Cataloguing Fandom – transcript of my interview with the Fansplaining podcast

The following is an excerpt of a transcript of an interview between myself and the Fansplaining podcast.  The interview is about my research into fan information behaviour and is featured in Episode 19 of the podcast, Cataloging Fandom.  The transcript in its entirety can be read on the Fansplaining blog.

WP_20150523_039-1p2e71j-1024x575

Fans collect… but they also catalogue.

 

Flourish Klink: Hi, Elizabeth!

Elizabeth Minkel: Hi, Flourish!

FK: And welcome to Fansplaining, the podcast by, for, and about fandom!

ELM: This is episode 19, Cataloging Fandom.

FK: And we’re gonna be talking to Ludi Price, who is a PhD student and a librarian and she’s working in information science and she’s going to talk about why fans are interesting in that arena.

ELM: Right, and we’re also going to take the opportunity to exorcise all of my lingering feelings about my master’s degree, which was in this realm.

FK: Oh, exOrcise, not exErcise! Exorcise.

ELM: Yeah, like a demonic possession.

FK: The power of Christ compels you kinda thing.

ELM: Yes. The power of Christ does compel me.

FK: Right.

ELM: Kinda thing. Cause I got a master’s degree in the digital humanities two years ago now, and that’s, at that university it was in the broader realm of information studies, which includes information science, librarians, archivists.

FK: All that good stuff.

ELM: Yeah it’s great stuff.

FK: So you have feelings about that.

ELM: Yeah, I have a lot of feelings about it. No spoilers.

FK: OK, should we just talk to Ludi then?

ELM: OK, um, and after we talk to Ludi we’ll read a couple of—we’ve been tagged in a few Tumblr posts recently and so we wanted to talk about one of them and we got an email that I think referenced, what episode was that where we talked with DestinationToast about yuri?

FK: It was several episodes ago.

ELM: Lord only knows. It was some time ago. So we got a thoughtful email about that so we can talk about that too.

FK: Alright, so, shall we talk to Ludi?

ELM: Let’s call her up!

FK: All right, let’s welcome Ludi Price onto the podcast!

ELM: Welcome!

f16fRVIK-22xf9tm-1024x768

Fandom at #citylis: Wolverine and Thor pinatas

Ludi Price: Hello! Thank you! Great to be here, I’m very flattered to actually be asked to come on here, because not many people know what I do or understand what I do, so yeah, it’s great to talk about it!

ELM: That’s a perfect setup for us to say “what do you do?”

LP: Ah, ok. I am many things, but part of what I do right now is I am a PhD student at City University London in Information Science. And I am actually researching the information behavior of fans. But at the same time I’m a librarian part-time. There’s kind of interconnections there. And of course I’ve also been a fan since I was a little girl.

FK: Information science—I understand, I think I understand what a librarian is at least on some level, but what is information science?

LP: Ah, OK. Actually this is a bit of a long story, because library and information science, the two disciplines, there’s a lot of overlap between them and they’re usually lumped together but they are slightly different. So I would say that information science is kind of the overarching discipline. So it’s the science of how we deal with, as human beings, information. So a lot of it is to do with the information chain, how do we create, find, seek and actually find, collate, disseminate, share, and organize information.

So it’s not actually a chain, a linear chain, it’s more like a cyclical chain, so we create, we organize, we share. Library science is kind of, I don’t want to say an offshoot of it because that’s disrespectful to librarians, but it’s, it’s the same but it’s to do with specific collections, basically. So in a library you will have a collection of some books. And then intertwined with that is the idea of documentation and documents themselves of which from my perspective you would consider fanworks as documents, and how are they collected and shared.

FK: OK so fanworks are documents, then what’s interesting about fans and the way that they deal with this stuff—it seems like everybody must, everybody encounters and deals with information, why are fans especially interesting in this way?

LP: Well, you’ve kind of hit the nail on the head because everyone in their everyday lives encounters information, from the books you read to even like bills and just general everyday things like that. Information science in itself as a discipline is more interested in kind of the more professional aspects of that, like how do certain groups deal with finding information. For example how do lawyers find information and what do they do with it. How do teachers deal with information. How do students deal with information.

And it’s only fairly recently that people have started to look into the more everyday aspects of information behavior. How do individuals deal with their own personal information, for example. And there’s also been kind of a movement towards how do people, I don’t know, people who are enthusiasts and hobbyists, how do they deal with information. Because a lot of what they do doesn’t have official channels or official sources, resources to gather information from. A lot of what they do they kind of document themselves and fandom is closely related from an information science point of view to the information behavior of hobbyists and collectors and enthusiasts and volunteers and things like that. Because they work outside of official channels and a lot of what they do is from their own kind of passion about or obsession, dare I say, with something. So yeah, there is kind of an interest in the more informal ways of sharing information in the information sciences. And fandom is a part of that that has been largely ignored, in fact almost totally ignored, and even though people are starting to pick up on that, that’s something that I’m interested in.

ELM: Yeah it’s funny because one thing that struck me a lot while I was doing my master’s was how much of the behavior that was being studied in terms of information organization or behavior seeking online was around academia.

LP: Mmhm.

ELM: And it did seem to me a huge oversight that everything I’ve always encountered in fandom seemed so much more exciting and richly organized and built as opposed to the stuff that we were studying.

FK: But, wait wait wait, actually it would be helpful to me if we could be concrete about what the stuff you’re studying is. Because I just heard a bunch about how people study, yeah, academics or whatever, but they ought to be studying hobbyists and maybe they’re beginning to, but what is the thing that you’re studying? Is it the way that people find fanfic or find fanvids or the way they bookmark them, or like… what is it?

LP: So I’ve taken on a humongous task of trying to research the whole information chain so everything from how fans find fanworks or whatever or information to do with their fandom all the way through organization of these works or whatever to actually how they share them with each other. So this is a really huge topic because no one has actually ever looked, to my knowledge no one has ever actually looked at the whole information/communication fans as fans do it, basically.

But obviously because of time and whatnot I’ve had to focus in on certain areas. So in my first year what I actually did was a literature review which was basically trying to synthesize the literatures of library and information science and fan studies and see if there was any kind of commonality or any research that overlapped on each other. So I’ve found out some stuff from that about how fans tend to go for informal information resources, how they come up with their own vocabularies, ontologies, taxonomies, things like that. They’re very generous with what they share and what they do.

FK: OK so just to make sure I understand, if you’re talking about, like, fans coming up with a vocabulary and taxonomy and stuff, so one thing you might be interested in would be like the Archive of our Own tagging system? Or vidders.net and the way vids are organized within that?

LP: Mm-hm! Yes yes.

FK: OK.

LP: Exactly. And that’s actually something that I’ve started to look at in my third year, which I’m in now,  I’m actually gonna do some social network analysis but not social networks—tag network analysis of Archive of our Own, Tumblr which I just want to give a shoutout right now to DestinationToast cause she’s really helped me with that, she’s come up with some awesome Python scripts to help me collect data from Tumblr which is really difficult to do.

ELM: That’s awesome.

LP: Thanks to her, she’s great! Also I’m looking at Etsy cause another thing I’m looking at is fans who are not entrepreneurs but are fans who sell their work as well. So yeah a lot of what I’m focusing on this year is tagging practices, classification practices, vocabularies, things like that.

FK: Sorry to have cut you off Elizabeth, because I just felt like I had so many questions and you already know what she’s talking about and I have no idea!

LP: (laughs) that’s fine, that’s fine! That’s cool.

ELM: I just wanted to throw academics under the bus—but you’re an academic so maybe I shouldn’t!

LP: (laughs) If you wanna go off record that is absolutely fine! (all laugh) I do not mind at all.

ELM: No it’s just like, I often felt like, you know, say you wanna study how people communicate and organize on Twitter for example, you have to pick a subgroup, you can’t just say you know. And it just felt like the default was to pick academic Twitter, which sometimes I just felt like it was a strange way to draw conclusions. I mean I just—you can see it, in fan studies more broadly, people will in a very social science way focus on a very small fan community and then draw some, I feel like a lot of times they don’t even draw bigger conclusions because they just observe. And you’re like, or like, I would get this in DH—that’s digital humanities, Flourish, just so you know.

FK: (sigh-laughs)

ELM: They’d be like “we studied an email group of 20 people, and 2 of them said this, and 4 of them said this.” And I’d be like, OK. I just—I, you know, I guess cause I was a journalist before and I’m a journalist after and during, I don’t know what this tells us. I don’t want to put you on the spot and make you defend academic study. So. (laughs) I can cut myself off.

