Saving Science Fiction

The LA Times had a story this week on the salvaging of science fiction literature by the scholars and librarians of the University of California Riverside.

The UCR SciFi collection is unique in its depth and coverage, incorporating material that was previously scorned for its worth as literature, but is now perceived as being invaluable in the study of American culture as well as the genre of Science Fiction.

As appreciation for the literary qualities of science fiction has grown in recent years, the UC Riverside collection has emerged from an academic ghetto. No institution had ever stockpiled science fiction like this, or subjected itself to such an internal clash over the worth of the genre.

Even public libraries had considered the books disposable literature, mainly because early science fiction was published almost exclusively in paperback. But a handful of professors and a librarian at UC Riverside saw something else, and started building.

The story describes the extraordinary effort exerted by UCR staff, particularly the Comparative Literature scholar George Slusser, in order to rescue and preserve this material:

Slusser went by instinct and started scooping up every new science fiction novel that came out. With less than $10,000 to work with, he handed hundred-dollar bills to foreign graduate students so they could cart back sci-fi from Russia, Brazil, China and other worldly locales.

Slusser haunted used-book stores and estate sales on his own time. His best finds came from reclusive packrats who had refused to toss their paperbacks. One collector had drained his pool and turned it into underground storage for thousands of science fiction magazines and fan newsletters, including issues of “Amazing Stories,” a 1920s-era pamphlet regarded as the world’s first science fiction magazine.

As John Mark Ockerbloom of the University of Pennsylvania noted in an email,

This is just the sort of collection that I really hope the library, or someone working with them, would put a priority on digitizing: works that are very relevant to cultural development (either in reflecting it or shaping it), but that have very few surviving copies, and in many cases printed on particularly short-lived media (acid pulp etc.). Plus, a lot of it’s public domain (particularly since much of this material, which was often considered ephemeral, didn’t have copyrights renewed– or in the case of many of the ‘zines, wasn’t even copyrighted in the first place.)

John’s right: this would be such a cool collection online.