Libraries

Science Fiction Culture in Libraries

Harvard’s Houghton Library — that’s the one with all the serious historical archives — has acquired a mimeographed copy of the Star Trek Guide for writers. This booklet gives insight into how writers were expected to create scripts true to the spirit of the series. For example, Captain Kirk wouldn’t find an attractive crew member to hug in a moment of danger. (He wouldn’t?)

Science fiction culture, at both the professional and fannish level, has produced lots of ephemera, and a number of libraries have made efforts to collect it. SF Fans are a literate and verbose bunch and were engaging in long-distance written discussions before there was an Internet. “Zines” and “APAs” (amateur press associations) carrying news and debates were printed on acid-laden paper and started fading almost before they arrived in the mail.

The University of California at Riverside has an impressive fanzine collection, as do Bowling Green State University and the University of Iowa. With the poor physical quality of most of these publications, keeping them usable has been a challenge. Digitization is an obvious approach; it saves space, and digital copies can outlast deteriorating paper. However, the major digitization efforts so far have been personal ones rather than being backed by libraries. An article on the Duke University Digital Collections blog discusses some of the reasons. (It’s primarily discussing women’s zines rather than fannish ones, but the concerns are mostly the same.) There are copyright issues to deal with; most contributors don’t care about copyright, but libraries can’t just assume they don’t. Big-name authors participated in these fannish discussions, and they or their heirs might raise serious legal objections. Some zines may have been intended for private circulation only, and authors might not really want their 20-year-old story about a hot romance between a starship engineer and the food replicator available to the general public.

A more cautious approach is to make metadata about fannish publications available digitally. This avoids most copyright issues while making the publication a more secure part of history. Privacy issues could still be a problem, even if just titles and authors are given. As an example, I’ve put up a large number of MODS records about printed “filk music,” the folk music of science fiction and fantasy fans, available through the MASSFILC site. These are provided under a Creative Commons license, so any library or other organization can take, distribute, and process its own copy.

In the eighties, geographically distributed fannish discussions began moving to services like Compuserve and AOL, and later to the Internet. There were vast amounts of conversation, debate, and flaming on Usenet. Today discussions are often on proprietary websites, which create new challenges for archiving. A writer going by the name of Versaphile discusses some of the issues of archiving online fandom on the Transformative Works and Cultures website.

Technical, cultural, and legal issues all create challenges in archiving fannish culture, but with many people working at it, a lot has been preserved.

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