FK: But you are a little bit. (Ludi laughs in background)

ELM: No! it sounds like you are, it sounds like you have a bigger scope though, or maybe that’s not true?

LP: To a certain extent. I think with anything in academia, especially with anything in LIS, Library and Information Science, the problem is that it’s such a huge area. Information as you said comes into all aspects of our lives and so by its very nature, if you’re studying it, you have to focus on a certain subset or group. It’s hard to make generalizations from all that.

ELM: Right.

FK: How much do you draw conclusions from, how much of this is about just observing behavior and how much is about improving practice in other areas, so like, learning lessons in one area and then applying those lessons to another? The reason I ask is when, since ebooks have become a thing that everybody does the way that, I really personally wish that ebooks were organized in a way that was a lot closer to fanfic archives. Right?

ELM: Mm.

LP: Yep, yep.

FK: Because fanfic archives are clearly superior at actually directing you to what you wanna—I mean like this is an opinion, but. And it sometimes is irritating when people talk about the “new developing area” of this and it’s like, yeah, there’s been a ton of you know, native online texts that have existed for years that have been in archives that have had this practice. So is some of that work about just like observing even if it’s a small community, a community that seems to have made an innovation or to have something working for it and then applying that to other areas?

LP: Yeah definitely. That is actually one of the aims of my thesis is to see how this work, all these findings can actually feed into the discipline of information science itself, or not the discipline but practical uses of it, basically. Can we harness information practices, the passion, the investment that fans have in organizing their works, which is not—it can be creative but it’s just a practical way of organizing your fanworks. And fans are brilliant at doing that. I might say that some, many, most of are even better than professionals at doing it.

ELM: Yeah!

LP: And (laughs) I really want to make library users and other librarians as excited about the work they do or the resources they’re accessing as fans are. I’m really lucky that actually my PhD supervisor is really supportive and she’s really into the whole fandom herself. She really inspired me because I never even, when I finished my masters I just thought I was gonna go on a library career path, librarian career path. And then she was like, Ah, you know, have you ever thought about doing a PhD? And I was like um, kind of no maybe? And she was like, well, have you ever thought of doing a PhD about how fans deal with information? And I was like say what? This is potentially a thing?! I was like yeah, okay! And luckily she helped me with my proposal and I was lucky enough to get funding for it, so that’s really cool.

And she was really into this idea of new forms of documentation and new forms of looking at works. And I think this is a time of, even though there’s a lot of cuts in the library and information professions, in England anyway probably where you are too, there’s a great push for innovation and a great push for library and I don’t know museum archives. The users of these and memory institutions to actually get involved in helping to organize and share and get people excited about collections. I don’t know if you’ve seen things like GalaxyZoo and the World Archives Projects and stuff like that, TranscribeBentham, these projects where they want people who are really excited, amateur historians and genealogists and things like that to actually come and look at the work, transcribe it, to tag it and stuff like this.

For the library and information professions this is a really exciting and amazing thing! It’s like, we can harness the passion of the public to actually come and do this stuff for us! And it’s like, this is not a new thing, fans have been doing this stuff for years. And they are just amazing at doing this stuff!

ELM: This is interesting to me and I’d be really curious to know, and I don’t want to go too deep in the weeds, but like, so TranscribeBentham is the like—TranscribeBentham, Flourish, is (laughs) is the—

LP: Sorry about this!

FK: (laughs) What’s funny about this is I actually know a great deal about both TranscribeBentham and the digital humanities but I will be the official person who doesn’t know things about things so you can explain them!

ELM: (sputters) No it’s just like we have to explain it for the listener—

FK: We do, we do!

ELM: (doubtful) You know a great deal about TranscribeBentham, really?

FK: Well, I had a long conversation with somebody about it actually when I was in London last, so that’s the only reason I know.

ELM: With someone who was involved?

LP: Oh really?

FK: No, somebody who’s in digital humanities, about it.

ELM: So Flourish, I won’t Benthamsplain to you, but for the listeners, (laughs) Jeremy Bentham is a—

FK: (giggling) Benthamsplain!

ELM: Spiritual founder of—

FK: A corpse.

ELM: —of UCL, he’s not the actual founder of UCL but he’s like the father of UCL, he’s a what, late nineteenth, late eighteenth century early nineteenth century philosopher?

FK: And now he’s a corpse.

ELM: —real chill, and so his body is in the—(Ludi laughing in the background) He was super chill though, that’s his thing, right? Like, and (laughs) he invented the panopticon? Yeah, his body is in the hall at UCL—

FK: But not the head!

ELM: The head is in the basement.

FK: Because people used to steal the head!

ELM: Actually I heard that it was too deformed to show now.

FK: (disappointed) Oh, really? I liked my idea better that people had, like stolen it.

ELM: Anyway.

LP: It’s a good idea!

ELM: As you know, OCR, text recognition software can’t handle handwritten text, particularly from way back in the day. So they have all of his archives so they created this project where it’ll be like fun for the public. I shouldn’t make, sound so flippant, some people enjoy it. Where they transcribe his letters piece by piece and tag it very lightly with XML, and then there’s someone who works on, like, cleaning up the work of the public.

And as far as I know most of it is done by like half a dozen individuals who are just very dedicated. One woman used to watch EastEnders every night and now she, (laughing) now she transcribes Bentham. Just like, fine! That’s cool! It’s interesting! But I, one thing that really struck me, at UCL I had no less than 150 lectures about this project in my various classes. Which was a little frustrating since we all had to take the same classes.

LP: I’m sorry. I’m sorry to bring it up.

ELM: I’m traumatized.

FK: There’s other projects like this too, right? Like the New York Public Library recently did a thing with menus, which also are hard to OCR.

ELM: Right, there are all of these image projects, even Google was trying to get people to tag their shit for them. The thing that really struck me though when I hear about things like TranscribeBentham, and this gets back to what we were just talking about—I kind of bristle at the, like, academic embrace of this unpaid labor. So they’d be like, in what you’re describing they’d be like “the public is gonna love this and we have a free source of doing this work that would take a billion hours and tons of resources that we just don’t have.” I thought that was a weird strategy to kind of, fall, rely on. It was being treated like this was a default thing that was just gonna happen.

In fandom it’s different because I think there’s a lot of interesting questions of unpaid labor in fandom, but like, it never would occur to me to say like, if I was like “oh can we all look through these Sherlock screencaps to see if we can like catalog X, Y and Z,” people would just do it, and you’d be like, of course I’m doing that, I love that, you know? And so that’s the tension and the difference and I’m wondering if you’d care to comment on that. Sorry that was long.

LP: That’s OK! Yeah it’s difficult obviously there’s a tension there. And you know, I was a member of World Archives Project for like three years, and I never saw it as unpaid labor cause it was fun, it was enjoyable, and it was something that I really liked to do, and yeah, I don’t know if there’s any easy answer to it.

FK: Well isn’t there also a question about who it’s benefiting? We all do things that are unpaid labor that make, sort of, the world nicer, right? This is one of the questions about sort of the quote “emotional labor” that people go through, like, when we’re in public, we hold doors for other people even if we don’t know them.

ELM: Is that emotional labor?

FK: I think some people would say it is.

ELM: Aw, it’s not that hard, guys. Who are complaining.

FK: But also when we, you know, like with our friends we share things, in order to make a—like in an office we all agree to do things. And so there’s a question of, like, it’s one thing for Google to ask people to tag things that are then going to benefit Google’s algorithms and benefit Google’s ability to make money off of stuff and it’s another thing to be like, “here is an archive, here are the letters of Jeremy Bentham, they are public, they are for the public’s use, and in order for everybody to get more use of them, which everybody has…”

ELM: I think Google having, like, working on their algorithm for image search is vastly more beneficial to the public.

FK: Yeah but it ultimately results in, Google owns that algorithm. It may be more beneficial for the public but Google still ultimately owns it and makes money off of it.

ELM: Flourish you know that their motto is “don’t be evil,” and so…

FK: Oh yeah, cause that’s enforceable.

LP: I think they got rid of that motto now.

ELM: (laughs) Cause they started buying robotics and weaponry facilities and—

FK: But you see what I’m saying right, because on the one hand it’s beneficial for the public to do that but on the other hand you’re literally giving value to a corporation that you don’t own any part of, whereas Jeremy Bentham’s letters are, I guess I don’t know for sure that this is the case but I assume that they are in a charitable situation, right.

ELM: Cause he was just so chill, right.

