What We Talk About When We Talk About Death

We never cease to be amused at Christians who can’t conceive of how we survive without their deity watching over us. Surely we’re fooling ourselves, living an ersatz form of religion without the trappings. Surely we can’t maintain a coherent form of ethics without the Yahweh Seal of Approval. Surely we don’t mean it.

Actually, we don’t. Doesn’t come up that often, really. Only when we encounter proselytizers at our front door. Or when Sully decides to start a campaign:

If I may intrude, and ask a question I do not mean to be loaded, just curious: I wonder what Kevin thinks happens to him when he dies? And how does he feel about that — not just emotionally but existentially? These questions can be addressed without talking of God. And yet they reveal something about what it is to be human.

We won’t presume to speak for Kevin Drum, and as a rule we resent Professional Atheists, so we won’t presume to speak for the Godless Cabal either, although we’ll show you the secret handshake if you buy us a pint. But to address Sully’s first question, here’s what happens when you die:

You cease to exist.

We know, we know — fucking waste of an advanced philosophy degree.

So let’s try the second question: How do we feel about that?

Same as we feel about gravity.

Wait — is that the emotional or existential answer?

Ummm… Both.

Thank you. And now, here’s Chet with the weather…

What? That’s not enough? Well, what were you expecting? Death is a fact of life. If you don’t buy into a conventional notion of an immortal soul, it’s not like there’s some theoretical vacuum that wants filling. If you don’t believe in ghosts, you’re not likely aching for some neo-ectoplasmic substitute. You just find something else to bother yourself about.

And besides: Souls are immortal.

Hank Jones, brother of Thad and Elvin, died last weekend. So did Ronnie James Dio. Depending on your iPod or radio station, you’ve been listening to tributes. You’ve been listening to their souls. Hank and Dio may have slipped the mortal coil, but their souls aren’t going anywhere. They’re in you.

For that matter, if you’re Christian, God is in you as well. Where else can he be? He sure ain’t Up There, so you’re all he’s got. We just hope you have one of the later versions, since he’s quite cranky in the original edition.

And here’s where we part company with Professional Atheists: We don’t necessarily think you’re deluded. (We’ll handle that judgment on a case-by-case basis.) In fact, you’re engaged in the most glorious and enduring act of imagination humanity has accomplished. To say “Man created God” both nails and misses the point: Yes. Yes, we did. And isn’t creation itself what we celebrate — what reveals the most — about being human?

So, back to the top: What happens when we die? If we’ve played it right, we live on in the lives we’ve touched. And so do you.


Bravo, Nojo!
I especially like your treatment of Sully’s emotional v. existential challenge. (What the ?) I also like your friendliness in hoping that believers are attuned to one of the later versions of the Ineffable.

Really, Nojo… 7:00 am and this is how you choose to start my day? Fuck… should have grabbed a donut on the way in to work… one with chocolate frosting… and sprinkles.

Anyway, I’ve spent sleepless nights agonizing over the terrible nothingness of eternity. Especially after my daughter was born, it just seemed horribly unfair, as I held that tiny creature in my arms, that the feelings I had for her would not survive my own body’s eventual demise. I’d like to believe, with Quevedo, that something of that love will live on:

Cerrar podrá mis ojos la postrera
Sombra que me llevare el blanco día,
Y podrá desatar esta alma mía
Hora, a su afán ansioso lisonjera;

Mas no de esotra parte en la ribera
Dejará la memoria, en donde ardía:
Nadar sabe mi llama el agua fría,
Y perder el respeto a ley severa.

Alma, a quien todo un Dios prisión ha sido,
Venas, que humor a tanto fuego han dado,
Médulas, que han gloriosamente ardido,

Su cuerpo dejará, no su cuidado;
Serán ceniza, mas tendrá sentido;
Polvo serán, mas polvo enamorado.*

But reason tells me it cannot be.

