 4, 1996].


Marcia Tuttle, "Editor's Introduction," Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues, no. 3 (April 29, 1989). Available on the World Wide Web at: [cited April 4, 1996].

Marcia Tuttle, "Editor's Introduction," Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues, no. 15 (January 27, 1990). Available on the World Wide Web at: [cited April 4, 1996].

Marcia Tuttle, "The Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues," The Public-Access Computer Systems Review 2, no. 1 (1991): 116. Available by gopher from: gopher:// [cited April 4, 1996].

Charles W. Bailey, Jr., "The Public-Access Computer Systems Forum: A Computer Conference on BITNET," Library Software Review 9 (March/April 1990): 71.

Charles W. Bailey, Jr., "Welcome to the University of Houston Libraries' Public-Access Computer Systems Forum" [e-mail message from Charles Bailey to Birdie MacLennan] (May 21, 1991).

NOTRBCAT, founded by the late Kathryn Wright as a forum for rare books and special collections catalogers, was in operation from ca. 1990-1993.

Although now somewhat dated, Diane Kovacs, Willard McCarty, and Michael Kovacs offer an excellent overview of what is involved in starting and maintaining a LISTSERV discussion list, including some useful information for new listowners utilizing other types of mailing list software, in "How to Start and Manage a BITNET LISTSERV Discussion Group: A Beginner's Guide," The Public-Access Systems Review 2, no. 1 (1991): 128-143. Available by gopher from: gopher:// [cited January 28, 1996].

The near-instant realization of the power and usefulness of LISTSERV software for immediate and wide-ranging conferencing in professional communications subsequently spurred the University of Vermont Libraries' development and support for other global discussion forums, including: AUTOCAT (Cataloging and Authorities forum) two days later (October 21, 1990), and ILL-L (Interlibrary Loan forum) approximately one month later (November 1990).

Lee Sproull and Sara Kiesler note various uses of "asynchronous or nonsimultaneous" e-mail communications (as compared to simultaneous or "chat room" kinds of e-mail communications) in "Reducing Social Context Cues: Electronic Mail in Organizational Communication," Management Science 32, no. 11 (November 1986): 1493-1494. Asynchronicity applies to SERIALST in that LISTSERV conferencing software allows e-mail to be sent to subscriber addresses and stored on local systems until recipients log into their accounts to read it. This makes it possible to communicate with colleagues in far distant time zones without having to find an occasion in which both persons are available in "real time" to read or respond to messages.

Birdie MacLennan, "Serials Discussion Group," (October 28, 1990). This copy of the original SERIALST announcement is available from the PACS-L archives in the Coalition for Networked Information's BRS-SEARCH Services databases: gopher:// The same announcement is found in the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues no. 29 (November 12, 1990) on the World Wide Web at: [cited April 3, 1996].

From various messages with the subject lines, "SERIAL Definition," "Serials Definition," "Repetition of the Definition," and "Repetition Repetition Repetition Repetition," (April 2-7, 1991). Available from the SERIALST archives at:[cited February 9, 1996].

From various messages with the subject lines, "test from X.400 gateway administrator," "confused," and "over-active lists," (August 15-19, 1991). Available from the SERIALST archives at: [cited February 9, 1996].

Birdie MacLennan, "SERIALST scope, incl. job listings," (December 6, 1990). Available from the SERIALST archives at: [cited February 9, 1996].

The current SERIALST Scope & Purpose document is available on the World Wide Web at: or as a plain text/ASCII file from the SERIALST fileserver by sending an e-mail message to: that reads: GET SERIALST WELCOME [cited February 10, 1996].

SERIALST maintains searchable archives which are retrievable from the fileserver: by using LISTSERV's standard search protocols, or via the web at Search instructions are included in the SERIALST Scope & Purpose or on the web archive site. (Op. cit., see note 25).

Birdie MacLennan, "The NASIG Electronic Connection: Report from the E-Mail Task Force (January-June 1991)," The NASIG Newsletter 6, no. 4 (September 1991): 19-21.

The work of the NASIG E-Mail Task Force subsequently evolved into the work of the NASIG Electronic Communications Committee and the development of NASIGNET, an ambitious range of electronic networking services (i.e., discussion lists, gopher, World Wide Web) established for NASIG's membership.

LSTOWN-L@SEARN.SUNET.SE is a discussion forum for listowners of mailing lists that utilize L-Soft International LISTSERV software.

ARACHNET@ UOTTAWA.BITNET, originally established by Willard McCarty as a discussion forum for listowners of Humanities and Social Sciences lists, was later reformed under the editorship of Micheal Strangelove and Diane Kovacs, with an expanded focus centering on editorial policy and the social and ethical aspects associated with electronic conferencing. The list ceased ca. 1993. However, its name and aspects of its original scope live on in the refereed e-journal, Arachnet Electronic Journal of Virtual Culture (, which is published jointly by Marshall University and Kent State University. Available from the EJVL-L fileserver at: and on the World Wide Web at Marshall University: [cited February 20, 1996].

