Avoiding Kamino’s Fate: Archives, Archivists, and the Preservation of Works of Fandom

by Erin Lawrimore

JocastaNu“If an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist.” — Jocasta Nu, Jedi Archivist in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Within the fictional world of Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi arrived at the Jedi Archives seeking the location of the planet Kamino. Because vital, accurate information did not appear in the records of the archives, Nu declared Kamino’s absence from the archives meant Kamino’s non-existence.

But Kamino did exist; the archival records documenting its existence had been purposefully erased in order to keep it hidden from those conducting research.

Eventually, Obi-Wan found the planet — and the Clone Army being developed there. But the archives and Jocasta Nu failed him.

In non-Jedi, Earth-based archives, the absence of a particular community or group in the archival collection can lead researchers to make a similar determination. Historians and other archival researchers often work with the records that have been acquired by formal archival repositories. These records can  include letters, diaries, photographs, artifacts, websites, and other documents that contain and convey information. And archivists — those professionals tasked with acquisition of records for the archives — have not always collected widely.

Traditionally, the archival record focused primarily on the work of government along with “important” citizens (typically, white men in positions of power). In 1970, historian Howard Zinn addressed the Society of American Archivists, the oldest and largest association for professional archivists in North America, imploring them to “take the trouble to compile a whole new world of documentary material, about the lives, desires, needs, of ordinary people.” [1]

Many archivists in recent years have turned their collecting efforts to these “ordinary people” whose stories were not documented in the archives. Many of these more recent archiving efforts have focused on specific racial or ethnic groups or LGBTQ communities, often with a heavy focus in a particular location or geographical area. For instance, in 2011 the University of North Carolina at Greensboro launched its African American Institutional Memory Project, focusing  specifically on documenting the lives of African Americans who attended the school during the 1960s.

The stories of marginalized communities and subcultures, however, will remain hidden and can disappear from the historical record altogether without a significantly greater emphasis throughout the profession on preserving the records produced by these groups. The transitory nature of digital records commonly created today adds to the fragility of these stories.

The Records of Fan Communities

As with any subculture or community group, the disappearance of records in both digital and non-digital formats can impact (and has impacted) the history of fandom and fan communities. Unlike many social groups and communities documented by some archival repositories, fan communities, particularly in today’s world of social media and web forums, often are not tied to a specific location or geographic area. Additionally, they may be somewhat exclusionary and untrusting of those who are not expressed or accepted members of their particular community. Yet, as with many groups, their histories are often actively being maintained from within the community itself.

Archiving within the community helps ensure the materials are collected but may not always consider issues of long-term access or preservation.

Many fans have developed their own web-based archives to collect stories, recordings, writings, and other records documenting their subculture. These websites serve as a vital hub for the community’s memory, but they may not provide the level of long-term preservation that an archival institution can. Web hosting services open and close, and users are subjected to the hosting services rules and regulations. Hosting services or website creators can choose to shut down a site with little to no notice. The rise and fall of GeoCities web hosting service provides a clear example of the impermanence of the web. After 15 years of service, Yahoo’s GeoCities closed after a six-month notice in 2009 with at least 38 million user-built web pages. It was thanks to the efforts of web archiving services like the Internet Archive that those sites are available to view today. Similarly, LiveJournal, in an action now known as “Strikethrough ‘07,” deleted without warning many blogs on its site after a religious watchdog group reported that many NC-17 fansites were hosting illegal materials. [2]

Other digital records are also quite ephemeral in nature. Software and hardware obsolescence can quickly make digital records inaccessible. Simply buying a new computer might mean that older digital files are lost if the user chooses not to migrate them. A Wordstar document saved on a 5.25” floppy disc is not going to be easily accessed or read on a modern computer, but an archival institution may have the digital preservation skills and equipment necessary to rescue the data from the floppy disc and convert it into a readable format.

Audio-visual recordings similarly face a short life span. Cassette tapes, for instance, have a lifespan of approximately 10 to 30 years depending upon the quality of the cassette tape used, the manner in which it stored, the number of times the cassette has been played, and many other factors. Compact discs have a longer, but also finite, lifespan, with estimates of accessibility ranging between 50 and 200 years. Concert recordings originally created on cassette tapes, for instance, should be migrated to a digital format and onto a secure server — which, of course, then circles the preservation concern back to the obsolescence issue inherent in digital records.  

Paper-based records also do not last forever, although they are more likely than digital or audio-visual records to survive in an accessible state without explicit intervention.