I’ll say one thing, though: when you seriously sit down and ponder the alternatives to oblivion… and I mean seriously ponder them, you realize they’re simply absurd.

I try to take comfort in this: when all is said and done, long after I’m gone, a fact remains: I will have existed, and I will have loved, and in some sense that span of my existence will itself exist eternally, as a few links in an eternal chain of time that drifts off un-endingly in both directions..

*The final shadow that will close my eyes
will in its darkness take me from white day
and instantly untie the soul from lies
and flattery of death, and find its way,
and yet my soul won’t leave its memory
of love there on the shore where it has burned:
my flame can swim cold water and has learned
to lose respect for laws’ severity.
My soul, whom a God made his prison of,
my veins, which a liquid humor fed to fire,
my marrows, which have gloriously flamed,
will leave their body, never their desire;
they will be ash but ash in feeling framed;
they will be dust but will be dust in love.

Is it just me or do you just love it when noje gets all philosophical? Don’t you just want to give him a big wet kiss and touch him in inappropriate ways?

Only a couple of thoughts. Unfortunately I have no idea who these people are whose deaths seem to have touched our noje’s heart and I’m sorry for that. Personally, I don’t think of souls. I think of work. If one makes music one has made it. It’s something one made. And there it is. Souls sounds a bit mystical. Like sin. One finds oneself in sin. Bit passive. Maybe that’s a distinction without a difference but I think of it as, say, Shakespeare (groans from the class) elbows deep in Lear but beginning to think there might be light at the end of the tunnel. But how to get rid of Poor Tom? Will has rather written himself into a corner. Fab character, and fun to act, but you don’t want him up the back mugging at the audience as Cordelia arrives from France? I know! Why doesn’t he jump off a cliff? But what About Gloucester? Damn! We need him for the final act. Well – kind of radical – but what if he pretends to jump off the cliff and takes Gloucester with him? So then Edgar can be himself and pretend to meet dad at the bottom. OMFG! That would be teh awesome, broheim! as Shakespeare might have reasoned to himself in his room above the wigmaker’s shop as he struggled to find a rhyme for brewski.

But kudos, big guy, for the disdaining of Sully. All I can imagine God wanting to ask him is why he dyed his beard that peculiar color.

I don’t understand heaven but wish I did. I wish I had faith but don’t. I’m quite envious of those who do. Seeing someone die up close was, I found, fairly liberating. I’m curious to try it myself. But that’ll come soon enough. Best heaven I know is in a pome by Ford Maddox Ford (there’s a sentence we’d all have been happier never to have to read) where he imagines it to be a village in the south of France where the poet spends his days drinking vermouth while he waits for his great love to arrive. When, eventually she does, in a red convertible, he takes her up the hill to the chateau to meet God. But, you see, the pome is about arrivals. And arriving, unless it’s Prague, is always thrilling. To reach a new town and not know where the post office is or how to buy vodka or/and dope is a lovely condition. Then one learns the ropes and the horizon narrows, say, to Minneapolis.

But heaven sounds to me like North Korea. You spend all your time rehearsing pageants for Dear Leader and then he doesn’t show up. And hell, I must say, sounds just ridiculous. I can imagine getting off the bus that took me there (being driven, I might add, by baked) and being met at the gate by some demon who’s all like horns and shit and going Dude! WTF?

I’m not convinced at all that God is our greatest creation. I’d be more inclined to go with Starlight Express (you knew that was coming) though he has been inspiration to many great works. And whether great works live or not is of not much interest to the author, I imagine. Shouldn’t think Bach gave it much thought. He was too busy trying to put dumplings on the table.

I haven’t met a ghost. I know people who claim they have. And I have a friend who prays for me. For which I’m gateful. And now I must go and price a new gas grill at Loewe’s. On which it would be an honor to char-broil a thick juicy steak for noje.


But heaven sounds to me like North Korea. You spend all your time rehearsing pageants for Dear Leader and then he doesn’t show up. And hell, I must say, sounds just ridiculous.