Marcia Tuttle, "Possible connection with SERIALST," [e-mail message to Birdie MacLennan and the Editorial Board of the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues] (October 5, 1991).

Birdie MacLennan, "SERIALST: Anniversary and Change," (October 21, 1991). Available from the SERIALST archives at: This announcement was adapted by Marcia Tuttle in the "From the Editor" section of the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues NS 13 (November 13, 1991). Available on the World Wide Web at: [cited February 18, 1996].

SERIALST Scope & Purpose document. (Op. cit., see note 25).

SERIALST Survey Summary. (Op cit., see note 3).

According to L-Soft International's List Owner's Manual for LISTSERV™version 1.8b, "'Spamming' is a network term invented to describe the act of cross-posting the same message to as many newsgroups and/or mailing lists as possible, whether or not the message is germane to the stated topic of the newsgroups or mailing lists that are being targeted." Available on the World Wide Web at: [cited March 1, 1996].

Birdie MacLennan, "SERIALST List Administrivia: Questions & Answers," (February 9, 1996). Available from the SERIALST archives at: [cited March 2, 1996].

SERIALST Survey Summary. (Op. cit., see note 3)

Excerpted from "Access to Electronic Information, Services, and Networks: an Interpretation of the LIBRARY BILL OF RIGHTS." This document was adopted by the American Library Association (ALA) Council on January 24, 1996. Available on the World Wide Web at: [cited March 3, 1996].

SERIALST Scope & Purpose document. (Op. cit., see note 25)

Subsequently, in 1994 and 1995, several other back issues and exchange forums emerged, including BACKSERV, BACKMED, DEU-L (Duplicate Exchange Union) in North America, and EUROBACK in Europe. A compilation of sources for "Back Issues & Exchange Services," is available on the World Wide Web at: [cited April 3, 1996].

SERIALST will become an Internet-only site before the end of 1996 as BITNET is in the process of being phased out. "Winding Down BITNET-NJE," BITNET News (Winter/Spring 1996): 4+

Rik Farrow, quoting Vinton Cerf in "Will Success Spoil the Internet?: The World's Biggest Network Struggles With Creeping Commercialism" Unix World (September 1991): 79-80.

The National Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Action (September 1993) is available on the World Wide Web at: [cited March 3, 1996].

Adapted from "The Role of the List Owner as Moderator," List Owner's Manual for LISTSERV™version 1.8b. Revision 2.1 (February 5, 1996): section 6.2: . Available on the World Wide Web at: [cited March 1, 1996].

SERIALST Scope & Purpose document. (Op. cit., see note 25).

Vicky Reich, Connie Brooks, Willy Cromwell, Scott Wicks, "Electronic Discussion Lists and Journals: A Guide for Technical Services Staff," Library Resources & Technical Services (LRTS) 39, no. 3 (July 1995): 303-319.

Ibid., p. 311.

Excerpts from the SERIALST moderators' "Letter to the Editor," Library Resources & Technical Services 40, no. 1 (January 1996): 102.

Eleanor Cook, "Results of Survey on Commercial Press Releases," ACQNET 5, no. 30 (September 30, 1995). Available by FTP from the ACQNET archives at: [cited March 4, 1996] and Marcia Tuttle, "Preliminary Results from Newsletter Survey," [personal e-mail to Birdie MacLennan] (March 5, 1996). Tuttle's survey was printed in "From the Editor," Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues, no. 156 (February 26, 1996). Available on the World Wide Web at: [cited April 3, 1996].

From the SERIALST Survey Summary. (Op. cit., see note 3).

Dianne Leong Man, "The Transformation of a Nation: The Impact of Politics and the Potential of Technology on Information Access in South Africa," Serials to the Tenth Power: Tradition, Technology, and Transformation: Proceedings of the North American Serials Interest Group, 10th Anniversary Conference, June 1-4, 1995, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, (Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, c1996); published simultaneously as The Serials Librarian 28, no. 1/4 (1996): 102-103.

SERIALST's WAIS-indexed archives are available by gopher at: gopher:// [cited March 10, 1996]. Because the WAIS index is manually, rather than dynamically, updated, this archive is not always current. The LDBASE search protocols offered by the LISTSERV software are dynamically updated and hence, always up-to-date. [Note, as of May 1997 the gopher archives are being phased out in favor of web based archives at:]

For a complete listing of SERIALST's fileserver contents, send an e-mail message to: that reads: get serialst filelist [cited March 11, 1996].

The address for the SERIALST World Wide Web site is: [cited March 11, 1996].

Willard McCarty, "HUMANIST: Lessons from a Global Electronic Seminar," Computers and the Humanities 26, no. 3 (June 1992): 217.

David L. Wilson, "Burden on Computers Causes Concern Over Internet Discussion Lists," The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 3, 1995): A34.


Final note: Online information about SERIALST, including instructions for subscribing and/or reviewing the archive of messages (which are open to anyone with Internet access), is available in the SERIALST Scope & Purpose document on the World Wide Web at: or by e-mail as a plain text/ASCII file from the SERIALST fileserver by sending an message to: that reads: GET SERIALST WELCOME.