Merchants of Thought Meet the Many-Headed Hydra of Speculative Fiction

by Tamara Kennelly

Given the progress of digital technology, the walls of the library are opening to new opportunities for collaboration and resource sharing, but the essential work of the librarian holds true to R. R. Bowker’s 1883 description: "He is the merchant, the middle man, of thought, and performs in this field the function which political economy recognizes as so important of bringing goods to the place where they are wanted and so, also creating demand. In this busy generation¼ the librarian makes time for his fellow mortals by saving it; for a minute saved is a minute added." Through the Internet today’s merchant of thought brings not only catalogs, but also the goods themselves simultaneously to many new users. Through creative collaboration the special collections librarian as merchant of thought allows the jewels of his or her collection to shine in the public eye.


The first half of the William J. Heron Collection of Speculative Fiction, the periodical portion, was acquired by the Virginia Tech University Libraries in 1988 from William Heron of Charlotte, North Carolina, who had collected science fiction magazines and paperback books for over 20 years. The Heron periodical collection contains over 5,000 issues of 200 different publications dating from 1926 to 1987. Because Heron’s chief interest was cover art, he was careful to collect issues with the covers in best possible condition.

When then head of Special Collections Stephen Zietz examined the collection in 1993, he came up with three findings: (1) The collection was as comprehensive as it could possibly be within the perimeters of serials, science fiction, popular, and particular dates. (2) By its nature the collection was in an advanced state of deterioration. "The genre is an ephemeral genre," Zietz said. "It was meant to be read and thrown out or put aside. It was not intended to be collected, and consequently the paper is of extremely poor quality, the printing is often not good, and is second rate as befits a popular genre. Even slight use of the collection was likely to cause irreparable damage." (3) Primary use came from people outside Virginia Tech and from Interlibrary Loan. Thus there was the serious dilemma of having a definitive collection of great scholarly and intellectual value that was not being used locally and could not be used in a normal way because of its fragility.

In 1994 the University Libraries acquired the Heron Science Fiction Paperback Book Collection, which contains 11,900 volumes dating from 1939 (with the origin of mass-market science fiction paperbacks) to 1987. With roughly 8,000 different titles, the Heron collection includes over 95 percent of the American science fiction paperbacks published during these years. Over 2,200 authors and editors are represented in the collection as are over 1,000 science fiction artists. To help evaluate the acquisition of the second part of the collection Zietz contacted Len Hatfield, Associate Professor of English and Information Director for Faculty Development at Virginia Tech.

"His interest was immediate, enthusiastic, activist, and very positive," Zietz said. "He saw one of the things we could do to solve the problems of collection was to digitize the materials."

Hatfield said, "It looked to me like a good way to marry my interest in speculative fiction with this resource and my interest in technology with the web as well" (Hatfield, 1).

Goals of the Project

The Virginia Tech Speculative Fiction (VTSF) Project aims to make available through the Internet public domain materials relating to the study of the fantastic in literature and art. The project has goals in three areas: preservation, education, and research. The VTSF project will digitize both text and graphics of the serials and then seal the originals to protect them from light, air, and additional handling.

Zietz noted that a preservation problem with the project was recognized early on. "Even though we were scanning only once, the act of scanning added to the physical degradation of items. The ones scanned were in far worse condition than the ones not scanned. To help fix this problem, boxes were built for the collection awaiting the day when conservation technology has advanced to the state that it can handle large collections economically."

To further the goals of education and research, the digital texts and graphics of materials from the Heron Collection are converted into files tagged with Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) and made accessible to scholars using a wide variety of hardware and software platforms. A new development planned for the project is the addition of Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) headers and tags to the existing archive. Conforming to the TEI international standard will facilitate searching and involve the VTSF in the worldwide effort to follow a standard for text encoding.