LOL, here’s Chris Hitchens making the same point:


I don’t buy into organized atheism anymore than I buy into organized religion. Seems quite silly to me.

As for the idea of death. I’ve never understood the fixation on birth and death (left over birth trauma?) To me what happens in between is much more important and what makes the whole birth/death moot.

@Benedick: @ManchuCandidate: @Serolf Divad: Why, I think you all are making the same essential point – and precisely the one that Noje teased out of Sully’s Silly. “What happens in between”, “I don’t think of souls, I think of work”, “seran ceniza, mas tendran sentido” – I especially like that one, because of the multiple entendimientos of “sentido” but juxtaposed with “tener” comes down to the essential: [it]makes sense (although the translation is a much more florid, and appropriate interpretation).

When I’m dead, I want people to say “Nabisco’s life made sense“. That is all.

ADD: My spanglaphone friends will, hopefully say “tenia sentido” and not “tuvo…” because, well, if I only made sense in some past perfect sense and don’t continue to do so, well then, mierda.

energy can neither be created or destroyed. it can only change form.
I think I remember that from some science class or other.


just got this:

One immediate directive to their family is to thin their pet brigade which is the purpose of this writing. We are looking for a good home for Oscar…a one year old, male, silver-dappled miniature dachshund. He’s pure bred though not registered. Not neutered and fully up to date on shots and flea/heartworm treatments.

Well stated, nojo. If I had ever paused long enough to form thoughts so coherent on the subject (which, although interesting, isn’t one I’ve spent any effort pondering), that’d be about my take on it too.

I’m also almost perpetually annoyed at the implicit assumption that someone who doesn’t believe in some bearded sky-dude (no offense, Stinquers, this isn’t aimed at any of you) simply can’t have any moral compass. As if morals were incomprehensible on a human level. I actually think it’s rather the opposite: morals are quite human, and it’s when you throw God into the equation that things can more easily get murky.

We don’t know what happens after we’re gone, which is why we have invented various beliefs, stories, and myths. Some we call “faith,” others we file under “questions.” Even people who have no faith in an organized religion often have very firm ideas about what happens when we’re gone.

Now that I’m in the third quarter of regulation time, I do wonder what will happen to my stuff. How many fishing rods and firearms will Son of RML need? (He has already snagged my prized Orvis 8’6″ 4 wt. fly rod, a fine small stream rod I dreamed of for several years before getting one, but I digress.) It’s been kind of fun to be able to outfit three people at a time for for camping, fishing or hunting, but I may be done with acquisition, and now will just repair, replace or reduce through attrition. On a more important front, we are trying to raise Son of RML to be a useful, well-rounded member of society, and a good man. He knows who he is and where he comes from, so he will not suffer from the sense of rootlessness that many Americans feel.

Faith comforts us here, but we won’t know what the next step is until we get there ourselves.


It’s like this:

Remember a billion years ago, when you weren’t around?

It’s like that.

Only later.

@FlyingChainSaw: I have a fossil from 330 million years ago that I found while deer hunting.

I assume it is in (or near) Asheville NC. that is where the mail came from.

@FlyingChainSaw: It’s an impression of a trunk of a tree-sized plant called Lepidodendron, which was found in what is now Mora County NM in the Pennsylvanian Era, approx. 300-320 million years ago. That part of northern New Mexico was out over by Isla de la baked way back then, when Atlanteans has flying cars . . . Those of you on FB can see it in my wall photos. The director of the Museum of Natural History here helped me identify it based on photos and the geology of the immediate area in which very old shale and even some coal are mixed in with the dominant Dakota Formation sandstone from about 65 million years ago.

The perception of time as a linear, inexorable progression through a series of then lost moments is just that, a perception, and not an attribute of the universe. Nothing ever ceases to exist, only our ability to perceive it ceases.

