Symposium

Silence in the library: Archives and the preservation of fannish history

Versaphile

New Jersey, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Archiving; Fan fiction

Versaphile. 2011. "Silence in the Library: Archives and the Preservation of Fannish History." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 6. doi:10.3983/twc.2011.0277.

[0.2] Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.

—Ray Bradbury

[1] Media fandom is an ephemeral culture, and online fandom even more so. A printed zine from the 1970s may last longer than a story published online in the last six months. In fact, continual changes in publication preference and fannish infrastructure have impacted the accessibility and permanence of fan fiction: zines may have a much lower initial circulation, but hard copies have a permanence that newsgroup posts, mailing-list e-mails, or blog posts may lack. Even as fandom as a whole has become more widely accepted and openly public, distribution patterns have moved away from public archives toward individual fan archiving, which allows writers to maintain greater control.

[2] For some, fandom is a private endeavor, and that very impermanence a desirable feature. But for those who seek to read and be read, to build on and be inspired by the collective history of fannish creativity, there is nothing so vital to authorial fandom's survival as the archive. Moreover, if we think of the fan community as a whole, and less of individual writers, losing our stories may indeed mean losing parts of our history.

[3] The nature of online archives has long reflected the environment and technology they occupy. In the following, I intend to give a brief overview of the main online interfaces fans have used to share their works and how these have affected authorial control, reader accessibility, and general permanence. In so doing, I suggest that privacy and customizability are often traded off in favor of general accessibility and permanence; while I clearly prefer the archival structure that will allow those coming after us to access the wealth of stories that media fandom has created through the decades, I also fully understand why some authors prefer to retain tight control over their writings.

[4] Media fannish production in the 1970s and 1980s, its initial two decades, was mostly shared via zines and amateur press associations (APAs). With the rise and expansion of the Internet, however, some migration from off-line fandom to online fandom became unavoidable. Online interaction allowed fans to connect without direct contact, bringing together international fans, younger fans, and fans who might have never encountered fandom had it not been for the Internet. One early home for media fandom was Usenet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usenet). First created in the early 1980s, Usenet newsgroups were completely public, and content was viewable by anyone who had online access. However, this was possibly the most ephemeral platform of all. Posts would expire within days or weeks, and it wasn't until 1995 that DejaNews (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Groups#Deja_News), now part of Google Groups (http://groups.google.com/), began the first service to retain newsgroup content. In this environment, the loss of fiction and discussion history was practically guaranteed, unless individuals made a purposeful and concerted effort to preserve them.

[5] The development of the World Wide Web provided the key platform for fan fiction archives. The mid-1990s saw the flowering of many major archives, such as The X-Files' Gossamer Project (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gossamer_Project), Star Trek's Trekiverse (http://trekiverse.us/), Doctor Who's Panopticon (defunct), and Due South's Hexwood (http://www.squidge.org/dsa/). Authors would post their stories to Usenet, including a header indicator about archive status (Archive: Yes; Archive: Gossamer, others ask, etc.), or submit them directly to the archivists. Archive volunteers would collect and format these stories, file them, and preserve them for viewing. Authors were able to decline archiving, or request removal of stories already archived, but most fiction was stored for as long as the archive was kept alive. Readers could easily find a wealth of stories, and there was little fragmentation within the fandom for a single source material.

[6] One downside of these large comprehensive fandom archives was the difficulty for the reader to find desired content without robust categorization and search. In fandoms where one pairing's popularity resulted in a flood of stories, fiction about other pairings and characters could easily be obscured. A high intake of new stories could obscure older ones. Poor search functionality might make it very difficult to find anything featuring a wanted character or quality. Moreover, as archivists lost interest in a specific fandom, left fandom altogether, or died, and as domains expired or Web servers needed to be moved, these single-fandom central archives were heavily impacted. Archives could lose their central archivists, making maintenance and other access impossible; archives might move to new hosts or reorganize their structure, thus breaking countless links; and central archives might disappear forever, devastating a fandom by taking years of history with it in one fell swoop. Examples of this include the Smallville Slash Archive, which was for several years without an archivist, meaning that writers lost any control over their stories; the Wolverine and Rogue Fanfiction Archive, which changed its internal infrastructure, thus making hundreds of outside links invalid; and the Pretender fan fiction archive, whose unexpected disappearance all but destroyed the fan community surrounding it.