Hatfield said that "one of the ways the collection can be most valuable, especially for the study of trends or popular culture issues, motifs, and so forth, is to explore how given words and phrases and the like are used across a variety of different magazines¼ . For those purposes digital searching is crucial¼ . It would take a scholar months or years, for instance, to go through a run of Amazing Stories from 1928 to 1968. It could be done, but it would take a lot of notation and a lot of physical searching through magazines and taking notes and so forth. A digital search engine, if it has the range of materials to work from, can gather up in a few seconds all the references to¼ blasters or rocket ships or cheese" (Hatfield, 12).

The VTSF plans to make images of full pages available for download as well as individual stories and advertisements. Whole page presentation will permit scholars to analyze illustrations in relation to stories or to analyze a string of illustrations by the same artist, or by related artists, and see them in the context of verbal or motif patterns of the stories. This creates a basis for an analysis of the relationship between visual art and textual art as it emerges across several issues. Hatfield said, "Eventually we hope that there will be ways to actually search visually" (ibid., 12). Hatfield added that the VTSF project hopes to augment the existing rich scholarly commentary and history of American and British science fiction. He presented the VTSF project at the Science Fiction Research Association’s June 1996 meeting. The guests of honor were Howard Zebrowski and Pamela Sargent, both well known editors as well as writers of science fiction. After the presentation, both Zebrowski and Sargent indicated that they would be interested in contributing "scannable" materials to the VTSF project, things that we might not have in the Heron Collection. Also, and this is an important part of the project, they seem to be interested in actually writing essays and commentaries and glosses on some of the materials that are in the collection now, or that will be in the collection later.

According to Hatfield, "The VTSF has got this sort of multi-headed, almost hydra-like character. It’s concerned with preservation... It’s concerned with improving scholarly access so folks around the world can get at this both for research purposes and for student research purposes. It’s also an archive in the sense that as scholars elsewhere, like Sargent or Zebrowski, become interested in the project, they may contribute an essay or material to it" (ibid., 5).

Hatfield emphasized the project’s broad teaching mission: "I want to have this material available on-line for my students, both undergraduates and graduate students. I also want to have it on-line for people who are interested in the material and who want to learn on their own from the local community and communities really around the world" (ibid., 14). He mentioned that the VTSF has been contacted by a website in Italy which wants to mirror the project’s holdings to improve access to them for European users.

"Libraries are finding that one of the ways to make the most of their existing resources and their declining resources in some respects is to concentrate on a given area," Hatfield said. "What we should concentrate on as we get going down the road is not so much that our collection is better or bigger, or what have you. I think that’s a fairly destructive competition. We have to concentrate on how we can really collaborate" (ibid., 15).

The VTSF is staffed by volunteers and directed by Hatfield. Gail McMillan, head of Special Collections, said the department will continue to play a supportive role, including assistance with grant writing to fund the project.

An alliance between the library and speculative fiction is particularly appropriate. Milton T. Wolf noted, "Even though science fiction spent its adolescence in the ghetto of pulp magazines, shunned by the arbiters of highbrow taste, it, not unlike the field of librarianship, came to a quick maturity as the Information Age unceremoniously catapulted both professions front and center onto the world stage of an increasingly New Order. Science fiction has intersected mainstream culture and become a ‘mode of awareness,’ a significant way of conceptualizing our cultural condition.

"Like librarianship, science fiction finds itself in a privileged position. It, more than any other genre, mirrors and engages the technological culture which is coming to pervade every other aspect of human society."

The VTSF site may be viewed at ""

The University Libraries Speculative Fiction home page is


R. R. Bowker, "The Work of the Nineteenth-Century Librarian for the Librarian of the Twentieth," Library Journal 8 (September–October 1883): 247-250.

This and the following quotations of Stephen Zietz are from a telephone conversation with Tamara Kennelly, 2 August 1996.

This and the following quotations from Ken Hatfield are taken from Len Hatfield, interview by Tamara Kennelly, 2 August 1996, tape recording, Virginia Tech University Libraries, Special Collections Department, Blacksburg, Virginia.

Milton T. Wolf, "Introduction to the 1992 LITA President’s Program," in Thinking Robots, an Aware Internet, and Cyberpunk Librarians, eds. R. Bruce Miller and Milton T. Wolf (Chicago: Library and Information Technology Association, 1992), 11.