FK: Well, most university—

ELM: Right, cause they just own them. UCL has them. This kind of leads back to something that I wanted to, kinda carry along with the comparison between what you were talking about before, fans’ natural inclination to organize and desire to do this stuff, and trying to bring that into the realm of you know professional information organizers, librarians and information scientists.

I have to wonder if you see a tension there too because like, just like I’m saying with I can’t imagine that anyone would want to transcribe Jeremy Bentham’s letters—and I understand that there are people that are and I’m not meaning to disparage them actually, like, thank you for your labor or your passion which is not labor! I’ve had a lot of jobs where I’ve had to organize large amounts of information and I enjoy that in my, like, OCD quelling kind of way, but it’s nothing like the joy that I get in fandom organizing and seeing the way things are organized. And I wonder if you think that that’s something that’s like, that’s surmountable, or… does that make sense?

LP: Yeah it does, it makes a lot of sense. And the more I look at the subject the more I don’t know if it’s achievable. I mean, last year I actually did a talk about trying to harness that passion in your library users that fans have, and they were just like, “we don’t see people becoming that obsessed with what we have.” And someone said, “your users would need to have a huge investment in your collection, like fans have in their fandom.” And is it possible to kind of induce that in your users? When an academic library can’t even get their academics to tag the books in their library system catalog in the area of study that they are seriously invested in and hopefully passionate about? If academics can’t be bothered to do that…

FK: Does it, do you see any difference with genre fiction? Because something I definitely wondered about was, full disclosure the thing that bothers me in the ebook universe is romance novels of which, which I think are sort of the closest officially published thing to fanfic, I mean that’s how I see them.

LP: Yep.

FK: And I enjoy them for the same, for some of the same reasons that I enjoy fanfic, and so it really grates my cheese to not be able to find romance novels in the same way I find fanfic.

ELM: Grates your cheese, Flourish, wow.

FK: Grates my cheese. And I think that there’s a lot of other romance readers who feel the same way, and I know that because romance readers tend to create their own, like, incredibly complex libraries and have extreme ebook cataloging, like, for themselves, but I haven’t ever seen that for a community out in the public.

N294NJLF-25cstvp

Fandom stats – a way of looking at the tagging behaviours of fans on the internet

LP: Yeah, that kind of ties into some of the studies that have been done on hobbyist collectors and stuff like that. And a lot of what they do they do in a very insular world. The difference between the information behaviors of hobbyists and enthusiasts etc. etc. is that fans do it in a participatory way. They will organize and collect and classify and do all this stuff but they will share the fruits of their labor online and say, “this is up for grabs, you can copy this, you can use my vocabulary, whatever.”

Hobbyists don’t tend to do that. I mean they might do in a kind of physical meatspace club or something. But they don’t tend to do it in large scale, en masse movements like fans do. And what you’re saying about romance fiction and stuff like that, I’m sure there are a ton of people out there who have classified and made collections and stuff. But they don’t come together to share that. And I think probably some of the stuff that they are doing would be of great interest to publishers or the ebook creators or whatever.

And I think that this is where the intersection comes with what I’m doing with fans and what we’re saying about romance readers for example.

FK: You know it actually, while you were talking it occurred to me that maybe GoodReads is the closest thing that we have to that.

LP: Yep, yeah, I think you’re right.

FK: It doesn’t have the same robust tagging system but there are things people will make like, a collaborative list of every, here are all our favorite forced marriage romance novels. (Ludi laughs) and similarly Ravelry might be one of the few places where people who are hobbyists share information, in the knitting and crocheting and yarnmaking community.

LP: Mm.

FK: I’m sure it’s the exception that proves the rule, is what I’m saying.

ELM: The interesting question here though is, what is the aim of all this tagging? What is the aim of the way that you’re organizing? Like Amazon organizes their books in a way…

FK: It is a way.

ELM: That exists…

FK: There is some organizational principle.

ELM: They play at having all these deep subcategories like you know, like “#19 in African American-Football-Paranormal Romance.”

FK: That obviously mean nothing to people.

ELM: Which sounds like the most amazing story that I’m going to write right now. But you know, they don’t care—the question is the people doing the organizing, do they care about the person who needs to seek out this information. Like Amazon doesn’t give a fuck, right?

FK: But they should, right? Isn’t their business helping you find the thing you want to buy?

ELM: Not books. (laughs) But that’s fine. They don’t exist to sell books, Flourish! And I’ve been thinking a lot about this and maybe this is taking it too far afield, but I’ve been thinking about how fanfiction categorizes by emotions, right, and you can explicitly seek that out, so it’s a question of like… I think if you don’t understand that some people read looking for angst or hurt/comfort or fluff or whatever, whatever the equivalents would be in the professionally published world, then you’re not inclined to organize that way but maybe that’s what the person who’s seeking out the information wants, does that make sense?

FK: Right or like—

ELM: This is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about but I don’t know why I’m saying this right now.

LP: No no it’s really interesting cause I think fans are you know, they’re so into their little niche interests or kinks or whatever that fan tagging and fan classification is so highly granular, like it goes into really really specific details so you can find exactly what you want as easily and quickly as you want. And the marketing industry is not geared to that. Even though with the rise of the internet you are able to find, the internet better serves the long tail of what you want more easily, you can find really obscure stuff really easily, I think there’s still a tension with the marketing industry at large. They still kind of, it’s still broadcasting to the masses. You could have a potential really small but dedicated community that’s really heavily into this one product. And I’m not sure that many of them have quite grasped that yet. I don’t know, I’m just spitballing.

FK: This is interesting, it puts me in mind of the fact that Netflix recently made a statement that everybody in the entertainment industry is like “ohhhh!” about which is the same thing I’ve been saying for years, which is that gender and age are not good predictors of what you want to watch. Like, this seems like it should be obvious, right? Gender and age are not very good predictors of what you’re gonna want to watch, with the exception of if maybe you’re like a woman of childbearing age you’re more likely to watch instructional videos about baby care, but actually who knows, right?

ELM: Classic Netflix content.

FK: You could be a 16 year old boy who is like about to have a baby sister or brother, who knows?

ELM: Interesting example.

FK: Anyway, this is funny because it—it blows people’s minds still that this might be the case. That’s like the broadest possible categories.

LP: Yeah, it’s true.

FK: So do you think that library, do you think that libraries and the way that information is organized in there, do you think there are biases that come through from the commercial realm over into that realm?

LP: Oh definitely, definitely. I guess that goes without saying. You’ve gotta be, your books, your collection has gotta be used. You can’t just have books just sitting there or else they’ll just be a waste of space. So they get weeded if no one uses them, if they’re not in circulation. So yeah definitely. And that’s also part of what I’m interested in, is the fanwork as a collection. And as part of human culture, libraries themselves think of it as a throwaway culture. And there’s been a movement now to collect fanzines and have fanzine collections, but this is kind of, you know, the fanzine has had its heyday and it’s kind of trying to catch up with something that’s moved on so very vastly.

And so there are huge holes in libraries where fandom is concerned. And it’s a huge part of our human culture, you can’t deny that. Luckily, fans are doing a lot to preserve their own culture and I have an investment in it, so.

ELM: It sounds like there’s a disconnect though between—I feel like this is a theme we keep coming up against. Fans doing it themselves, we were just talking about this, the big episode about TV and film production, it just seems to be this gap between what the establishment is doing in any of these realms and what fans are mirroring but doing for themselves internally. Which is—or I just went on a rant about this about journalism, cause men keep writing stupid articles about fanfiction. Like, why aren’t fans doing it? But then it’s complicated.

FK: And then we have people like Ludi who are trying to bridge that gap, right?

LP: Yeah, for what it’s worth! Definitely. (laughs)

ELM: It’s worth a lot! So I don’t know, I feel like all three of us are in similar positions and I, I’m really tired right now. So I don’t know how you guys feel.

FK: I’m not tired right now, but.

ELM: Great, you had some coffee!

LP: Yes.

FK: You had coffee too, Ludi!

ELM: I haven’t had coffee yet. So one thing that I do see a lot these days, I think as fan studies gets more visibility—do you identify as a fan studies person?

LP: Not completely, I feel half and half. LIS and fan studies have widely divergent, like, backgrounds and methodologies, you just can’t—

ELM: Cause fan studies is usually, it’s social sciency, right?

LP: Yeah it’s more media and cultural studies, yeah.

ELM: OK. So that aside I think because it’s gotten so much more visibility recently I see a lot of younger people writing saying, realizing that this is like a viable thing now, yeah? —Flourish is waving at these metaphorical, or these imaginary young people.

FK: Yeah! They’re not imaginary, they’re real!