I have a rubber ducky here with me, I am looking at it, it exists, here. I move it to another room, it no longer exists here, but it still exists there. I destroy the ducky, it no longer exists now, but it still exists then. The limitation of time is no more or less real than the limitation of space. We are free to move on the spatial axes, but not on the temporal axis, but there is no reason to think that separation from something on the temporal axis negates its existence, any more than separation from something on a spatial axis negates its existence.

@Prommie: Fucking rubber duckies. How do they work?

Even though I’m a Christian and, as such, have not ruled out the possibility that there may be some form of existence for my soul or self after I shuffle off this mortal coil, I agree with you no-bearded-sky-god folks more than you might think. My faith has very little to do with any questions of eternal destinations/resolutions and is almost entirely centered on the way it enriches my life and spirit right here and now. I’m content not to have any answers about what may happen after life or if there is such a thing as heaven and hell. This seems like it should be everyone’s attitude, but obviously many religious people think you need to have answers to all this. But not only do I have no clue about such things, I don’t even want to know. In fact, I don’t think any person of faith is capable of knowing, no matter how fervently they pray, read the Bible, etc. If your faith is not about your life right now and how you make decisions or treat people, it seems like a pretty useless and petty thing…and very open to abuse, obviously.

The one annoyance I have with the attitude of a lot of athiests is the assumption that believing one ceases to exist after death is somehow more provable than believing one may continue to exist. They’re both beliefs. Whether your guiding principle is logic or a religious theology, both possibilities have to be taken on (wait for it) faith.

@Prommie: I don’t know. You see someone alive one minute then they’re dead. They haven’t gone anywhere else. Just their body has stopped functioning. But the change is palpable. I don’t think in terms of souls but it’s easy to see why one would. That canard about the body weighing less after death is just that, a canard.

@redmanlaw: Who knows?

@Capt Howdy: That’s only a day’s drive away. I’ll talk to what’shisname about it. The difficulty would be bringing another dog into the house without letting the pack meet him first. But I’ll think. The silver dapples are very pretty.


Heaven is a place,
A place where nothing,
Nothing ever happens.

I have been know to ask of the faithful, “why on earth would I ever want to go to a place where, by your own definition, I will hate everyone and no one I know or like will be there?”

@Benedick: Unfortunately I have no idea who these people are whose deaths seem to have touched our noje’s heart and I’m sorry for that.

You may substitute Lena Horne or Lynn Redgrave. Or for that matter, a departed critter. They have souls, too.

@Capt Howdy: That’s why South Park’s running gag is that all the interesting people go to Hell.


They have souls, too

I think its entirely possible that if such a thing as a sole exists theirs may be older than our own.

@Serolf Divad: alternatives to oblivion

That’s just it — it’s not oblivion. At least not immediately. Our lives are interrelated. We last, longer than regulation time. Sooner or later most of us do finally disappear, and even those who remain — say, Homer — are only good as long as the culture can sustain them.

It may not be a satisfying alternative to a classic immortal soul, for those who need one. But I’ll turn it on it’s head again and say that a classic immortal soul is a neat trick of imagination, and one of the lasting accomplishments of human creativity.

@Capt Howdy: There’s a phrase, “old soul,” that’s very useful. And whether it applies to a given critter depends on the critter.

But of course I’m using soul as metaphor, as an expression of life. We live in a world of souls.


well maybe.
I tend to think they may all be more evolved than us. to quote Ripley, “you dont see them fucking each other over for a goddamned percentage.”

@Prommie: I have a rubber ducky here with me, I am looking at it, it exists, here. I move it to another room, it no longer exists here, but it still exists there. I destroy the ducky, it no longer exists now, but it still exists then.

You’re using language to create a paradox where none inherently exists. I’ll see you in Seminar.

@Capt Howdy: Birds are certainly evil reptiles. I’m much more comfy around furry mammals.

you cannot destroy the rubber ducky. you can only change its form.

