10,000 zines and counting: a library's quest to save the history of fandom

The University of Iowa's fanzine collection is going digital before it falls apart

The University of Iowa is home to almost a century of fandom history. Its library's special collections house everything from 1920s "dime novel" reviews to T-shirts that were auctioned off in protest of the 2002 Farscape cancellation. In 2012, though, it acquired one of the most valuable resources yet: the library of James "Rusty" Hevelin, a lifelong science fiction superfan and prolific collector of books and fanzines dating back to the 1930s. Last year, the Hevelin Collection was chosen as the first target of the university's Fan Culture Preservation Project, a massive effort to digitize some of the most vulnerable and ephemeral pieces of science fiction history. Now, that effort is starting to take shape.

In July, UI digital project librarian Laura Hampton officially began the long process of archiving the Hevelin Collection. The library is partnering with the fan-run Organization for Transformative Works to collect more zines for eventual digital archival, but Hampton is currently focused on material from the 1930s to 1950s, spanning the rise of zines and the Golden Age of science fiction. The vast majority of the images will stay offline, but an accompanying Tumblr has given outsiders a peek into the roughly 10,000 zines that Hevelin donated — and into the communities that helped create science fiction as we know it, from fandom clashes to fan fiction.

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Three 1939 and 1940 issues of The Science Fiction Fan, produced with hectographic printing. (Hevelin Collection)

It's impossible to talk about the history of sci-fi, or modern popular fiction more generally, without talking about fandom. H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and many other seminal authors were shaped by and participated in fandom, whether through letters, early science fiction conventions, or fanzines. Zines were home to some of these writers' first stories; later in the 20th century, they were central to the rise of fan fiction. But for a variety of reasons, they were usually meant to circulate through a community, fade away, and fall apart.

Fanzines feel almost designed to resist archival. "Creators were working with what they had, often within pretty tight budgets, and producing fantastic images with relatively cheap materials," Hampton tells The Verge. Many of Hevelin's zines were hectographed — copied by pressing paper to an inked gelatin pad. The medium produced brilliant purples and blues that can still be seen in some of the illustrations. But it favored cheap, highly acidic paper, and images could fade within hours under direct light. "There are rusty staples, tape — all these material things that make a fanzine a fanzine are also what make them difficult to preserve." Each zine is photographed page by page as quickly as possible, supported by a specially designed cradle, until it can go back in storage.

"All these things that make a fanzine a fanzine are also what make them difficult to preserve."

A few hectographic images are showcased on Hampton's Hevelin Collection Tumblr. They're the epitome of bizarre 1930s pulp: a metal claw-handed giant bat (apparently) breathing fire on the Capitol Dome, a robed man being (again, apparently) attacked by an alien octopus while trying to inject something into the arm of a semi-nude woman. Other Tumblr posts are strikingly timeless, like illustrator Alva Rogers' 1940s covers for Lovecraft tribute zine The Acolyte. And some photos highlight the writing of early fandom, including snippets of short stories and nonfiction columns.

"One of the things that surprised me most about the fanzines is their personal nature," says Hampton. "While some editors primarily published fiction, so many of the fanzines are personal accounts of cons, events, reviews of other publications, reviews of pulps. There is a dialogue that emerges, between publications and across years."

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1940s covers for The Acolyte and Le Zombie, drawn by Alva Rogers and Dorothy Les Tina. (Hevelin Collection)

The 1930s was a foundational period in science fiction, and as communities tried to define what the genre stood for, that dialogue wasn't always friendly. The first World's Science Fiction Convention, held alongside the 1939 New York World's Fair, was also the site of a feud between two fan groups: the Queens Science Fiction Society and the rival Futurians. According to later accounts, their struggle for control culminated in an aggressive leafleting campaign and the banning of several prominent Futurians from the convention, including future award-winning author Frederik Pohl. (They showed up anyways, hobnobbing with attendees — including a teenage Ray Bradbury — outside the official venue.) The fight is referenced in one Hevelin Collection photo, which captures a con-goer's recollection of "a number of nasty things."

Digitizing the Hevelin Collection is a long-term project, but it's merely a part of the University of Iowa's whole fandom archive. And the archive itself captures only pieces of fandom history. Zines still exist, but future archivists will face the challenge of collecting stories, videos, podcasts, and art spread across hundreds of fan sites and larger repositories. They'll have to decide what to preserve and how to present it — the equivalent of fanzines' personal conversations might now take place in a LiveJournal comment section, or the reviews of a story on FanFiction.net.

Fandom itself has been dealing with these questions for years, and the Organization for Transformative Works runs its own fiction archive and fandom wiki. But libraries have to work with longer-term solutions in mind, ones that aren't dependent on outside hosting services or current computing platforms. "This is one of the central questions of the profession today, and answers are varied and ever-changing," says Hampton.

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The Science Fiction Fan's account of a Chicago fan convention in 1940. (Hevelin Collection)

Even with these limits, the Fan Culture Preservation Project is stopping a key part of fandom history from disappearing. But in doing so, it's using the zines in a way that their creators may never have envisioned or intended, and the effort hasn't sat well with everyone. As the project progresses to newer material, it will also shift into more sensitive territory. Where early zines might have published gossip and reviews, later ones circulated the first slash fiction — stories, often explicitly sexual, about romances between male characters.

"I don't want my fanzines included in any way," wrote one commenter on the Organization for Transformative Works' announcement post. "I keep in print those I want to keep available, and some have purposefully been taken out of print and allowed to quietly fade away. If I wanted them made public and accessible, I'd have done it."

"Post-internet authors have an understanding that their work will be found now. Pre-internet authors did not."

Practical concerns exist: an erotic fanfic author might not want to risk being outed to family or friends, and an author who fears copyright crackdowns might worry that companies will see the archives as a form of public distribution. But there's also more general discomfort with a niche hobby suddenly coming under academic or public scrutiny. "There is a vast difference between publishing to a fairly known community and having your work suddenly available to a very different community in both outlook and number," another commenter wrote. "Post-internet authors have an understanding that their work will be found now. Pre-internet authors did not."

Some of the complaints hinge on how accessible the zines will be. While the archives are being digitized, only small pieces like the Tumblr photos are being put online. A group of volunteers will transcribe the text and upload it into a searchable directory. If researchers want specific material, they can visit the library or request scans of limited portions, a standard archival practice. To some people, that's enough; to others, it's tantamount to letting someone photocopy and redistribute their zine.

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A 1946 story in San Francisco zine The Thing. (Hevelin Collection)

Hampton says that anyone who is uncomfortable with their work being digitized can contact the library, and they'll try to work out a solution. But she also says that there hasn't been much resistance to the project. She hopes that some creators might even want to make their zines publicly available, something the university is in a uniquely strong position to do.

And for every hesitant author or editor, there was one enthusiastic about the project. "Sure, I'm slightly embarrassed, in an amused way, by the zines I published up to 50 years ago," wrote a fan who said they'd seen at least one of their old zines in UI's library. "But I published them — typos, grammatical infelicities, naiveté, and all — for people who might enjoy them, and that still holds."