ELM: It’s exciting to think about, I am approaching what will be my 10 year college reunion, if I had known 10 years ago that this was something that I could have studied it might have changed everything, you know?

LP: Mmhm.

ELM: And so I’m wondering if you have any, like, advice or resources, I don’t wanna put you on the spot, but in terms of people beginning their academic journeys and wanting to take this stuff seriously, cause I see a lot of confusion.

LP: It’s a very kind of visceral question for me because I spent a lot of my life just feeling really unhappy with what I was doing and where I was going and then I, I just like, I was so fed up I was like “I want to be a librarian!” Because that’s what I wanted to be originally as a kid, right. So I went back to school and I did the master’s in Library Science and then I got a job as a librarian and then in the space of, the same week as getting the job the PhD proposal acceptance came through and I was like “Wow, I’m doing an information science PhD in fans!” And you know, I still can’t really get over that this is a thing. And if I’m doing this weird subject that I love so much, and I do love it despite sometimes feeling like I want to tear it apart, it’s possible, you know? It’s possible to do this if, I mean, a lot of it is luck and circumstance, I never would have gotten into it if I didn’t have a brilliant supervisor who is both a leader in her field, in the field of information science, and also is a fan herself.

But you know, if it’s something that you’re passionate about, if you’re a fan you go and do it, you write your fic, you make your vids, whatever, if you want to go into the academic area of fan studies it’s there, and if you’re passionate about it do what you do as a fan and go for it. Just try and do it, even if things are rubbish sometimes, sometimes you write crappy fic, but you love it, go for it!

ELM: That was a very positive ending!

FK: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Ludi, you’re like a little ray of sunshine!

LP: Aw, thank you, that’s really sweet!

FK: You really are.

LP: Thank you for having me, it’s been an awesome ride. (all laugh)

FK: Bye!

This post is an excerpt of a transcript originally published by the Fansplaining podcast on 10 April 2016 on their blog, Fansplaining.  The actual interview can be streamed and downloaded from SoundCloud. A version of this blog post was also published on the #citylis blog.

Share Share Share Share Share Share

Fan gatekeeping at the European Fan Cultures Conference 2015

12265901_1638553926425642_1106699948878328512_o

Yours truly at EFC15 (left), with Camila Monteiro (right).  (Source: Facebook).

Earlier this month I was thrilled to be present my research so far at the European Fan Cultures conference at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, made possible by the stellar organisation of Simone Driessen, Leonieke Bolderman, and Abby Waysdorf.  I was on Panel 2B, the ‘Fans as Gatekeepers’ track; and as it happens, that was pretty much exactly the title of my presentation, which was Fans as gatekeepers: The role of cult media fans in collecting, preserving and sharing fanworks.  This presentation summarised the research done for my doctoral thesis so far, particularly focusing on the results of a Delphi study conducted between February and September 2015.

I was initially nervous of presenting my findings, since my background, whilst it is the arts and humanities, is not specifically in fan studies, and my current focus is, as I have mentioned before on this blog, on Library and Information Science (LIS).  I therefore cannot pretend to be as familiar with the discipline of fan studies as those who study in the field, and presenting to those who do can be daunting.  I need not, however, have worried.  The conference included presentations from scholars that represented a wide range of backgrounds, from marketing to psychology to human geography.  There was a diversity of theories, methodologies, and practical applications that is rarely seen in other fields; and I think this speaks to the recent growth and huge potential in fan studies to embrace different disciplines – and vice versa.  The conference turned out to be a great space of researchers of different backgrounds to share ideas, find unexpected commonalities, and to broaden horizons by opening up one’s peers to possibilities and ways of working that they might not have previously entertained. Even the live tweeting reflected this:

All this helped to dissipate my initial anxiety, as I was pleasantly surprised to realise that there was a warm openness to these different approaches to fan studies, and that my own LIS approach to fan studies was received with interest.  Even the explanation of the Delphi study – that research method that no one has ever heard of and takes a million years to explain – was met without too much resistance!

Cornel Sandvoss (of Fans:  The Mirror of Consumption fame) gives a fascinating keynote.

Cornel Sandvoss (of Fans: The Mirror of Consumption fame) gives a fascinating keynote. (Source: Facebook)

I won’t go into too much detail regarding the presentation – if you’re so inclined, you can view the slides at this link: Fans as gatekeepers EFC15 (best-viewed when played).  To summarise both the presentation and the results of the Delphi study, consensus amongst panel members was surprisingly high, and, most gratifyingly, the majority of statements in which the highest confidence was placed was on those that regarded the information behaviour of fans.  This means that, amongst the study’s panel, there was an extremely high level of agreement about how fans collect, organise and disseminate fan-related information and fanworks.  It became clear, through these results, that information management, sharing and sourcing are all significant aspects of fan activity, but that it is so intrinsic to it that fans aren’t even aware of it as being ‘information work’.  This became clear during the question section of the presentation and in conversations afterwards, when audience members shared their own recognition of this being a part of fan practice, but not usually in a self-aware way.  This was heartening because it meant that this was an area of research that had little coverage and was worth further investigation.

Lastly, I wanted to add that I was amazed at how much overlap there was between my own research and the research of those present.  My own panel included presentations on fans as producers (produsers?) of user-generated content, and on the ‘fan press’ or fan journalism – all of which are concerns of LIS.  In a wider context, I was surprised to learn that more than one conference attendee had done past research on fan wikis, and that – put bluntly – I was not alone! Which is always a good feeling.

All in all, I can safely say that the conference was a fantastic experience, with a friendly, welcoming vibe and some great opportunities for networking.  Many thanks to the organisers for making this a such a super experience for a first-time presenter and early-career researcher.

(The abstract from the conference can be viewed here).

Share Share Share Share Share Share

“NSFW: Fanworks and the Library” at #citymash

Alison Pope brainstorms Matt Finch's #citymash session, 'Death & Burlesque'.

Alison Pope brainstorms Matt Finch‘s #citymash session, ‘Death & Burlesque’.

On Saturday I had the good fortune to present a talk at #citymash: Libraries & Technology Unconference, entitled “NSFW: Fanworks and the Library” (click the link to download the accompanying handout).  The unconference, held at the City University London Centre for Information Science, was an opportunity for librarians, information professionals, LIS students, and all people with an interest in technology and libraries to pitch their own sessions, share ideas, network and discover. The idea was to learn lots and do it in as fun and engaging a way as possible; and whilst there were some moments of panic (last minute presentations, potential room swaps, and unresponsive computer pod monitors!), I was blown away by the enthusiasm, creativity and intelligence of everyone present.  I was particularly impressed by the willingness of the #citylis Masters students themselves in leading their own sessions and bringing forward some great ideas, both innovative and practical.  A taster of some of the things encountered during the day: a 3D printing maker cart, comics and creativity in libraries, open source software implementation and grounded theory.  So – very eclectic, very fun and very mentally and intellectually challenging.  A fantastic cauldron of stimulating things!

I was a little nervous about my presentation, to be brutally honest.  Fandom in libraries is not very techy and I was concerned that it might not be what participants were expecting from the day.  Nevertheless, the audience were very enthusiastic and had some interesting ideas to put forward that I had not thought of before.  My hope was that, in presenting some of the concepts that I have been exploring in my research (on the information behaviour of cult media fans), my audience would see some ideas and make some connections that I hadn’t recognised before.  The talk provided to be really successful in this area, and I was furiously scribbling notes throughout the hour, trying to get down the fantastic insights that people were able to feed back to me.

Me delivering my talk on fandom in the library.

Me delivering my talk on fandom in the library, via Lyn Robinson.

The great thing about #citymash is that the conversation continued well after the event had ended (and even after the after-event drinks that stimulated further conversation afterwards).  The live tweeting of the event brought some great discussions together, and it was my pleasure to have a fascinating online discussion with Imperial College’s Andrew Preater, library innovator Owen Stephens, and LibraryThing founder Tim Spalding about the usefulness of fan tagging.  This helped me to further articulate some of my ideas about bringing the passion of fans into LIS.  Owen was kind enough to point out to me the Visitors & Residents approach put forward by JISC, which lays out a continuum of information user behaviours: from the visitor, who seeks information to satisfice, to the resident, who is a social information seeker who thrives in a community.  What interests me is: where does the fan fit into this?  Do they fit at all?  And how can the passion of fans be harnessed by information professionals and educators to improve the way we organise, share and create information?

I don’t know yet if there are any answers to this question, but I’m really happy to have had the chance to put those questions out there and get back some fantastic food-for-thought from an intelligent and inspiring group of people.