The short-lived nature of paper records is particularly true with items that are were created to be used and useful for only a short period of time, as is the case with many of the records of fan communities. Many items collected by or produced by fans are printed on low-quality paper that is highly acidic, meaning the particular piece will be quicker to degrade than the higher-quality paper used in many professional publications. A flyer advertising a band’s performance at a local venue is only meant to last a short period of time; once the show is over, the flyer has served its purpose. Why would a promoter or band spend the extra money to print these ephemeral records on higher-quality paper? Yet when we want to study the history of that band or that musical venue, those flyers — if they have survived — can be absolutely vital to research.

Enter the Archivists

Archivists are professionals trained in the acquisition and management of records that have enduring value beyond their original purpose of creation. These records document people, places, and events which are necessary to remember in order to convey a rich and complete history. The archives in which these professionals work are often found in libraries at colleges and universities, but public libraries, historical societies, and other cultural heritage organizations often employ archivists and actively collect these types of records. In an archive, one can find a wide range of records, from print publications to personal correspondence to audiovisual recordings to websites. Because they work with large amounts of these types of records, archives often have the skills and equipment needed to access and preserve records stored in more challenging formats or on obsolete media.

Many archives and archivists are actively working with members of specific subcultures — including various fan communities — to ensure their histories are preserved for long-term memory and research. Some have developed programs solely focused on documenting specific fan groups. These programs work with the fan communities to ensure their records are preserved in a stable way. Sometimes the impetus for building the collection arises from within the archival institution, but often it represents a collaboration between the archives and community leaders who have already been (or see a need for) actively documenting their community history and productivity. Some archives focus on local fan communities, but others look more broadly, moving beyond geographical lines.

In some cases, the archivists themselves may be members of the fan community they are working to document.

Examples of archives focused on fan communities are as diverse as the communities themselves:

  • The University of Louisville Archives and Special Collections launched the Louisville Underground Music Archive (LUMA) project in 2013 to record the history of Louisville, Kentucky’s punk, indie, and hardcore music scene and its impact more broadly on popular music regionally, nationally, and internationally. LUMA’s ongoing work has been guided by archivists and academics as well as local musicians, record store owners, and record label owners who are vital in building connections within the local underground music community. This collection contains recordings, posters, t-shirts, set lists, and flyers, as well as business records and websites related to the Louisville music scene.
  • The Cushing Library at Texas A&M University has one of the largest science fiction and fantasy research collections in the world, including the papers of prominent science fiction and fantasy writers such as George R. R. Martin, Michael Moorcock, and Robert A. Howard. But the Cushing also actively preserves a variety of fanworks, including fanzines, fanvids, and filksong. The Sandy Hereld Collection  contains thousands of fanzines and newsletters from the 1960s to the 2000s, documenting fan production related to Doctor Who, Star Wars, Miami Vice, Starsky and Hutch, and many others. The Susan Frank Klingon Collection contains fanzines as well as filksong recordings and songbooks.
  • The University of Iowa Special Collections and University Archives also documents science fiction literature, television, and movie fandoms, including collections from fans of Farscape, Man from U.N.C.L.E., Highlander, and more. The James L. “Rusty” Hevelin Collection of Fanzines contains science fiction and pulp literature fanzines dating back to the 1930s. The archives also partners with the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) on the Fan Culture Preservation Project, which seeks to preserve non-digital fanworks, including printed zines, fan artwork, and convention materials. [3]
  • The Grateful Dead Archives is a more narrowly-scoped archival project at the University of California at Santa Cruz Special Collections Library. This project began with a donation of the band’s archives (business records, photographs, promotional materials, etc.), but quickly grew to include Grateful Dead-related content solicited directly from the fan community. The archives’ website encourages fans to digitize and upload their audio recordings, video recordings, and their written memories of the Grateful Dead directly to the archives. The archives and its website are also supported in large part by financial donations from the Grateful Dead fan community.

This is only a very small representation of the many fandom collections that can be found in archival repositories across the United States (and, of course, many more exist in other countries).

Beyond the Archives

Documenting any community within a formal archival repository, however, can be problematic. Quite often the materials being collected by one fan as a means of documenting the community were actually created by another fan or contain in part the work of another fan. The creator fan may not have intended for their work to be distributed outside of the fan community and may be opposed to the idea of an academic researcher being able to access this information through an archival repository. Some may have produced or published in fanzines anonymously or pseudonymously, only to have their name attached the work once it is donated to the archives.

The best of intentions in attempting to share information broadly and document a fan community may in fact infringe upon someone’s personal beliefs and desire for privacy.