@Capt Howdy: It is not the ducky that bends, it is only yourself.

Actually, you can destroy the ducky. Kids do it all the time. You can also concoct a false paradox where the ducky isn’t destroyed. Or you can apply the Second Law of Thermodynamics to a situation where it’s not appropriate.

To wit: the energy contained within a rubber ducky is unaltering. But that’s not what we talk about when we talk about rubber duckies.


I love applying inappropriate laws.

as a fellow student of philosophy/religion, i can second that

and the great houdini, with his dying breath, told his mother, if there is a way, i’ll come back. tick tock tick tock.

on a more spiritual note, i have had the misfortune of holding the hands and the paws of much loved ones. it’s a very curious thing. they are dead, but they are there. then, they are not. they are remains.
i ponder, where did they go? it’s so obvious they went Somewhere.
and left their bodies behind.
faith has no effect on me—you can say curiosity is my religion.

once when I was quite small. not sure how small but still in grade school I was very sick and a strange thing happened. it may have been fever induced hallucinations but at one point, a point of which I have a piercingly sharp memory, I seemed to be leaving my body.
I was very VERY small. beyond microscopic. I was a tiny tiny point floating out of my body that seemed like a range of mountains laid out around me.
I floated around for a while at one point being high enough to see my entire body on the bed which seemed millions of miles to me at the time and then sort of floated home.
I have always wondered if that was the same experience people often describe in emergency rooms and such.

@Capt Howdy: it may have been fever induced hallucinations but at one point, a point of which I have a piercingly sharp memory, I seemed to be leaving my body.

Sure you weren’t listening to Pink Floyd?


I was about 6 or 7. even I wasnt that cool.

@Capt Howdy:
i’m a born skeptic i want to say HOGWASH, it was illness! drugs!
but your experience is so common and well documented it makes me say, hmmm. that’s why i leave all options open and know one thing for a fact about god, souls flying around and death. which is, i don’t know a damn thing.
though when i’m in the garden or looking at the fishies under water, i swear i hear the mormon tabernacle choir.

@Capt Howdy:

When I was a child, I had a fever.
My hands felt just like two balloons…

that was the right answer.

the fact is physics now tells us we are only aware of maybe 10% of the actual universe that surrounds us.
who the hell knows what the other 90% is.

@baked: OF COURSE MAN MADE UP GOD !!! jeesh.

But let me repeat, that’s not a criticism.

Nobody’s brought it up here, but I was prepared to use that to address the commonplace that the world would be a better place without religion. It would certainly be different, but not necessarily better. If religion is a creation of Man, so is any substitute, or lack of one — and we’re still left with human nature.

Or, to please Benedick, the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

I have read a lot on the subject over the years. partly because of that experience. but one thing I have never read was the “tiny” part.
that for me was the most profound part of the experience.

if it was fever it was very cool. I didnt really want to stop. also common or so I have read.

@baked: My point exactly: Who the hell knows? It’s beautiful that everyone’s on common ground with being totally clueless about it.

@Capt Howdy: 90% Dark matter/dark energy, right? Do I win a prize?

@flippin eck:

if you can define either the prize is yours.

@Capt Howdy: Yes. Also the bright light seen in the much discussed NDEs. I seem to remember reading that pilots saw the bright light when making sharp left hands turns. Like night hags of yore (the OH gets that off and on) they are produced by the brain going into business for itself and leaving the body behind. I feel the body itself and the ability to think, feel, and lose one’s hair miraculous enough for me.

what do you mean nobody brought it up…I BROUGHT IT UP.
i get no respect.

@flippin eck:
in honor of the 30th anniversary of bob marleys death the other day,
i say to you…ONE LOVE

@Capt Howdy:
such a great conversation…i’ve been awake since 1 a.m.
wish i was conscious.

the fact physics is starting to sound more “supernatural” every day.

infinite parallel universes, a universe for every possible outcome of every circumstance.
so somewhere there is a place where I am married with children. I dare you to get your mind around that.