You can view a Storify of #citymash here.

Share Share Share Share Share Share

Fan info behaviour – Delphi findings update

In the interests of original research, I’ve removed the previous text of this post.

However, I would like to say that so far the findings have been really interesting, and that the Delphi panel’s responses seem to tending more to a consensus.  Fans may not be an homogeneous group, but it appears that there’s a lot they can agree on, especially where their information behaviour is concerned!

I’d like to thank my 31 participants for their amazingly in-depth responses, and for their patience in waiting for me to get Round 2 sent out.  They all went above and beyond the call of duty in sharing their lives as fans with me.

I hope to get Round 2 sent out some time next week, or the week after.  In the meantime, here’s a link to Mason & Robinson’s (2011) list of sources of inspiration for emerging artists and designers (pp. 167-176) – from my perspective, it’s interesting to compare the inspirations of artists to that of fans.  It brings to mind just how much fans also share with creators.

Share Share Share Share Share Share

Fan info behaviour – Delphi findings so far, part 1

Just over a week ago I closed the first round of my Delphi study on the information behaviour of fans – many thanks to the wonderful participants who responded and were so generous with their time and thoughts!

An update: I am currently going through the responses and putting them through a textual analysis.  I’ve broken down the responses into several themes and sub-themes, which should help me to formulate some general statements to give out to the participants for Round 2.

Of course all this needs refining, and I’m sure more details will come out of the woodwork after I’ve gone through the responses another half a dozen times.  In the meantime I’ll be keeping anyone who’s interested in the progress of the study informed via this blog, so watch this space! :)

Share Share Share Share Share Share

Fanfiction and self-publishing

*This blog post is in response to a lecture on publishing and the author, which was part of the #citylis Libraries and Publishing in the Information Age module (INM380).

If there was ever a poster child for self-publishing, fanfiction would probably be it.  One could talk for hours about how the internet has ‘democratised’ (self-) publishing and given everyone the potential to have a voice.  Not everyone has a voice, of course; but the digital divide is quite another issue and isn’t the object of this post.  What is the object is how the internet has given a certain sub-section (or subculture?) of the creative community – fans – a very loud voice.  Certainly, when one thinks back and remembers the days when self-publishing was relegated to those who could afford to have their work published by a so-called ‘vanity press’, and compares it to the situation nowadays – when online, indie publishers abound – it’s not so hard to believe that perhaps publishing has been democratised.

Lulu.com's logo.  Source: the-digital-reader.com

Lulu.com’s logo. Source: the-digital-reader.com

To recount a short, personal anecdote – when I was in secondary school, a girl in the class two years below mine got her book self-published.  It was a fantasy book, with a lovely cover, that she gave to the English teacher to read.  She must’ve been about 13 at the time; I’d just about finished my own first (terrible) novel that I knew would never get to see the light of day (thankfully, as it turns out).  I distinctly remember thinking how terribly unfair it was that she could have a book published just because her parents could afford it.  Nowadays, she probably would have joined the floods of authors and writers who use online self-publishing sites such as Lulu.

I hope you don’t think I’m taking pot shots at Lulu.  Lulu is a great tool for writers who want to get their work out there and who, more importantly, desire the legitimacy that a print book available on the market bestows.  But what Lulu can’t do is bestow fanfiction authors with the same privileges – at least not in theory. And what particularly interests me about self-publishing in the so-called Information Age is how it has affected the behaviour of fans, particularly fanficcers.

Some of the first people to migrate to the internet when it first went mainstream were fans (Jenkins, 2006).  The internet gave fans the opportunity to congregate in spaces in ways that were not possible in an analogue world.  It also gave them a place to share their creations – so-called fanworks – with a much larger audience than was previously achievable.  Years before blogging became the rage, FanFiction.net was providing a combined online self-publishing platform and repository for a small but growing number of fans.  It is now the biggest fanfiction website in the world.

As a repository and a digital distribution platform, FanFiction.net has been joined by other sites such as Archive of Our Own (AO3) and WattPad.  These sites allow amateur writers to share their fanfiction for free, even allowing the ability to add book covers in some cases.  This does not provide authors with the prestige of a physical object that the vanity presses may have provided; but the advantages are that you have complete control of your creation – from content organisation through in-built tagging and categorising systems; to the ability to access your readership directly via a comments system or private messaging; to the advantage of recruiting from your readership editors or, as they are known in fan circles, ‘beta-readers’.  And all this at the price of no more than simple registration.

Big Bang Press' logo.  Source: www.goodereader.com

Big Bang Press’ logo. Source: www.goodereader.com

Self-publishing of fanfiction has even moved onto social media platforms such as Tumblr and Twitter.  Indeed, it seems that fanfiction has never been more visible in its entire history.  One only needs to mention 50 Shades of Grey to give an example of fanfic that has subsequently been published and gone mainstream – though only after being completely stripped of all its references to the original work it was based on, The Twilight Saga.  And indie publishing houses, such as Big Bang Press, are actively and exclusively recruiting fanfic authors to write original works for them, knowing that some of the most popular of these authors already have a readership numbering in the hundreds, thousands, or even millions (Eddin, 2014).

But this is nothing strictly new.

Fanfic writers have been making the jump to ‘profic’ (or professional fiction) for decades now (Pugh, 2004).  What has changed is the way in which fanfic writers have a greater control over their creative output, the readiness with which they can find an outlet for their work, and the easiness with which one might find and maintain a readership.  Making the jump to profic is no longer the only way for a serious fanfic writer to gain a wide and influential audience.  Part of the success of 50 Shades of Grey was down to the lobbying and active engagement of the fans of the original fanfic, Master of the Universe – for instance, via GoodReads reviews and a mother’s social group, Divalysscious Moms, holding the launch party that got author E. L. James noticed by the traditional publishing industry. (Peckosie & Hill, in press; Souccar, 2014).

But what about fanfic writers who are serious writers and want to make a living from their craft without giving up their original creative vision?

If a fanfic writer is lucky, they may get to work with the producers of a franchise writing licensed novels for a general market (e.g. for the Star Trek novels and Star Wars expanded universe, etc.).  But these are written under tight controls and the author is always answerable to the satisfaction of the company it writes for (Pugh, 2004).

So what about actually self-publishing fanfiction?

Self-publishing fanfiction in print form is a controversial concept because if you make money from it, you are liable to receive a cease-and-desist letter from a company for making profit from characters that they own the rights to.  Via Lulu, I sell print copies of my fanfiction – but these books are not available on the general marketplace and I get no money for sales made.  However, in preparation for a talk on this subject, I became curious to find out whether there was any fanfic being sold on the marketplace, despite the legal issues.  So I went onto Amazon, and typed in ‘Rogue and Gambit’ (my ‘fan ship‘ or OTP).  I was quickly able to find a book for sale, which, incidentally, appeared to have been self-published through Lulu.  I was curious.  So I bought the book.

The next morning, thanks to Amazon Prime, the book was in my hands.  In it were collected short stories, using a wide variety of characters from the Marvel and DC franchises.  No copyright disclaimer was given – copyright was, in fact, claimed by the author herself.  I was rather shocked by the blatant disregard for licensing laws; but it made me think.  If it’s so easy to fly under the radar like this, how many others are getting away with making money off the intellectual property of others?  Does this make even more of a case for the fact that our copyright laws are horribly outdated? (My personal opinion: YES).  Should these self-publishing houses and platforms have a duty of care to vet this stuff before it gets published?  And lastly, on a related tangent – in the middle of the 50 Shades of Grey furore over inaccurate depictions of BDSM – do publishing houses in general have laxer sensibilities towards fanfic that has been adapted into profic, than they do towards ‘regular’ fiction?  Is the bar to quality set higher or lower?  Or, indeed, does it even matter?

References

  • Eddin, R. (2014).  Publishers are warming to fan fiction, but can it go mainstream? WIRED [online]. Available at: http://www.wired.com/2014/02/fanfic-and-publishers/ [Accessed 12 February 2015].
  • Jenkins, H. (2006). Fans, bloggers and gamers: exploring participatory culture.  New York: New York University Press.
  • Peckosie, J., & Hill, H. (in press).  Beyond traditional publishing models: An examination of the relationships between authors, readers, and publishers.  Journal of Documentation 71 (3). (Accepted for publication 29 July 2014).
  • Pugh, S. (2004).  The democratic genre : fan fiction in a literary context.  Bridgend : Seren.
  • Souccar, M. K. (2013).  Divalysscious Moms: Killer maternal instincts.  Crain’s New York Business [online].  Available at: http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20130127/MEDIA_ENTERTAINMENT/301279982/divalysscious-moms-killer-maternal-instincts [Accessed 19 February 2015].
Share Share Share Share Share Share

The future of documents and immersive literacy

On Tuesday 21st October  I went to the Internet Librarian International ’14 conference, and in between talking to everyone’s favourite information scientist superheroine (Batgirl, in case you’re wondering), I was proud to have a front row seat during the keynote speech my PhD supervisor, Lyn Robinson, gave for the Content Innovation track.

