Not your average novel: Doug Dorst’s S. and all its loose parts

18081043574_a8ae6cd68e_oI attended the lectures held last week at MIT as part of their celebration of National Preservation Week and heard Jana Dambrogio and Ann Marie Willer speak about the very curious case of S., a 2013 novel conceived of by JJ Abrams and written by Doug Dorst that challenged MIT librarians to think in new ways about acquisition procedures, conservation treatment, collection processing, preservation, and reader experience. It brought librarians from separate departments together for valuable discussion, collaboration and experimentation.

How did one book do all that? Well, it wasn’t a typical novel. The title and the author are only listed on the outer slipcover. Once the slipcover is removed, the reader is left with a bound text called Ship of Theseus by one VM Straka.


Tucked here and there between the pages are postcards, letters and notes. Hand-drawn messages line the margins in an apparent dialogue between two characters.


Ok, a fascinating, immersive mystery – exciting for the reader! Definitely will be a hit with puzzle-obsessed MIT students! The acquisitions department decided to buy it. But when it arrived, it became clear that the procedures used in the preservation department wouldn’t work. Preservation librarians prepare new and repair damaged books, and at MIT, slipcases on new items are discarded, and items left in books (bookmarks, candy wrappers) are removed. They actually had to rescue the slipcover for S. from the recycle bin, and then check the bibliographic record to verify all the inserts were still present!

Librarians from the acquisitions, preservation, and collections departments met to work through some interesting questions:

  • should S. circulate? won’t the inserts get lost over time?
  • should we put S. in special collections in order to preserve it?
  • if it circulates, do we let the inserts go missing, then restore them in some way (create facsimiles?)
  • if we fabricate new inserts, is the book still original? [the Paradox of Theseus’s Ship: how many parts can you replace and still consider something an original? The presenters shared a youtube video that explains this philosophical paradox – pretty funny].
  • how do the authors’ intent figure into these decisions? what would they want?

The librarians then collaborated on an elegant experiment using three copies of S.

Copy 1 was put in the circulating stacks at Hayden Library. It circulated 15 times in 2 years. It was checked periodically; over time, the inserts moved to different locations in the book, but were not lost.

Copy 2 was conserved and shelved in closed stacks for reading room use only. The inserts were taken out of the book and archived in folders. In place of each insert was a withdrawal slip that the reader could use to request the insert.

Copy 3 was shelved in closed stacks, still in its original shrink wrap, unreadable.

A library employee was asked to read copy 1 and copy 2 and report back on the experience. She seemed to prefer reading the circulating copy; she found reading the limited access copy was “disappointing” and  felt “sterile” as she had to go to the archives desk and request each insert. Clearly, the decisions concerning collection processing and preservation have a decisive impact on readers’ experience. The presenters wrapped up with a really interesting question: are libraries even obligated to provide the immersive experience that these authors intended?  It probably depends on the library’s mission and its audience, but it was fascinating to hear how these librarians turned a difficult situation into an opportunity for experimentation.

A local public library was found which had purchased the book; MIT librarians were interested to see that they had put a property stamp on each insert and included a note in the book describing where each insert belonged. Even with the vigorous stamping, the copy was missing two inserts.

All images by Duncan under Creative Commons License BY-NC 2.0

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2 Responses to Not your average novel: Doug Dorst’s S. and all its loose parts

  1. Marie says:

    It’s exciting to know that books are still evolving into new shapes and formats.

  2. Pam says:

    What an interesting challenge. I had no idea librarians might be called upon to do this. Thanks.

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