@baked: My bad. Distracted by existential questions about rubber duckies.

just in case:
i’ll drive that bus like sandra bullock in Speed !!
no seatbelts for YOU !

no seatbelts for you either!

Well, there’s these guys, who invented the genre named after them; or, these other guys.

Oh. My. FSM.

If our little club does have some kind of psychic connenction, ya’ll have just proven it.

How else could ya’ll have know that I’ve spent the last three days watching Otherworld.

Click on the opening credits; I loved this show as a little kid–what a freakin’ trip!

@flippin eck: Just as mysterious as what happens after we die, is what happens that makes us “alive.” Consciousness, will, desire, what is this thing?

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
love, desire, and hate
I feel they have no portion in us,
after we pass the gate
They are not long, the days of wine and roses
out of a misty dream,
our path emerges, for a while, then vanishes, back into a dream.

Ernest Dowson, neglected poet, from his poems, we have “The days of wine and roses,” and “Gone with the wind.” Thats immortality, of a kind.

I am kicking myself for being so busy today. I missed a lot.

My feeling? In an infinite universe, we are always going to be in a reality where we exist.

@nojo: I have stated before my beliefs on the “natural morality,” which probably stems from our evolutionary descent from pack, group animals. We have an instinctive moral directive, be “good” to members of our group, but members of other groups, they don’t count.

We all, all of us, divide other people into “us” and “them.” We are “moral” with “us,” we are free from moral strictures with “them.”

“Them” is not just the opponents in a war, whether the war is between nations, or religions, those are the obvious cases, we also cast out those who break the rules within our groups, they also become “them.” Murderers lose their status as “us,” and become “them,” so we imprison or execute them.

All of the negative attributes of religion, they are not inherent in religion, they are inherent in our propensity to divide people into “Us,” members of our group, to whom we owe a moral duty, and “them,” to whom we owe no moral obligations.

We use many different criteria to define “us” and “them,” race, nationality, and religion. Skin color, language, culture. There is nothing particular about religion that causes war and division, if there were no religion, there would be just as much war and division, we would just use other identifying features to divide the world into “us” and “them.”

To me, the highest morality, is an attriibute of who you define as “us” and who you define as “them.” If you think every living human is one of “us,” thats the highest morality you can achieve. You will then include everyone in the group that you beleive you owe a moral duty of “goodness” towards.

To some extent, though religion is used as a defining trait to divide, it also, in many cases, has served to expand the definition of “us.”

nationalism, also, while it results in wars between nations, because members of one nation will regard their nation as “us” and other nations as “them,” also results in a larger group that defines itself as “us,” and reduces conflict within that one nation.

We can choose to define “us” as a family, a tribe, a nation, a religion, a skin color, a belief system, a culture.

All of these things are good things, because within any self-identified group, an “us,” there will be less conflict, less fighting, less savagery, more caring. The bigger the group, the “us,” whatever criteria is used to define it, the more good results within the group, but, there will always be the conflict with those outside the “us,” conflict with “them.” Within a religious group, there is much good in the moral treatment to others within the group, but, also, bad, when conflict arises with those outside the group.

I just cannot single out religion as the cause of conflict, religion is just one of many criteria people use to follow their evolutionary instinct to divide the world into us, our tribe, and them, not our tribe. Wipe religion off the earth, and people will fight just as much, using other criteria to take sides.

Only the absolute belief that all living persons are “us,” will result in the end of conflict. No exceptions. I quoted Whitman the other day, he said “defend the stupid and the crazy.” Several people said “I will not defend the stupid.” Using intelligence, as a way to define “us,” and “them.” Sorry, you have to let go of all distinctions, and love every living human being, or else, there will always be conflict, war, pain.

Its not natural to do this, it goes against our genetic inheritance, it takes discipline and thought and will, to always remember, every living human, is your brother and sister.

