Some notes on what LIS can learn from fan information behaviour

A couple of years back I gave a talk during #citymash entitled ‘NSFW: Fanfiction in the Library’, which was more or less an exploratory dive into how LIS can learn from fan information behaviour. (My original blog post on this event can be found here. You can also read the handout for the talk here).

Recently I found the notes I took from audience members during the talk, which were very helpful in helping formulate some of the theories later developed in my PhD thesis.  I’ve decided to do a little rundown of these notes (plus some discussion), which might be of interest, particularly to those who are thinking about what LIS can learn from fan information practices (and that of other participatory cultures.  Trust me – there is lots we can learn!).

So here we are – some comments from the audience


Fan information behaviour is fun.

The implication being that information behaviour in professional/academic/research/mundane contexts is not. Is this strictly true? If not, how can LIS make their systems fun for users to engage with? If yes, then what can we do to harness the pleasurable aspects of information behaviour that we are not already tapping into?

Tagging only makes sense to me.

One audience member thought that the only aspect of fan information behaviour that could be successfully incorporated into LIS systems is tagging.  But free tagging has already been instituted on many online library, museum and gallery catalogues, with only limited success, and hasn’t seen the wide-ranging and innovative usage that manifests on platforms such as AO3 and Tumblr.

You need a feeling of community for it to work.

Users need to have a strong sense of community; they need to be invested in the institution and/or the thing that it stands for.  Otherwise they will not be motivated to contribute to participatory classification activities (such as free tagging), or other initiatives that may be beneficial to institutional information work.  Certain groups, such as scholars, amateur genealogists, historians, movie enthusiasts etc., already have the requisite investment in a certain domain – however the degree of their involvement in participatory information behaviour is variable, and whilst similar in some ways to fan information behaviour, is arguably less intense.

Publicity and discussion is needed to foster a sense of community and investment in collections.

Are there people who already have that vested interest in your collection? Who are passionate about it? Find those people and engage with them.  What do they have to offer?  What do they think are the best ways to publicise your collection and engage others with them?

AO3 is creating a collection of deleted fanworks.

Fans are very interested in preserving their cultural history and the artefacts associated with it.  They are able to think outside the box and come together on a voluntary basis to preserve their fannish history.  Maybe passionate users of memory institution collections have ideas about how works they are interested in can best be preserved, curated and showcased.

There’s a similarity between big name scholars and big name fans (BNF).  The cliques that form around BNF and their influence can be toxic to the community.  There can be gaming the system, such as getting fans of the BNF to increase hits, reviews and positive spin on their work.

The comment implies that scholarship suffers from the same sorts of problems, such as skewed metrics and citation practices.

Library systems could be more user-focused.

There is a trend towards this, with more ‘interactive’ functions, such as scrolling book covers, free-tagging affordances, and the ability to create reading lists – are these initiatives successful, and do they engender passionate, fan-like information behaviour?  How can we make using the library catalogue ‘pleasurable’?

Friction is an issue – there is less friction for fans when using their information systems.

There is plenty of friction in fan information systems, but because fans are invested in the system (and sometimes because they actually own, develop or maintain the system), they are more motivated to create workarounds or improve that system.  Perhaps information professionals can engage with users about friction points and how to overcome them.

MARC cataloguing – can it be used to catalogue fanworks?

MARC cataloguing standards are not readily transparent and there is a learning curve to using and understanding them.  Most people outside of LIS have not heard of MARC or know of its purpose.  Similarly, standards such as the Library of Congress subject headings are not granular enough to cater for the specificities of fandom. Therefore fans do not generally use these standards to catalogue their works – indeed, most fanworks have no standard bibliographical data applied to them.  Is there a way that those standards can be mapped onto the cataloguing standards that have already been developed by the fan community?

Fan-tagging type systems already exist for ‘normal’ books.

These can be seen in many OPACs or online catalogues, although usage appears to be low.  The tagging system on LibraryThing is much more widely used and successful, as the LibraryThing community has a vested interested in their own libraries (and, perhaps, books themselves). They can also contribute obscure information about books, including different editions, acquisition information, and even upload their own covers for books.  There is a sense that they are contributing to the catalogue, and enriching the experiences of other LibraryThing users.  This is not apparent in standard online catalogues.


So that’s it for the discussions that came out of my talk.  Lots to think about. One thing that stuck out to be as I was going back on these was the point that I copied out in bold in the previous paragraph – “enriching the experiences of other LibraryThing users”. I believe this is of primary importance in building participatory information behaviours and systems.  It isn’t merely a case of being personally invested in the collection, but also in the community around it.  It is about improving, enriching, and sharing accurate and interesting knowledge about the collection with other users who share your passion.  It is about contributing value to a community.  It is even about sharing your own knowledge capital – I know a really rare fact about a limited edition of this book, and I want everyone else to know I know. I can reference a really obscure comic issue/TV episode in my fanfiction, and I’m going to tag it so everyone else can know I know about it.  I live in the road where this photo in this archive was taken, so I’m going to share my personal knowledge of this road to enrich peoples’ knowledge of this place with my own.). Tapping into what users have to offer the entire community, and making them feel that their knowledge is valuable, is key to concepts of participatory engagement in information work.




