The Travelling Library
The seed materials for the Skirret Masonic Library were gathered for the websites of two Masonic lodges in Yokohama, Japan. The materials deal almost exclusively with the history of Masonry in Japan and the Far East, and the history of the two Yokohama lodges, Lodge Star in the East No. 640 (SC) and Far East Lodge No. 1 (JC).
Most of these materials were gathered from documents stored in the Yokohama Temple, from commemorative books and pamphlets, and from original written and photographic material. Facsimiles of nineteenth century newspapers stored in the Yokohama Archives of History were another source of valuable information.
The growth of this collection of Masonic records, papers and essays was stimulated by the acquisition of an immense library of Masonic material which, for want of a name, we shall call the Travelling Library.
The origins of the Travelling Library are unclear. The earliest materials appear to have been posted to CompuServe, Delphi, GEnie and other commercial information services (CIS), or to small dial-up Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) run by Masonic groups, and date back to the late ’80s or early ’90s. The provenance of essays from Masonic journals published in the early twentieth century cannot be established. Presumably someone, somewhere, digitised these essays and distributed them through CIS, Usenet, and BBS, and eventually through the WordWide Web (WWW).
At some point, attempts were made to collect this widely distributed material into a monolithic archive. This archive was passed from hand to hand, from BBS to BBS, from website to website. Along the way it grew exponentially.
The circumstances surrounding the acquisition of the Travelling Library are worth recording.
Approximately twenty years ago, the Travelling Library came into the hands of a Brother responsible for the creation and maintenance of his Grand Lodge’s website. This Brother was a practising Wiccan and made no secret of his beliefs. These beliefs came to the attention of an incoming Grand Master, who declared that Wicca was Satanism and then proceeded to defame the Brother at every opportunity. This antagonism ended in a threat of expulsion from Masonry. The maligned Brother demitted from his lodge before he could be expelled and waited patiently for succeeding Grand Masters to take a more enlightened stand on a Mason’s private and personal religious beliefs. Some of them expressed sympathy, but none of them countered the ruling that Wicca was Satanism and that neither should be allowed in Masonic lodges. [Read first-hand account]
Ostracised from mainstream Masonry in his own jurisdiction, the Brother moved the Travelling Library to a new website dedicated to discussion of both Wiccan and Masonic topics. Neither of these sections saw much activity, most of the messages being posted by the Brother himself and consisting of updates to his Masonic status.
Eventually the Brother decided to turn away from Masonry and gave notice that he would close down the Masonic section of his website. He warned that the Travelling Library archive would be deleted, and that any website members wishing to save Masonic materials should download them as soon as possible.
With the permission of the Brother, the webmaster of the Skirret downloaded the entire Travelling Library and then spent several months considering what to do with it.
A major obstacle to immediate use was formatting. The Brother’s website was a dynamic site run by a PHP-MySQL content management system (CMS). During the process of importation, the original Travelling Library files had been converted to a format compatible with the Brother’s CMS. The text of each file was deeply embedded in code that controlled the appearance of the text and links to other pages.
Even with the use of regular expressions and automated scripts, the removal of this extraneous code was a major undertaking. Some files were relatively easy to convert to HTML, but others had to be left as plain, unformatted text.
It is for this reason that the Travelling Library is now preserved as a separate section of the Skirret website. A few of the more interesting or important files have been fully formatted and moved to the main repository of Masonic papers. The remaining files—over a thousand of them—are being gradually formatted and categorised.
The original plan was to format and categorise all the Travelling Library files and integrate them into the Skirret Library. This plan had to be abandoned for three reasons.
Working through the Travelling Library, file by file, it became clear that some of the material was almost worthless. Some files deal with issues that are now irrelevant. Some are little more than illiterate and uninformed personal opinions or appalling Masonic doggerel penned for the newsletters of untraceable lodges. It would be a waste of time, and deleterious to the webmaster’s mental health, to spend time formatting such material.
Another problem is duplication. The Travelling Library contains large collections of back-issues of notable Masonic research journals. The quality of the material in these files is high, but the same files can be found on other websites (see Links page), though they are often badly formatted and poorly edited.
Finally, it has become clear that the system of categorisation adopted by the Skirret site is unworkable. To give an example, the back-issues of the excellent Builder magazine deserve a category of their own, but some of the finer articles might be better placed in categories reflecting the content, not the source.
Reverting to a CMS that supports tagging of files with unlimited keywords would be a solution to the problem of categorisation, but for the time being the Skirret site will remain a collection of static files—a nightmare to code and organise, but easily accessible to search engines and resilient to changes in Web standards.