[7] In the late 1990s, much of media fandom began a migration to a new environment: the custom mailing list. New services such as ONElist (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ONElist), Topica, and eGroups (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EGroups) appeared on the Web; these provided easy creation and maintenance of mailing lists, Web interfaces, list archives, and more. In comparison to Usenet, these services created spaces for fandom that were more private, more focused, and better preserved. However, the ease of creation also produced a great deal of audience fragmentation: while the new platform allowed for a more tailored fannish experience where a fan could focus on a list dedicated to a minor pairing or a particular story trope, the segmentation prevented a more common fannish consensus. Many mailing lists were perceived—not only to outsiders, but even to many inside observers—to cover the same interests. For fans, it often became necessary both to join multiple groups to keep up with new stories and to cross post to multiple groups to gain exposure. Many groups used privacy controls to block access to nonmembers, and membership could depend upon moderator approval. An example of a large fandom that never created a central fannish archive but instead archived by pairings, characters, interests, and tropes was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sonja Marie's Buffy the Vampire Slayer site was one of those attempting to index those archives, and even this has since closed.

[8] Most importantly in regard to fan fic, once stories had a "permanent" Web presence in list archives, many authors began to depend upon the list software to preserve their stories. It seemed reasonable to do so; but unlike newsgroups, a mailing list could be deleted at the whim of the administrator. Lists could also be abandoned, meaning that new members could not be approved to join in order to read the stories within. Private stories could not be linked from outside the group, and readers who followed private links were required to join groups simply to read a single story. And the greatest threat turned out to be that there was nothing permanent about the Web presence of even public list archives. Mailing-list services began to merge: ONElist lasted only two years before merging with eGroups in 1999; a year later, eGroups was bought by Yahoo (http://groups.yahoo.com/). Each merger and rename resulted in broken links and data loss. As a result, mailing-list fandom as a primary culture lasted a scant four years.

[9] At the same time that mailing lists were beginning to show weaknesses as a fannish platform, new Web technologies were making it easier to create Web-based archives. In reaction to the sheer size of centralized archives, it became common for satellite archives to spring up around them, focusing on particular characters, pairings, or themes. This was valuable for finding fan fic, but the smaller the archive, the greater the risk it could be abandoned by its maintainer. Archives small enough for one person to maintain lacked the support that a larger archive had, allowing transition of ownership or control. The WesleyFanFiction.Net archive (http://wesleyfanfiction.net/), for example, went down entirely in 2003, nearly taking hundreds of stories with it before the archive itself was rescued and moved to a new host. Unfortunately, for every archive's happy ending, countless others have vanished entirely. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel fandoms were especially hurt by this phenomenon, as those fandoms were served almost entirely by small, specialized archives through the late 1990s and early 2000s. Geocities (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GeoCities), which provided some of that early, easy-to-use Web software and hosting, vanished from the Web in 2009. Large-scale and organized efforts were made to preserve these older archives, but even so, much was lost.

[10] The advent of the next new medium, online journaling software, decimated mailing-list fandom. By 2001, waves of migration were bringing fandom to a new home: LiveJournal (http://www.livejournal.com/). Within LiveJournal, fans could maintain their own personal space, with as much or as little privacy for their content as they wished. Groups of fans could track each other's output by friending (http://www.livejournal.com/support/faqbrowse.bml?faqid=61) each other's journals; however, most authors posted their stories amid a flow of many other posts with other topics, personal or fannish or otherwise. LiveJournal communities (http://www.livejournal.com/support/faqbrowse.bml?faqcat=community) were created to provide a space for shared activity, such as fandom-specific discussion or story posting. However, it became common practice for authors to link back to their own journals rather than mirroring their stories in the community space, making those communities little more than collections of announcements, rather than any sort of central archive.

[11] As of 2011, LiveJournal still has no robust search function (http://www.livejournal.com/support/faqbrowse.bml?faqid=215), and the private nature of much journal content makes users wary of such a feature. Most journal content is blocked from Web spiders, so that even Google will return little in the way of relevant results. The memories function (http://www.livejournal.com/support/faqbrowse.bml?faqid=47) can be used to create an index of posts by content, but often the maintainers of communities do not use this feature or fail to keep indexing up to date. Entry tagging (http://www.livejournal.com/support/faqbrowse.bml?faqid=226), which allows users to tag stories to make them easier to find, became available in 2005. This was an improvement, but the architecture of LiveJournal continued to work against readers: they must know which journals to search, they must figure out which nonstandard, author-determined tag has been used to indicate stories, and they must hope that the stories are publicly viewable and not locked behind a privacy filter.

