Imagine, if you will, a reader who wants to learn something about the publication history of a book they’re reading, or have just purchased, or one that is being considered for purchase. (Maybe they are reviewing the book, or perhaps they’re interested in finding a cheaper used version online.) In the old-timey pre-internet days, there was no way to do this (unless you knew folks in publishing). Happily, a modern reader—at least a modern reader of science fiction, fantasy, and affiliated genres—can turn to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB).
As you may have guessed from the name, the ISFDB is a database focusing on speculative fiction, one that can be accessed via the internet. It is a remarkable resource to which I turn daily.
The ISFDB’s roots can be found in USENET, a now archaic decentralized worldwide distributed discussion system intended to be sufficiently robust enough that in the event of a global thermonuclear war, surviving users would still be able to exchange angry barbs about the latest Robert A. Heinlein novel even as deadly fallout collected in deep drifts around the furious posters. By its nature, however, USENET posts tend to be ephemeral. Thus, in the mid-1990s, Al von Ruff and the entity known as Ahasuerus created the web-based ISFDB.
Compared to, say, Wikipedia or the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, the ISFDB’s presentation may seem spartan. However, where SFE can be whimsical in topic selection and Wikipedia is obsessed with notability (hahaha), the ISFDB aims for comprehensiveness. While one hundred percent coverage of speculative fiction is likely impossible given the rate at which new works come out, the ISFDB does its best. Click on an entry for an author and find some lean biographic information, pennames, awards, novels, and short works, accompanied in many cases by their non-genre work as well. Individual works have their editions listed, with bibliographic details like publisher and cover art. Search for a publisher, and one can find lists of their output, organized by year.
To give some idea just how much information can be found at the ISFDB, some current stats are as follows: Authors listed: 216,901. Publications listed: 670695, comprised of 440,409 novels, 30,774 anthologies, 47,819 collections, 57854 magazines, 21,156 works of nonfiction, as well as other categories. The site also tracks nearly 90 awards, from major awards like the Hugo and Nebula, down to comparatively obscure awards like the Balrog, the Gandalf, and the Dragon. Those stats change on a daily basis; a small army of volunteers works diligently to keep up with speculative fiction and its affiliated genres.
Consequently, whenever I have a bibliographic question about an author or a work, ISFDB is my first stop. Occasionally one stumbles across something so obscure that not even the ISFDB has an entry … but the odds are that if the ISFDB has overlooked it, so has every competing source. In fact, I am so spoiled by the ISFDB that when I need to find similarly detailed data for non-genre works, I sometimes find myself momentarily angry that the field in question has a hole where a database comparable to the ISFDB should be (or that the analogous database is less informative than the ISFDB).
So, here’s to the ISFDB, your one-stop source of information bibliographical! At least for works speculative fictional.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviewsand Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.