Case Studies: DorothyL

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DorothyL: A Unique Community of Mystery Lovers

By Joseph Scarpato, Jr.
Originally Appeared In: The Mystery Review Magazine

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Every morning, some 3,000 people from 25 countries around the world get together to discuss their love of mysteries. They do not meet in a large convention center or spacious park but in a unique online community called DorothyL (as in Dorothy L. Sayers). They're writers, librarians, teachers, bookstore owners, editors, reviewers, and people from all walks of life. But mostly, they're avid readers of mysteries.

Each day, they download a digest (or receive separate e-mails) of messages from the previous day, generally somewhere between 50 and 75 messages per day. The topics ("threads") run the gamut from reviews of mystery books (or movies or television shows or short stories) to philosophical discussions of good and evil in the world.

In any given week, the range of topics can include what constitutes "elegant" writing, who has been nominated for the latest mystery awards and why they should or should not win, reasons for the dramatic rise in fictional female private eyes, and the ever-popular cozies versus hard-boileds versus police procedurals.

In addition, many of the authors on the list often share with subscribers how they're coming along with their new books, when they will be published, and at what bookstores their next signings will be. This is playfully termed BSP (Blatant Self Promotion) on the list and is not only tolerated but also encouraged by most subscribers, as long as it does not get out of hand and the author contributes more than just self-promotion.

Another feature of DorothyL is its sense of humor. Along with the reviews and the serious discussions about the mystery genre, you can almost always find something that makes you smile, if not laugh out loud. With the background of most subscribers, you would expect a lot of amusing plays on words, and you would not be disappointed. But there is also a lot of just plain wacky stuff as well, like the author who constantly changes the title and description of his latest book to reflect current threads. And the subscriber who reviews fictitious books whose plots tie together nearly all the threads of the previous week.

The combined knowledge of DorothyL subscribers is incredible. Almost any question about a mystery book, no matter how old the book or how esoteric the question, is almost always answered by someone on the list. The same holds true for almost any question on any topic.

How It Started

The DorothyL discussion list was created by two librarians, Diane Kovacs and Ann Okerson, at a July 1991 meeting in Washington, DC, of the Association of Research Libraries. Diane explains, "We were joking about how cool e-mail was and what we could do for fun and relaxation. We were torn between a ChocolateL (for chocolate lovers) list and DorothyL for mystery lit, both things we love. I set up DorothyL and Ann provided moral support but soon dropped out due to lack of time. I asked Kara Robinson, a reference librarian at Kent State where I used to work, if she was interested and she enthusiastically joined me in running the list. Since I began my own Internet training consulting business in 1993, Kara has been the list moderator and I've worked on the technical support and management side."

How did they get people to subscribe early on? According to Diane, they simply posted messages to several online lists and told their friends about it. The list has continued to grow ever since.

Copyright 1998, The Mystery Review

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