Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Our View - Boosting UI as a pop-culture research center

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," July 6, 2009)

J.J. Abrams' re-imagining of the "Star Trek" universe opened earlier this year to nearly universal acclaim -- receiving much more positive reviews than any of George Lucas' three Star Wars prequels. Variety called Abrams' film a "new and improved Star Trek" that will "transport fans to sci-fi nirvana." The New York Daily News wrote that Abrams, offering much more than "a coat of paint on a space-age wagon train," managed to blend successfully "the hip and the classic." Even Chicago Reader's negative review noted that Abrams failed primarily when he kept too much of the classic 1960s TV show's formula: "A relatively mindless thrill ride that would have made the old NBC execs grin from ear to ear."

But if long-time "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" fans are looking for a sure-fire way to revive their interest in how sci-fi has evolved over the past four decades, they should check out University Libraries' recent acquisition of the Mariellen (Ming) Wathne Fanzine Archive Collection. Not only does this collection of more than 3,000 science fiction fanzines represent an important accumulation of fan-created work, it also is a significant addition to the pop-cultural archive being amassed at University Libraries.

A UI news release said the Wathne Collection contains thousands of fanzines focused on popular television shows and films -- including some important early pieces related to "Star Trek." The 'zines related to "Star Wars" were originally collected by Lucasfilm Ltd., producer of the Star Wars series, and offered to fans in the 1990s. Wathne, a California fan, accepted it and began a lending library to distribute 'zines among fans.

In this light, Abrams' recent film can be seen as merely the big-budget version of how fans have been updating and personalizing sci-fi storylines for decades. Rather than remain passive consumers of the products produced by the film and television industries, fans have used their favorite characters, settings and storylines as the basic building blocks for their own creations. As technology has improved over the decades, so has the quality of these fan 'zines, Web sites and independent short films. To some, these products might seem the epitome of copyright infringement; to others, the copyright infringement is offered as the sincerest form of flattery.

"In many ways, fan culture pre-dates and anticipates our modern remix mash-up Internet culture," Greg Prickman, assistant head of Special Collections at University Libraries, said in a news release. "And there is a great deal of scholarly interest in this type of activity today."

The collection was acquired with the help of the Organization for Transformative Works, a non-profit advocacy group dedicated to preserving and protecting works created by science fiction fans. University Libraries is working with the organization to establish the Fan Culture Preservation Project, which will help identify important collections and bring them to UI.

The recent acquisition of the Wathne Collection is just one more example of how libraries need to adapt to the opportunities presented in the 21st century or risk losing the cultural authority they've enjoyed for centuries. This archive of participatory culture will provide scholars and fans alike with a treasure trove of what helped make these shows and films into such cultural phenomenons.

It also will help in University Libraries' efforts to become an important research center for the study of 20th-century popular culture.

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