Why Study Fan Archives?: An Interview with Abigail De Kosnik (Part Two)

Given the sheer volume of fan works produced, it is perhaps not realistic to imagine every text will be saved, so what are some of the ways the community has sought to determine which texts are worth preserving for future generations? Is what you call “the selective tradition” an inevitable development given the sheer expansion of cultural production or are there alternative ways of thinking about the value of assembling and preserving cultural works?

Actually the way that data storage is developing, more and more storage is becoming available at lower and lower prices. As long as digital networked preservation is a going concern, I think that fan archives can actually be comprehensive ­­ I think that potentially everything that takes the form of digital data can be saved! At least from a technical perspective.

What I emphasize in the book is that actually, labor is a far scarcer resource than technology. So, while it will be technically feasible to preserve many fandoms’ output in their entirety, what if there comes a day when people cease to care about saving digital cultural production? I think that it’s possible that even now, many people believe (falsely) that everything they do online is preserved somewhere, by the companies that run the social media platforms on which they participate, and don’t really sense a need to do anything to save their posts or their fan works, or others’ fan works.

But only fan labor has made possible the multi­fandom archive Archive of Our Own (AO3) and the great single ­fandom archives that preceded it, such as Gossamer and Trekiverse. These archives are all non­profit fan­ owned and fan­ operated sites.

Fanfiction.net is for­ profit and definitely does not operate as an archive ­­ it has freely deleted fan works several times in its history. Tumblr is not an archive for fan works. YouTube is not an archive for fan works. For ­profit corporate­ owned sites have no commitment to the long­  term preservation of fans’ cultural productions.

Only when fans own their own servers, as the famous AO3 rallying cry goes ­­ and only as long as fans are willing to do the work of building and maintaining the archives that live on those servers, and interfacing with their users and with the press, and putting redundancy measures in place, and making policy decisions and recruiting fellow volunteers and all of the other responsibilities involved with running an archive ­­ will fan archives exist.

So while I don’t think that fan fiction is too large a genre to completely archive, I do fear that at some point, the preponderance of corporate ­owned social media may lull fans into thinking that they don’t have to appoint themselves archivists of their communities’ material. If fans stop volunteering to fulfill this important cultural role, then fan works will cease to be archived in a reliable way.


You’ve written much here and elsewhere about issues of fan labor. Who does the work of producing and maintaining these archives? What kinds of rewards do they receive for their efforts? What are alternative ways of thinking about how to compensate for this labor?

In my interviews with fan archivists, I was struck by how passionately they felt about digital preservation of fan works, how important they thought it was, how deeply they thought about how the structure and functions of their archives. All of the fan archivists that I spoke to had strong technical skills ­­ that’s one reason that I call them “techno­volunteers,” they volunteer because they have an intuitive sense for how technology could be used to make enduring cultural archives, if only a volunteer stepped in to make that happen ­­ but not all, or even many, of them were professional programmers.

The reward of archiving, it seems, is largely the endurance of the archive itself, because what all archivists talked about was how appalled they have been at seeing fan works, or even large fan archives, disappear. Another reward that many interviewees spoke of was the relationships they got to build because of their archival activities, and also what archiving had taught them about the diversity of fandom.

As for compensation, well, almost every archivist said that their fan archives cost them money, because they have to pay for server space or simply because they have to pour time and effort into these non­income-­generating projects. But the compensation that I would like to see for fan archivists is simply greater recognition. I wish that fans valorized their archivists the way they valorize their favorite fan artists and authors and vidders.

Techno­volunteers tend to be invisible because many users assume that online archives are automated to the point that nobody in particular needs to actually own and operate the archives, and make regular decisions and oversee them and steer and guide and maintain them, and that simply isn’t the case. Even a highly automated archive has at least one person, and usually more, working hard behind ­the­ scenes, at the “back end.”

In other words, I argue that digital archive users tend to confuse the “servers” (the people who volunteer to serve them by building them working archives) and “servers” (the hardware that serves up fan works on demand). Fan archivists are humans, not machines. They deserve as much respect and admiration as prominent fan creators.

Can you say something about your own archiving practices in relation to the production of this book ­­ for example, you’ve conducted a large number of oral histories that are potential resources for constructing the history of fandom as a community quite apart from your specific uses of this material. What do you see as your obligations as a researcher in terms of the material you have collected?

I’m very happy to report that we donated both the audio files and the transcripts of all of our interviews ­­ under the title “Fan Fiction and Internet Memory,” which was the official title of our oral history project ­­ to the University of Iowa Libraries, because those Libraries have a special collection of “Fandom­Related Collections”: http://www.lib.uiowa.edu/sc/resources/FandomResources/. (When I say “our” oral history project, I want to credit my fellow interviewers, Andrea Horbinski and Lisa Cronin, as well as Adam Hutz, Kelsey Wong, and all of our transcribers ­­ all of my team members were UC Berkeley graduate or undergraduate students at the time we conducted the interviews and got them transcribed.) While our interview archive hasn’t yet been ingested, I hope to see it listed on that page soon! And eventually, I would love to work with U. of Iowa to get our transcripts available online for other researchers to use.

Abigail De Kosnik is an Associate Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Berkeley Center for New Media (BCNM, bcnm.berkeley.edu) and the Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies (TDPS, tdps.berkeley.edu).  She is the author of Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom (MIT Press, 2016).  She has published articles on media fandom, popular digital culture, and performance studies in Cinema Journal, The International Journal of Communication, Modern Drama, Transformative Works and Cultures and elsewhere.  She is the co-editor, with Sam Ford and C. Lee Harrington, of the edited essay collection The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (University Press of Mississippi, 2011).