As some of you who read this blog may know, I am interested in the myriad ways in which documents can be instantiated, and the changing face of what we call ‘documents’ today.  We are living in an era where the document, and what it is, is becoming increasingly blurred.  Not everyone defines documents in the same way, but the so-called Information Age has made that task of defining a decidedly slippery thing – more so than usual, perhaps.  With our e-books, iTunes playlists, Tumblr reclists, Wiki databases, Powerpoint slides, Twitter feeds and so on – we are inundated by documents on all sides, much of it merely the detritus of the mundane routine of our everyday lives.  You might think your Tweets are unimportant and throw-away – but they’re important enough for the Library of Congress to archive, and you can request your archive if you’re desperate to read back on the minutiae of your life in the Tweetosphere.

My point is, the fluid, dynamic, sometimes ephemeral digital document is here to stay, and in the last 2 decades or so it has completely radicalised the way we view documents themselves.  In many ways, the library and information profession is only just beginning to feel its way round actually dealing with the issues presented by digital documents.  Many of these issues are driven by the rapid progress of technology itself, which requires a constant race with Moore’s Law, and a never-ending battle with thorny problems such as migration and emulation.

But what happens when the digital becomes passée?  When it becomes to us what books are now, or codices and papyri to the ancients?  What happens when the next big revolution in documentation comes along?

Lyn Robinson’s talk might give us some pause for thought, because it implied that that ‘next big thing’ was already here – or at least, it is lurking round the next corner.  What is this next big thing?  It’s the immersive document, and whilst it doesn’t exist yet – not entirely – in her talk Lyn gave examples in her talk of technologies that are already being developed to allow us to smell, taste and touch through wearable digital devices which are, as yet, far from perfect, but which may in future change how we experience reality and fill our leisure time.

Now this is interesting to me because as humans we are perennially attracted to this idea of unreality.  According to Lyn’s presentation, there are three aspects of our lives that we as humans feel drawn to document: our dreams, our fantasies, our memories.  From our ancient myths and legends, to folklore, to the fiction we read and the movies we watch, our innate desire to be drawn into the unreal has always existed, tied unequivocally to our need for escapism, for wonderment, for ways in which to creatively make sense of our inner and outer worlds.  In a couple of previous posts, I talked about the immersive Punchdrunk production The Drowned Man (here and here; third part still forthcoming).  This show interested me because it seemed to me to be as close to an immersive ‘virtual world’ as we could get to in an analogue, non-digital format.  Its set was literally the stage for ‘another world’ where audience members strove to discover the stories of that world’s inhabitants – an impossible task since these characters lived lives whose strands could not be followed in their entirety, just as we are unable to experience the lives of those around us.  What interested me was the documentation of The Drowned Man (or lack of it), and that the fans of the show would congregate online to try and fill in the gaps by providing documentation of their own.  They tried to rebuild the lives of the characters by collaboratively piecing together their knowledge through what they had seen in the show.

But what if you could create an immersive record of a show?  What if you could relive the life of a character by putting on the proverbial 3D headset and experiencing all the sensations they experience, thinking all their thoughts and feeling all their emotions?  What if you could experience the lives of the real life people around you, not just the lives of a character in a play or a book?

This is nothing new, of course.  Popular and literary culture have been playing with this idea for at least a century.  More recent entertainment media have not only exploited the trope of immersive documentation, but have looked at it in ways that might become more relevant in the future, when and if such technology comes into being.  For example, the Dennis Potter TV play, Cold Lazarus (1996), analyses the ethical dilemmas associated with the recording and sharing of ones own memories.  Set in a dystopian Britain of the 2300’s, a media corporation seeks to televise the memories of a 20th century writer, Daniel Feeld, whose head was preserved at death.  The moral dilemma is made even more acute by the revival of the writer’s consciousness, and his awareness of the predicament he now finds himself in.  There is also an interesting play on the fact that the viewer can never be quite sure how true Feeld’s memories really are, as he was in life a temperamental, creative artiste.

coldlazarus5

Still from Cold Lazarus (1996). Source: Deeper Into Movies

Then, in 2001, the first fully computer-generated movie, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, was released.  Based on a popular series of videogames, the film kept true to its fantastical roots with its convoluted and unbelievable plot.  But what is interesting about the story is that much of it hinges upon the dreams of the main protagonist, Aki Ross, who appears to have been ‘infected’ by an alien species that is threatening the planet.  Thinking that her dreams might give her a clue to beating the aliens, Aki records her dreams every night, but when those recordings find their way into the wrong hands, Aki finds herself on the run.

Then there’s Remember Me, a 2013 videogame that is set in a future where people upload their memories to the cloud via an implant called the Sensen, which means that essentially your memories are no longer owned exclusively by you, but by the corporation that owns Sensen, Memorize.  The game’s protagonist, Nilin, is one of a small number of people called ‘Errorists’ who are able to hack into the net and remix other people’s memories – distort, add to, or erase them.  In order to complete the game, the story involves Nilin having to remix the memories of certain people in order to restore her own lost memories and bring down Memorize.  The game cleverly tackles issues of privacy, intellectual property (should memories be ‘copyrighted’ like ideas?) and whether we should have the right to erase the memories we don’t like and to augment the ones we do. (We do with our bodies – should our minds be treated any differently?)

Now this may all seem far-fetched, but what all these examples (and many more besides) highlight is a need for immersive literacy.  We are already facing the challenges of information and digital literacy in an age where digital information glut is the norm and so much of our everyday lives revolves around navigating the web and the cloud.  When and if immersive technologies develop, we will need to consider the ethical knots they present, and, on a practical level, we will need to consider how immersive experiences are to be documented, organised, classified, indexed, catalogued and disseminated.  What will the legal ramifications be?  How will the role of the library and information professional have to change in order to manage such ‘documents’?

The digital leap has already caught many of us in the LIS profession unawares.  Perhaps we ought to look a little further into this ‘far-fetched’ future, and think about what it might mean to deal with these potential new types of media – immersive media.

Share Share Share Share Share Share

A trip to the Infinite Library exhibition at the Colosseum, Rome

Every so often a happy coincidence will come the way of every lucky librarian.  Mine just happened to come last month, when, having booked a trip to Italy, I discovered that the Colosseum was hosting an exhibition on ancient libraries.  This double whammy of ‘relevant to my interests’ (ancient monuments + libraries) was enough to make me feel that somehow the clouds had temporarily parted on my life, and a mighty hand had pointed at me from the heavens, simultaneously declaring “Thou shalt have thy cake and eat it too.”

And so I managed to visit one of the new seven wonders of the world, and visit “The Infinite Library: Sites of Knowledge in the Ancient World” exhibition at the same time.

WP_20140925_006

“The Infinite Library”

What was fortuitous about the whole thing was that I only managed to catch the exhibition by the skin of my teeth, it having been opened in March and closed on 5th October (yesterday, as it happens).  Set in the magnificent and awe-inspiring Colosseum itself (on the 2nd floor), it was the perfect backdrop for an exhibition about ancient libraries, writing and knowledge.  Its title – “The Infinite Library” (an allusion to “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges) – reminds us of the timelessness of the human quest to analyse, organise and disseminate knowledge.  We cannot say for sure when libraries truly began – but we can be certain that as soon as humanity began to analyse their surroundings, their world, and what they knew – they attempted to capture it and encapsulate it in some form (Rock paintings?  Cave art?).  By transporting us directly into the ancient world via a monumental and ruinous setting, the exhibition brought us that one step closer to a time that is far removed from our own, but that is, perhaps fundamentally as well as intellectually, closer than we might think.

WP_20140925_024

Rules of the library, ancient style.

