Wide Angle

The Race to Save Fanfiction History Before It’s Lost Forever

A massive fan project aims to make zines and other physical media available online—before it’s too late.

In a row of file cabinets, Darth Vader, Matt Smith as the Doctor, Kirk and Spock, and C-3PO pop up from open drawers.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Rawf8/Getty Images Plus, Lucasfilm, BBC, and Paramount Television.

Archive of Our Own is probably best known as the place to read fans’ carefully crafted Harry Potter prequels or Lord of the Rings stories millions of words long. But the fanfiction website also has a lesser known, though no less important mission: to save older fanfic that’s at risk of disappearing. A new initiative, the Fanzine Scan Hosting Project, aims to make fan stories and art from physical fanzines accessible through the archive, preserving pieces of history previously confined to university libraries, scattered eBay sales, and forgotten corners of attics.

Advertisement

The project is a collaboration with Zinedom, which has been scanning and privately archiving fanzines for many years. Morgan Dawn, the project’s organizer, says that the collaboration actually began with frustration directed at AO3. In 2012, Dawn had scanned a fanzine called Angel in the Dark, a 144-page novel based on crime drama The Professionals. But when paper documents are scanned, they do not come in easily editable formats, and converting them often introduces many errors that require extensive editing to fix. Not having the energy to do so, she linked out to a Google Drive containing the PDF file. But it was removed from AO3 in 2017, because the link itself was not a fan work.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The experience led to discussion among fans about the barriers to preserving fan history, including AO3’s format requirement and the fact that the responsibility primarily fell to older fans, the ones with the physical zines. Dawn launched the Zinedom project to begin to combat that, with a few volunteers beginning to convert, edit, and upload some of the zines where they had permission to do so.

Advertisement
Advertisement

“It went for about a year,” she said. But “logistically, for a small group of 20 to 30 people who weren’t organized, it just didn’t work.” She turned to Open Doors, another segment of AO3’s parent company, the Organization for Transformative Works, which is dedicated to saving “those fannish projects that might otherwise be lost due to lack of time, interest, or resources on the part of the current maintainer.” It took until this year for the collaboration to get off the ground.

[Read: The Plight of the Former Fanfiction Author]

Eskici, an Open Doors chairperson who prefers to go by her online handle while discussing her volunteering, says there were several factors in the delay. The collaboration was originally piloted and approved in 2019, but was delayed by the shutdown of Yahoo Groups, which had hosted a lot of fan-created content but would be deleting all archives within a few months, leading to a scramble by Open Doors to rescue as much as they could. “We were just in crisis mode,” said Eskici.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Over the last year or so, however, Open Doors’ Fan Culture Preservation Project has expanded, finally giving them room to launch the Fanzine Scan Hosting Project. So far, they’re making their way through the backlog of scans that Zinedom has already accumulated, which Dawn estimates is “a couple thousand.”

These came from various sources, with Dawn doing a lot of outreach herself simply by searching Facebook for names she came across in zines and making phone calls. Janet Quarton, a Scottish Star Trek zine publisher and preservationist, scanned about 500 zines herself in 2013. But even Zinedom’s digital collection is only a fragment of what’s out there. One Zinedom participant has a collection of around 8,000 physical zines from the Star Trek fandom alone, and digs out the appropriate copies if Dawn is contacted by someone looking to save something in particular.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Open Doors is now preparing to post on the archive those zines from Zinedom’s backlog which they already have permission to share. Some of these overlap with online zine archives that they’ve been previously importing, like the Kirk/Spock archive. But new requests and permissions have also been coming in since the announcement, and it will be an ongoing process, with volunteers working hard to convert and edit each individual zine.

Advertisement
Advertisement

That’s why, although it’s an expansion of previous work, Open Doors’ involvement is a big step forward in the accessibility of this era of fannish history. Both Open Doors and Zinedom have previously collaborated with university libraries, making some zine scans accessible to scholars, but these were restricted from the public—or at least, only available to those able to show up in person. Showing a broader audience that fanfiction has been around for decades is important to the people who made it.

Advertisement

“It means not being forgotten,” said Maggie Nowakowska, the co-editor of Geek Elders Speak, an anthology of essays by older women in fandom. (Nowakowska herself is 73.) One key reason for preserving and celebrating that history is the fact that so many of the franchises key to fandom history, like Star Trek and Star Wars, have a reputation of being for boys, whereas fanfic and fanzines have traditionally been a space dominated by women. “They don’t think we ever existed. They don’t know that women did all these things,” says Nowakowska.

Julie Bozza, an Australian fanzine author and publisher who volunteers with Open Doors, also emphasizes that preservation isn’t just about making sure the best fanfiction is available to readers. It’s about preserving the culture and history that got us to where we are now.

Advertisement
Advertisement

“It’s really interesting to get an idea of the big picture,” she said. “What tropes are being written about and why, at different times? How have things changed?” For instance, fanfiction has often been celebrated for its ability to give writers and readers a chance to explore their gender and sexuality. The terminology has changed, with words like “lemon” (denoting explicit sexual content) and even “slash” (denoting male-male relationships) falling out of favor. But knowing how and why they were used is important in understanding how same-sex relationships and women’s sexualities were even more policed than they are today.

Advertisement

At the same time, preservation can also demonstrate the sheer breadth of fanworks. Bozza shared some scans with me, which include a series of haiku inspired by ’80s sci-fi movie Buckaroo Banzai, for instance. “When you open a fanzine, you’ll see cartoons, you’ll see essays, you’ll see poetry, you’ll see snarky little comments, you’ll see letters of comment,” said Nowakowska. “And that’s a totally different experience than just reading one story.”

Advertisement

This is one disadvantage of hosting the works on AO3, where readers are more likely to run into stories by searching for specific tags than stumble onto them in an eclectic zine. Another is the fact that, although AO3 is preserving and hosting fanart from within the zines, stories are translated to the site’s usual text format, losing the original formatting, font, and so on. For creators who do want to keep that available, Dawn suggests adding their work to a collection hosted by the Internet Archive—but this has its own disadvantages, as it gives up control over future deletion or amendment.

Advertisement
Advertisement

[Read: Could the Internet Archive Go Out Like Napster?]

Despite some drawbacks, the zines hosted on AO3 are much more accessible, as they allow for readers to zoom in, enlarge the site, and use screen readers, all of which are impossible with direct scans. AO3 also allows creators to control how their zines are being shown to the world. For example, Open Doors will remove identifying information and publish the works anonymously, if that’s what a writer wants. Ultimately, having multiple methods available allows creators to archive in a format that best suits their needs and desires.

The Open Doors expansion comes at a crucial time for zine preservation. The earliest generations of fandom as we know it today were producing work in the ’60s and ’70s. “I hate to say it, but we’re dying off,” says Nowakowska. “And we don’t want this to be lost.”

Advertisement