Nothing less will ever result in peace.

@Benedick: Personally, I don’t think of souls. I think of work.

So my shot at immortality rests on two godawful boring books on digitization? Fucking great. Luckily, I’m very cool with the idea of oblivion.

@Capt Howdy:

Or then there’s stuff like this, which is another example of the brain being *way* more complicated than we thought.

@Mistress Cynica: I miss card catalogues, I was shocked to hear they were being thrown in the dumpster, literally, years ago, but I suppose thats all over.

Here is what I know from legal research. It used to be, everyone used the “digests” to do legal research, people at west used to read every legal opinion, divide the subject of the opinion into categories according to an enormous categorization system, then synopsize what the case had to say on any particular topic. The various and multidinous synopses were collected under that topic, so you only had to look up the topic, and the categorization is very precise, once you found your topic, you would find hundreds of synopses of points made in hundreds of different cases on that one specific, narrowly defined topic. The “digests” were really like bound card catalogues, comprised of thousands of topic headings and references to any and every case that had anything to say about that topic.

Now comes computers, and electronic research. Now you have to come up with a boolean search algorithm to attempt to find all the cases that address your topic. Guess what, you will never know if your search was inclusive enough. There will always be unknown unknowns, stemming from your failure to include a particular term in your search criteria.

But here is the real shit of the new system, now, you have a list of cases that contain words matching your search criteria. Now what do you have to do?


Legal research is much more time consuming, under this new, shiny, amazing, technological model.

The old digests, the old card catalogues, contained the knowledge and judgment of people who read the works, and summarized them, so, you could read the summary, and feel fairly confident about what you could DISCARD. You had a filter, the people who created the catalogue, the digest, people who did the preliminary review, and you could be pretty sure they weeded out the dross, the irrelevant.

You do a term search on a computer, you get everything, the good, the bad, and the ugly, all you know is it mentioned your topic, and you have to read all of it, to weed out the good from the bad.

We have discarded all the huge amount of work performed by those whose job it used to be to categorize and systemetize knowledge, knowingly, with judgment and discernment, thats what the card catalogue had in it, an element of judgment and discernment in categorizing knowledge.

A term search on a computer just brings up a mass of shit, that you then have to supply all that labor of discernment and judgment to.

I think that shiny, neat cool tehcnology has resulted in the destruction of a great endeavour, that of those who used to attempt to categorize and systemetize.

Nope, I don’t like it. You kids, get off my lawn.

@Promnight: The West Key Number system was quite an ingenious form of categorization and controlled vocabulary searching. You can still do controlled vocabulary searches in digital library catalogues like OCLC, but only if you know how, which mostly only librarians do. What you really miss in searching online is the serendipity of collocation. Dewey and LC were designed to put items on similar topics near one another on the shelves so you might stumble upon them when going to get the book you already knew about.


Shephardizing cases electronically is awesome and quick and easy if you know all the librarian secret use of the headnote tricks, which I do, because I went to all the trainings in law school to pick up free Lexis and Westlaw swag and the free sandwiches. I spent my afternoon Shephardizing cases – I find it weirdly fun to see how the cases progress in various permutations and paths. That said, Cynica is right that there’s something magical about going to the stacks of a library…always my favorite part of being a student, the feeling when you were starting research for a new project or paper and piling up the books in front of you.

/okay, maybe I’m a freak – but I loved that feeling and miss that I can’t do it in that pure sense of learning something just for the sake of learning and having no real ulterior purpose for doing it.

@Mistress Cynica: One of my former creative partners was a steadfast supporter of card catalogs, and rued their incipient takeover by terminals. This would be mid-90s, of course.

@SanFranLefty: There were few things worse than Shepardizing with the books, except for going through county property or tax records in the pre-digital era. Days and days of going through huge, heavy, musty books filled with illegible handwriting. My head hurts just thinking about it.