For anyone interested in the history of the library, this exhibition (which was helpfully in both Italian and English) was a beautiful visual counterpart to the many books that have tackled this rich and vibrant subject (Libraries in the Ancient World, The Library at Night, Library: An Unquiet History and The Story of Libraries, to name but a few).  Its visual immediacy helped to put flesh on the bones of these texts, to bring the ancient and venerable into the periphery of our vision.  Through the exhibits the audience was able to see first hand what actually constituted a book or a document to the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Books themselves were a late addition to the ancestral lineage of instantiated documents, and “The Infinite Library” was careful to remind us of this fact.  For the ancients, texts were inscriptions, funerary epitaphs, stele, ostracon and scrolls – actual reconstructions of Roman library shelves served to highlight the physical differences between what we might term a library today.  Roman book shelves were similar yet strangely unalike – more like niches than shelves, scrolls were stacked inside them horizontally and one could imagine that they weren’t as easily retrievable from their housings as sliding a book out might be.

WP_20140925_023

Fragments of a catalogue of Greek and Roman authors.

Holding the exhibition in Rome was fitting in more than one aspect – the Roman world was in itself the birthplace of what we might recognise as the public library (public libraries existed before in ancient Greece, though were restricted to scholars and the literati).  Some of these first public libraries were originally part of the bath houses, which may perhaps seem strange to us these days – is a book and bathwater ever a good mixture?  But for the Romans, the baths served as the ancient equivalent of the early modern coffee houses – a place where the populous could congregate, gossip, and conduct their business affairs.  In this respect, the library was perfectly situated to serve the community.

But it was the similarities to our own libraries of today that gave the visitor cause to smile.  Ancient librarians, it appears, had the same concerns our modern libraries do.  Amongst the exhibits were included some ancient rules of the library, no doubt exhorting users to silence or threatening reprimands for stealing from the collection; and the human drive to organise was represented, for example, in fragments of a catalogue listing Greek and Roman authors.  In this way the exhibition served to bridge the gap between the then and the now, to draw a line of continuity between the past and the present, and to highlight the ways in which the lives of librarians and information professionals has, in the most basic and fundamental ways, remained the same.

WP_20140925_018

A 16th century herbal depicting mandrakes.

What made the exhibition exceptional, however, was its focus not only on the library, but also on the cultural milieu that informed the growth of the library and literacy in the Roman period.  For example, it provided a valuable insight into the how the Romans read and wrote.  On display were writing implements – styluses, ink pots, tablets, and other writing paraphernalia that we would find strange to look at.  There were also helpful instructions on how to read a scroll, which also brought to mind just how cumbersome and time-consuming holding, rolling and unrolling one really is, and definitely spelled out to me just how much we should appreciate the invention of the book (or codex, as it was in antiquity)!  Last but not least, “The Infinite Library” featured several beautiful frescos reminiscent of the famous ‘couple from Pompeii’, which depicted their subjects as both writers and readers, one of which showed a very lovely young lady reading what appeared to be a love letter.  These gorgeous works of art give us a striking picture of how (wealthy) Romans wanted themselves to be seen – as literate and erudite.  The fact that so many of these portraits exist is testament to just how highly literacy was prized in the ancient world.

WP_20140925_008

A Roman writing tablet. Wax would be poured into the niches to serve as a writing surface, and would be replaced whenever it had been used up.

It is a shame that the exhibition is now closed, although English-speaking visitors might have found it difficult to access unless they, like myself, were heading to Rome on holiday.  Nevertheless, I’d recommend a similar exhibition to anyone who’s interested in librarianship, particular ancient libraries and the history of documents.  It would be lovely if the British Library could host a similar exhibition, as, in many ways, “The Infinite Library” was not just the story of books or art or culture, but the story of who we are.

Share Share Share Share Share Share

A PhD student at Loncon 3

This year was the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, which took place at the ExCel Centre in London over five hectic and fun-filled days (#Loncon3).  I felt it my duty to go there, both as a fan and as a research student (field observations being a must, don’t you know?), and thanks to the most excellent Con or Bust initiative, I was able to get a free membership.  I managed to make two action-packed days (the Thursday and Saturday), which gave me much food for thought – that is, when I could actually sit down and get a moment to sit down and ponder.  What struck me most about my time at Loncon was the realisation that fans are not homogeneous – just like any microcosm of humanity, fans have different values, morals, points of view, creeds, colours, sexual orientations and political agendas.  And of course, fandoms.  There can be genuine moments where a fan is rambling on about something they are passionate about, whilst you’re there thinking “What on earth are they talking about?”, even if you consider yourself a fellow geek.  Or you might be the one sitting there, rabbiting on, whilst others are staring at you blankly.  Yeah, I got that a few times.  But it was fine, because it reminded me that too often in fan or media studies, there is a tendency to think of fans as one homogeneous whole that thinks the same.  This is not true, and, as I am finding out, it is therefore not true about the ways that fans (or fan communities) approach or engage in information behaviour.

I was at the con right from the start, as I was participating in a fan arts and crafts event in the afternoon (and was, for my sins, helping set up the Transformative Fanworks tent).  For an hour I sat at a table, demonstrating my limited artistic skills and showcasing my work.  Many fans sauntered past with minimal interest (Rogue & Gambit shippers are a fairly rare breed in the fan world, or so I’ve come to learn).  But I was surprised and pleased when two lovely girls from America came and chatted to me about my work and the Rogue & Gambit fandom, and showed an interest in following my Tumblr page.   There was an interesting conversation on copyrights and IP, wherein I explained that I don’t sell prints of my fanart on deviantART as I don’t own the rights to franchises I draw from.  They seemed surprised at this. “We buy that stuff all the time,” they said. “We can just get it from anywhere.  Does that mean we’re doing something illegal?”  Well, yeah, technically.  I tried to explain about the difference between selling fanart on the internet via a third party (they have to cover their proverbial backsides after all), and selling to friends or at a convention.  But young fans aren’t really interested in that stuff.  They want their fanworks, and they’ll get them whatever the means.  The internet has made ‘reapproriated’ works so readily available to fans that copyright is hardly an issue to youngsters who have grown up in an information free-for-all.  It does make one wonder whether notions of IP will slowly die out with the next generation.

Me drawing in the Loncon 3 fan activity tent.

Me drawing in the Loncon 3 fan activity tent.

On Saturday afternoon, Megan Waples and I held what was intended to be a redesign contest for sexist superheroine costumes.  Unfortunately this wasn’t in the programme  as we’d cooked it up too late for it to be sent to print, and so we abandoned the idea of a contest and left the design silhouettes out throughout the day for anyone to do.  After a slow start we managed to get quite a lot of interest and ended up with a lovely pile of redesigns!  In fact, the project got such a lot of positive feedback from participants that we figured we could scan in the whole lot and start a Tumblr blog on it; and not only that, but to open the blog to submissions so that anyone can create a redesign, and raise awareness about the issue.  This idea also achieved some interest from fans and hopefully will be implemented once the pictures are all scanned in.

Starfire comics costume (left); and costume design  from Loncon3.

Starfire comics costume (left); and costume design from Loncon3, by Megan Waples (right).

Saturday evening brought with it the chance to attend the Researching Fans: Fan Studies and Fan History academic panel, which was enlightening.  The panel focused many on the problems of studying fans – apart from issues arising from generalisation of fans and their heterogeneity, there were also very interesting discussions around the continued suspicion of fan-related studies in the academy, and the pitfalls inherent in studying fans as an acafan (academic fan).  Many fan scholars are still coming up against complete ignorance of fandom from their peers, and there is an assumption that acafans should ‘dress up’ their research in academic language in order to make it more accessible to the scholarly community.  There was also the question of whether fan research – a finished dissertation, article or thesis, for example – could be considered a fanwork in its own right; whether this implies a lack of rigour and distance from the subject; and whether that in any way lessens its importance as a piece of scholarly literature.

I left the panel with my head swimming – too many thoughts, too many things to digest.  Fan studies is essentially multi-disciplinary.  It touches so many parts of our lives, and we can look at it from the perspective of cultural studies, media studies, games studies, sociology and psychology, to name but a few disciplines.  This is an area of study that can impact so many people’s everyday lives; and vice versa.  In my research I am hoping to look at fans from an LIS perspective, and this is yet another aspect of fan life that has been ignored and which, I think – or at least, hope – is and will come even more to the fore in future years.

After the panel I was able to finally meet some lovely Fan Studies Network people, and over a few drinks we got some discussion in about fan information behaviour and the dubious joys of Tumblr tagging.  In fact, Tumblr managed to wheedle its way into several conversations over the time that I was at the con.  The more I think about it, the more Tumblr is the new place for fandom, as more and more fans young and old adopt it as a flexible place for showcasing a myriad of fanworks such as fanfiction, fanart, animation, videos, news, quotes and essays.  It is this flexibility of use and content that makes Tumblr such a godsend to fans.  You can write a collaborative fanfic and track its progress with amazing ease; you can reblog and share content with just a simple click; you can write whole essays or express your opinions just through the tags alone (and I’ve seen tags that are longer than the actual posted content!).   Whole projects can be realised in very little time.  And this goes for the negative as well as the positive.  Flame wars and ruckuses can evolve just as quickly as a full-blown artistic endeavours.