A (very) belated report on #FSN2016

They do say that if you want to write a blog post about an event you have to do it straight after, otherwise the glow soon fades.  I regret to say that in the case of the Fan Studies Network Conference 2016, I fell prey to what seems to be the bane of the blogosphere – you go to the event, you leave all jazzed and inspired, you get home and real life distracts you, and then the ship sails and it’s too late.

But they also say ‘better late than never’, and so here I am, writing my blog post on #FSN2016 after nearly 5 months of reflection.

Selfie with Henry Jenkins. It had to be done. ;)

Selfie with Henry Jenkins. It had to be done. 😉

What I will say first is how much FSN had grown even since 2015.  There were so many more people, and the atmosphere was buzzing – there was a general feeling of excitement in the air.  Of course, the buzz may have been something to with the fact that Henry Jenkins was giving the keynote; but in my case it probably also had something to do with the fact that I was presenting this time, along with my supervisor, Lyn Robinson, on the ‘Using the Archive’ panel.  Our presentation, “Fanfiction in the Library”, sought to give an overview of fanfiction in libraries within the UK.  This might seem an unusual area of research, as one is very unlikely to have ever seen fanfiction in a library before.  I feel that our interest was prompted by two main areas:

  • The growing evidence (as seen in my doctoral research) for fans as accomplished practitioners of information work, who build their own collections (both on and offline), who display highly sophisticated information behaviours, and who work collaboratively to create, share and maintain collections;
  • The growing interest in the fanwork as a cultural document worthy of collection, not merely by fans themselves, but by memory institutions (e.g. the expansion of fanzine collections within UK libraries).

Three different methods were used to glean an overview of fanfiction (and fandom) in libraries within the UK:

  1. A literature review of past and present research into the concept of fanworks as documents, or as parts of a wider collection;
  2. A study of the collection policies of 10 UK libraries, and whether the collection of fanworks or fanfiction comes under their remit (it doesn’t);
  3. A survey of current #citylis students and alumni, asking them about their current awareness of fanfiction and fandom, and whether fanfiction or fanworks should be collected in libraries and other memory institutions.


    Fanfiction in the Library!

The intention was not to promote the collection of fanfiction in libraries across the UK per se; rather it was to begin a dialogue between the LIS and fan studies communities on the subject.  Whilst there seems to be a strong feeling amongst the relevant literature and most of the surveyed students in our study that fanfiction is culturally important and worth preserving, there is an equally strong feeling that collecting it is fraught with issues.  Both fans and librarians can agree that fanfiction is not like the ‘usual’, standard literature one might find on the shelves.  Most fanfiction nowadays is born digital, and is rarely instantiated in one fixed state – it can be constantly updated, edited, reworked, rehashed, removed, and sometimes just never even finished.  What if the author does not care for their work to be collected?  What about the perennially thorny issue of copyright?

These are just a few of the valid questions raised both by the #citylis students and the audience during our panel.  It was heartening to find that there actually was a dialogue to be had about this topic, and that many people in both the LIS and fan communities were interested in preserving fanworks – or at least in entertaining the idea.  During the research phase, I was particularly interested to find that a large proportion of the interviewed students were aware of fanfiction and were fans themselves – and that some of them read or wrote fanfiction, or had created their own fanfiction collections.  This indicates that there will be a sizeable percentage of both future and current library and information professionals who are willing to entertain the idea of collecting, curating and managing fanworks and other non-traditional media in more mainstream and/or professional bibliographical contexts. Likewise, the interest shown from the fan studies audience at #FSN2016 indicated a willingness to start thinking of ways in which fan culture and its many outputs can be preserved for future posterity – or indeed, whether it should be preserved at all.

#FSN16 conference dinner at The Library, Norwich. Somebody knows me well ;)

#FSN16 conference dinner at The Library, Norwich. Somebody knows me well 😉

I think that goal – the goal of starting a dialogue – was achieved in abundance during #FSN2016.  I’m not sure whether the dialogue has continued, but I’d like to see it do so.  At the very least, I feel that there is so much that LIS can learn from the collaborative, participatory, creative and generous model of information behaviour that fans show.  But do fans want to make a concerted effort to preserve their creative work, and should information professionals become involved in that process?  The contributions of volunteer librarians and other professionals, as well as passionate amateurs, on AO3 shows the greatness that these kinds of collaborations can achieve.  The recent publication of Abigail De Kosnik’s Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom has convinced me that this is a more timely moment than ever for us all to work on the cultural preservation of fandom.  I’d be happy to carry on the conversation with anyone else who’s interested. 🙂

A long overdue thanks to the amazing folks at #FSN2016 and the fan studies community for the fun and intellectually stimulating conference!  I had a whale of a time and yet again met some truly stellar people.  I just wish I’d had the time to meet more.  But then, I guess there’s always next year! 😉


The “Fanfiction in the Library” presentation is available here.  (The paper is currently being edited with a view to publication).

You can read Lyn Robinson’s blog post on #FSN2016 here.

The #FSN2016 programme and abstracts can be found here.

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.


“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.


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.


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.


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.


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.