@Mistress Cynica: Its far more than just the serendipity. There was real, valuable, time-saving work done by those who were categorizing. The fundamental difference, and I came of age just exactly between the two eras, and in my field, I am an expert researcher, its my job, and I was expert at the old way, and I am expert in the new way, and the difference is, it was easier under the old way to determine what was irrelevant, and discard it. Its a subtle difference, but it is not in whether either the new way or the old way would provide you with all the data you needed, the thing is, the new way, errs on the side of too much data, and under the new way, you, the user, spend more time reading sources only to find that they are not what you were looking for. Under the old way, the west people, the categorizers, they weeded out, now, you have to.

You do West digest research, your search result will tell you exactly where, on what page, your topic was discussed, and will tell you how it was disposed of. Now, all you know is it was discussed, you have to read the original source to see the disposition.

I’m saying, the thing those people did, reading the cases, and digesting the points within the categorization system, that work gave more value than just mere categorizing and making the information retreivable, it also organized what you retreived, in way that lessened your burden in reviewing what was retreived.

I think those people did a service more valuable than is recognized, it saved people time.

@Mistress Cynica: Shephardizing is a particular instance in which automation is an improvement. But really, simply automating what the prior system did, is not the same, shepherdizing was always only a simple system, it was the paper equivalent of the new system, in the old days, the only cases you had to read all the way through were the cases you found shepherdizing, because, like a term search, shepherds only told you it was mentioned, you had to read the case to see the particulars.

I am speaking of the digest system, which I think is an underappreciated achievement in managing information. And Card catalogues are underappreciated too, they contained far more information than they are given credit for.

@Promnight, Cyn, Lefty: Of course, once you do get a case on point, you can make a custom digest in westlaw and nail the shit out of the head of the pin you’re dancing on.

Since Navajo cases are not on westlaw, I had to do term searches and wade through a lot of crap on another online service for an employment law memo today. In addition to the US American-style law, there’s also tribal common and fundamental law, some of which goes by an English term such as “words are sacred” or “talking things out” and some of which is in Navajo, such as the term for putting things right after a wrong has been committed (“‘Nalyeeh’ depends on restitution, reparation, restoring harmony or replacing the loss or paying back.”)

Per tribal case law and statutes, Navajo common law is used to address any ambiguities in a tribal statute. I had a situation today where the plain language of the law says you can do something, but you would use NCL to address the ambiguity of when you can take that action. No wonder my brain hurt at the end of the day.

I can cite you a case which held that “and” means “or.”

@Mistress Cynica: That’s precisely what we are doing over here for the lotus eaters and the shiva shakers. Three decades of land titles, birth/death certificates and other important documents were as much affected by the civil war and shifting frontlines as were the people. And now that folks are trying to settle down, the only place to try and recover their identity and/or property is in someone’s musty basement where some fleeing civil servant tossed all that remained of the local registrar’s office.

Except where he or she didn’t. Those got torched, which really really sucks.

I’m trying to get an expert legal librarian/document recovery specialist over here to try and see if some of this can be scooped up, recovered and reordered and then digitized. The laws still require original documents, but at least if there is a good copy on file that would help.

Know anybody with NARA, Cyn?

@Nabisco: I do, actually. And one of my best friends is a library disaster recovery specialist. Shoot me an e-mail or a fb message and I’ll hook you up.

@Mistress Cynica: She doesn’t work on the east coast, does she? I met a couple of NARA geek-gods, pretty impressive what they managed to do with the Katrina wreckage. I’m trying to sell the idea on my end, first, but I’ll write you.

@Nabisco: She lives in Lexington, KY, has her office in Dallas, but obvsly travels all over. Another document/paper conservationist who does contract work for the same organization (Amigos Library Services) is based in Austin. The woman I knew at NARA is at their Maryland facility, but I haven’t talked to her for awhile. Amigos did work after Katrina, Rita, and the flood in Houston that destroyed the law library at UH.

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