Many archives and fan communities are now exploring a middle ground between fan-managed community archives and archives within a formal archival repository. Instead of managing the physical collection of records within the archival repository, archivists are working with the community members to support their ability to preserve and provide access to records that remain within the community members’ custody. The fan community is managing their own records, but the archivists are providing their professional guidance and support. Often the archival repository is providing access to the records in a mediated way or through digitization efforts. This management model is known within the archival profession as “post-custodial,” emphasizing the fact that the archivist is no longer seeking to gain physical custody of the materials.

The post-custodial concept was coined in the early 1980s, with archivist F. Gerald Ham introducing the phrase “post-custodial era” in as a solution to the ever-increasing number of records being created in the federal government. Ham argued that “although once valuable, our perception of ourselves as custodians has now become a deterrent to the effective management of the national record.” [4] But it was only in recent years, with the commonality of digitization and providing online access to reproductions of records physically held elsewhere, that the mindset really gained footing within archival practice in the United States.

Although still not widely practiced throughout the profession, many archivists who focus on documenting specific community groups now utilize the post-custodial model to ensure that these records are preserved and accessible while also keeping the original records themselves in the hands of the community members themselves. This practice not only

“addresses the ambivalence that many communities feel towards depositing their archives in formal heritage institutions, but it also avoids the need for professional archivists to make difficult and often upsetting decisions about what is worth depositing and preserving.” [5]

Don’t Be Kamino

A fan looking to ensure the long-term preservation of and access to their community’s work can take a number of routes to help preserve the community’s history. The Organization for Transformative Works and their Archive of Our Own serves as a repository for fanfiction, and a fan can create a collection on their site to serve as a central hub for collecting digital fanworks. Through their Fan Culture Preservation Project and collaboration with archivists at the University of Iowa, the OTW can also serve as a hub for transferring non-digital fanworks to a formal, physical repository that will preserve and provide access to the records long-term.

Fan communities with a specific geographic focus may also find assistance from local archival repositories, often found at colleges and universities, public libraries, or historical societies. The professional archivists at these repositories are able to provide guidance on donating the materials to the archives or in managing the records outside of the formal archival institution. The archivists will ask about the nature of the records themselves — how much material exists, are the records digital or not, are records still being actively produced by this community, etc. Working together, the archivist and the potential donor can determine the optimal course of action for being sure the records and the work of the community are preserved in the best way for all.

With the active work of the fan communities themselves, many records of fandom will continue to be transferred to archival repositories, and many archivists will continue to provide these physical records to researchers for their work in exploring historical contributions and impact of the fans in a multitude of ways. With a post-custodial mindset, the records of a fan community need not be transferred to an archival repository in order to be preserved and accessible. Regardless of the physical location of the original records themselves, the need for documentation in some way by someone is critical in order to ensure the continued history of these fan communities. If one does not ensure the community’s records are preserved and accessible, that fan community might see itself in the role of the Star Wars planet Kamino, with its existence erased and (nearly) impossible to find.


Erin Lawrimore has worked as an archivist in academic libraries since 2003. She’s currently the University Archivist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. When not talking about archives, she enjoys spending time with her corgis Franny and Jasper, volunteering with the Carolina Basset Hound Rescue, and collecting for what is likely the world’s largest collection of Battle Corgi original artwork.

Sources

[1] Howard Zinn, “Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest,” Midwestern Archivist 2:2 (1977), 25,  https://minds.wisconsin.edu/handle/1793/44118

[2] For more on Strikethrough ‘07 and the ways in which this impacted the documentation of fandom, see Lauren Seele, “How Archive of Our Own Revolutionized Fandom,” http://fanslashfic.com/2015/11/01/how-archive-of-our-own-revolutionized-fandom/

[3] An excellent look at the Hevelin Collection and the digitization work underway with it can be found in Jacob Brogan, “Dispatches from the Future’s Past,” http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2015/09/the_university_of_iowa_s_plan_to_digitize_the_hevelin_collection_of_fanzines.html

[4] F. Gerald Ham, “Archival Strategies for the Post-Custodial Era,” American Archivist 44 (Summer 1981), 207.

[5] Andrew Flinn, “Community Histories, Community Archives: Opportunities and Challenges,” Journal of the Society of Archivists 28:2 (October 2007), 168.

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Comments (3)

Equally important is the OTW funded “Fanlore” – a fan run wiki about media fandom that allows fans to preserve their history directly. This is a good example of the new hybrid model: fans are doing the creation and front line preservation with the Library of Congress agreeing to take the wiki into its collection for long term preservation: https://fanlore.dreamwidth.org/79151.html

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