[12] And then there is the gravest blow LiveJournal has dealt to the preservation of fandom: at last, authors have full control over their own content. They can choose to hide it or delete it. They can rename their journals and break all links to their stories. They may even choose to delete their journals entirely, for privacy concerns or other reasons, as the journals often contain much private information along with the publicly published fan fic. This mixing of content compromises the longevity of every story on LiveJournal, because the needs of each type of content cannot all be met with one technology. Even fannish workarounds like newsletters, and bookmarking sites like Delicious (http://www.delicious.com), don't help if the stories actually have disappeared when journals are deleted or privatized, or names are changed.

[13] But isn't it fair for authors to have full control over their stories? Isn't it their content, and shouldn't it be theirs to control? No one argues that authors should not be able to decide whether their stories should be available to the public. Many have good reasons for taking their work down: they may hold jobs where the writing of certain material would not be considered acceptable; or they may wish to rewrite their stories as original fiction, removing references to characters they do not have the official rights to use. However, most self-hosted stories are lost because of simple neglect or disinterest. An author may no longer care about her older stories when she moves to a new fandom, or she may even forget about stories that were written years ago. Technological difficulties may make maintaining a personal archive too time-consuming or difficult. A central archive that is maintained by knowledgeable admins may be updated to work with changes in Internet and browser technology, but it is folly to expect every author to also be a Web site maintainer.

[14] The user-friendly technologies that create semipermanent spaces such as LiveJournal and mailing lists are rarely designed for technological longevity. In 10 years' time, who knows what will be compatible, what will be supported, and what will be archaic or even simply broken? LiveJournal itself may even vanish, as so many Web site communities have, because of lack of profitability or business changes. The fandom community cannot depend upon the kindness of corporations to maintain our platforms and tools. We must serve ourselves, and rely on each other, because we share the same collective values and goals, and because we seek to preserve our own culture and history.

[15] No technology is perfect, and nothing can stand alone against the rapid pace of change, with the possibilities of loss so great in the long term. A central archive must be well organized, well maintained, and easily searchable. Maintainers must understand the importance to the entire community so that they hand off responsibility to other maintainers if they cannot continue themselves. Backups must be kept with regularity and, where possible, mirrors on other hosts should be maintained. When a malicious hacker can erase an entire Web site in a moment, hard drives can fail, passwords can be lost, and maintainers can fall ill, it takes more than a single individual to ensure the stories we read today will still be around five years from now.

[16] Outside a central archive, it is important that authors be encouraged to archive their stories and not rely upon technology that is ever more fragile and impermanent. Automated archives, such as Archive of Our Own (http://archiveofourown.org) and those running eFiction archiving software (http://www.efiction.org/), allow authors to submit stories themselves, lightening or removing the burden of manual archiving. Automatic archives also allow authors the same level of control over their content that they would have on LiveJournal or on a personal archive, but without those platforms' vulnerabilities and obscurities. With a consistent repository for stories, recommendation sites and bookmarking services such as Delicious can be used to create targeted subsets of fan fic, just as themed miniarchives do, compensating for the findability problems that even the most well-indexed archives suffer.

[17] The health of authorial and fan fic–reading fandom is best served by strong central archives, and by a culture that recognizes the worth of archiving. Archives, of course, raise their own theoretical issues about quality control, not to mention their actual logistics: whoever runs the archive can impose control over what is permitted and what is deleted. After all, it is rare for admins to deny authors the right to edit or remove their own stories, but this is a power that can become very problematic indeed when archivists become curators, choosing to enforce quality and value judgments. And yet I want to argue that for the author, the endeavor is worthwhile: to archive a story is not just to surrender control of it; to archive a story is to contribute it to the memory of fandom, and make it available to those who enjoy the shared source material, whether it be a book or a film or a television series.

[18] Those who enter a fandom learn the culture of the fans through their fiction: the fanon explanations, the subtextual relationships that are made text, the rereading and rewriting of source texts into something nurtured and expanded upon. Those new participants who enter the fandom are inspired by what they read, learn from what they read, and build upon it, creating complex and ever-deepening interpretations that are shared with those who came before and after them. Creation of new narratives within the structure of fan fiction is arguably a primary lifeblood of media fandom. This is the importance of stories, and the importance of preservation, and of not allowing them to be swept away by the very technology that enables them to be enjoyed by so many.



Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC), ISSN 1941-2258, is an online-only Gold Open Access publication of the nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works copyrighted under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Contact the Editor with questions.