It will take me some time to digest everything I’ve learned at Loncon, but what I will definitely be taking away are some interesting approaches to researching fandom, as well as some fascinating thoughts about how tagging and folksonomies facilitate fandom; and last but not least, I’ll remember it for some great new friendships.

Share Share Share Share Share Share

Woodrow Phoenix’s “She Lives” – a (fan) experience

On 23rd May 2014, during my second, unplanned visit to the Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library, I happened upon the very talented Mr Woodrow Phoenix getting ready to give a live presentation of his monster-sized work, She Lives.   I had no idea these ‘short’ talks were going on, so the whole thing was doubly serendipitous.  All the more so for the fact that what I was treated to was an amazingly tactile and visceral experience.

Being at the front helped.  It meant I was one of the few in the audience that had the distinct privilege of helping to turn the pages, to feel the handmade, embossed cover, to run my fingers over the smooth, shiny expanses of black ink and the knobbly ridges of corrector fluid.  All too often reading comics involves solely visual ingestion of the material – you pick up the comic, you open it, you look at it, read it – its pages are either smooth and glossy or matt and slightly rough – as a printed artefact it is uniformly homogeneous, a processed piece of finished product wherein the story of its production is, if you will, a closed book.  She Lives reminds us – like the illuminated manuscripts that preceded the printing press – that comic books have a double life: on the one hand, a life as a commodity; on the other, a life as a work of art.  It is all the more interesting that Phoenix does not plan to print the book – in an industry that is known (whether rightly or wrongly) to churn out the throw-away and the ephemeral, She Lives will remain a one-of-a-kind, a real work of art – an artefact that refuses to suffer from the losses of reproduction.

Excerpt from one of the repeated sequences of She Lives. Courtesy of woodrowphoenix.co.uk.

Excerpt from one of the repeated sequences of She Lives. Courtesy of woodrowphoenix.co.uk.

What is also apparent with She Lives is the vast amount of real blood, sweat and tears that went into its making.  It’s physical size is staggering (it’s just under a square metre, it’s width double that when opened).  When you consider that it was hand-bound, embossed, and went through at least 3 previous iterations (as dummy books), the work involved in its creation is all the more impressive.  Stitching together such a large book was a feat in itself (involving much self-puncturing with the needle); and none of the repetitive sequences (totalling about 60 individual panels in a single round) are mechanically reproduced.  All are hand-drawn.  Ink spillages (of which a few were substantial) were painstakingly whited out.  The physical processes involved in bookbinding and embossing demanded much research.  So too did the environments and acts of a 1940’s circus and its performers, which make up the setting of She Lives.

Seeing the comic in its display case is impressive in itself.  But having the chance to read it is something else.  There is no narrative text, no captions or speech bubbles – yet still there is a sense that it is read.  Phoenix’s talk-through focuses mainly on the making-of the piece, which does not interrupt the flow of that reading, but instead augments it with a sense of wonder that such an endeavour was possible at all.  The sheer size of it demands a more leisurely pace in the reading of it, and this affords the chance to appreciate the artistic details of the comic.  Turning the large, heavy pages makes the reading a tactile experience, a communing with a piece of art that made me wonder what it must have felt like for the kings, princes and nobles of yesteryear to leaf through their priceless manuscripts.

This act of reading was carefully crafted by Phoenix himself.  As a document, She Lives plays with concepts of reading a book or comic when there are no words to read.  The physical size and weightiness were intentional experiments in resolving this question, as Phoenix explains:

Because silent comics can paradoxically be very difficult for readers to engage with (many people interpret a silent panel as having no important story content) a comics creator must make readers understand that the pictures do not just support the captions and speech balloons but contain and deliver as much or more information in their own right.

Back in 2002, Marvel tried a silent comic campaign with their ‘Nuff Said event.  My enduring impression of the event was how confusing some sequences were – how you sometimes really had to think what on earth was going on.  She Lives doesn’t suffer from that.  There is an elegant flow to the panels and action, no doubt thanks to the meticulous thought, effort and time that went into its making (time that the Marvel guys probably didn’t have the luxury of).  Size and weight prove to be brilliant strategies in pacing the reader, in guiding their journey through the book. “In order to hold the reader’s attention,” Phoenix says, “and to direct their gaze, my strategy was to present them with a large surface and heavy paper that would  have the effect of slowing the reader down and making them stay on the page longer, to look more closely at what the page contains.” It was clear, from the reactions of those at the page-turning event, that the strategy also increased readers’ sense of immersion and wonder.

On a more personal level, what struck me about She Lives is that it is a fan work.  I’m aware that the term has derogatory connotations attached to it; words such as derivative and even intertextual, which have been applied to concepts of fan work, imply a somehow subordinate role to the original material that a fan work may be based on (Derecho, 2006).  The point is that She Lives proves that such works can be both original and of high quality.  Set in the late 1940’s, it takes up the story of the Bride of Frankenstein, giving one of those continuations of a closed off plot that fans so enjoy playing with (Bacon-Smith, 1992; Derecho, 2006; Jenkins, 2013 [1992]).  Everything about the comic – from the lavish attention to detail, to the sense of motion in its panels, to its visceral physicality – pays testament to the love Phoenix has for his subject matter, to his desire to explore beyond the boundaries the 1935 movie presents.

Still from The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nevertheless, it is interesting that Phoenix himself does not see his piece as fan work, or even as a tribute.  “This story was inspired by the ending of Bride of Frankenstein, but I don’t think of it as a fan tribute,” he says in an email conversation with me. “It’s more like I’m using something that was discarded. The titular character only appears in the film for two minutes and she dies without speaking, having barely done anything… There’s nothing to her as a character apart from a fabulous visual design.” And, according to Phoenix, it was that visual design that prompted him to continue her story:

I would occasionally wonder about what could have happened with her had she lived. And then one day an image occurred to me of her sitting in the dark smoking a cigarette. I thought it might make a good short story: the bride of Frankenstein had survived the explosion but had no function, no purpose or place to be, and was living in a trailer or a motel somewhere in Glendale, California.

This thought led him to the backdrop of She Lives – to “the idea [of] a freak or outcast who hides amongst other freaks”.  The circus seemed to be a natural extension of that; and once the idea had started rolling, the Bride character was no longer strictly needed.  Nevertheless, Phoenix kept her as a sort of ‘anchor’ for the reader, not simply as a striking visual motif, but as an “extra resonance” to those who would recognise who she was.  To other viewers or fans of The Bride of Frankenstein, the story would be enriched, as the Bride brings with her a cultural and narrative baggage that adds a dimension to her character (and the story) that a non-viewer or non-fan might be bereft of.  Her presence is not necessary, but for those in the know it provides a powerful story in its own right.

Even though Phoenix doesn’t self-identify as a fan artist per se, She Lives encapsulates several of the aspects that drive fans to create – the closed or unfulfilled plot that is rich for further development; the attraction to a certain character; the persistence of an image, plot point, or character trait that demands further exploration (Derecho, 2006).

As a piece of art, She Lives is an immensely satisfying work, beautiful, tactile, absorbing.  As a comic, it is compelling, perfectly paced, painstakingly plotted, wonderful to look at.  As a fan work, it is one of the best examples, even if Woodrow Phoenix did not intend it to be so.  As a fan of the original film, one must certainly feel a thrill when such an iconic and beloved character reveals herself and demonstrates a continuing life beyond the four walls of the movie that once enmeshed her.

And that is what fan works are really all about – feeling a character, and bringing that character once more to life.

* Future She Lives page-turning events with artist Woodrow Phoenix take place on Tuesday 22nd July 2014 at 6pm, and Tuesday 12th August at 3pm, at the British Library’s Comics Unmasked exhibition.

References

  • Bacon-Smith, C. (1992).  Enterprising women : television fandom and the creation of popular myth.  Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Derecho, A. (2006). Archontic literature: a definition, a history, and several theories of fan fiction. In: Hellekson, K., & Busse, K., ed. 2006. Fan fiction and fan communities in the age of the internet.  Jefferson, North Carolina; London: McFarland.  Ch 1.
  • Jenkins, H. (2013), updated 20th anniversary ed. Textual poachers : television fans and participatory culture.  New York : Routledge.
Share Share Share Share Share Share