October 18, 2017

Back to the future: A DIY history of nerd-strife in the University of Iowa’s Helevin Collection


Artist’s rendering of Giant Moth digitizing the past, imagined here as a skeletal dragon. The Mayan pyramid is, like, the library, or something.

Librarians, archivists, and garden-variety nerds are working together to digitize the trove of science fiction “pulps, fanzines, fan convention materials, books, and art” in the University of Iowa Library’s Helevin Collection. The effort is part of the university’s DIY History project, an initiative that asks anyone and everyone to annotate, transcribe, and tag the assorted digital holdings of the university.

At Slate, Jacob Brogan (who’s been on the Helevin beat since 2015) wrote about the project and interviewed Pete Balestrieri, curator of science fiction and popular culture at the University of Iowa Libraries. Balestrieri has been heading the Helevin digitization since September. Wading through the jumble of early twentieth century material, he found not only a huge wealth of sci-fi ephemera and marginalia, but also some startling parallels between the discourses of fandom at the dawn of mass culture and those that prevail today.

Says Balestreri, “There’s information here that’s historical. There are elements of journalism. There’s humor. There’s serious stuff. There’s both hard science and soft science. There’s endless speculation about the future, what we’ll see in the future, the fourth dimension.” And, predictably, there’s documentation of a long-forgotten, intra-nerd power struggle between “The Futurians” and the “New Fandom,” the former (by their own account) progressive and anti-capitalist, the latter (according to the former) reactionary and bullying.

The conflict took place against the backdrop of the 1939 World Science Fiction Convention, and bears a striking resemblance to the Gamergate and Sad/Rabid Puppies controversies of the last decade. As Balestreri told Brogan:

“There’s just this really, really clear line from the type of communication in the fanzines through to Usenet and the message boards and onto social media. What we’re looking at is a very specific kind of human behavior and communication. The format and the tools may introduce some new factors, but ultimately it’s the same behavior.”

Plus ça change, nerds. Plus ça change.



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.