The Open Doors archive project is working to preserve archives of Kirk/Spock Fanfiction along with fanfiction and fan culture as a whole.
In San Jose, California, there is a house built by widowed heiress Sarah Winchester, of Winchester rifle fame. For thirty six years, the house was under construction twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, until her death in 1922. The house stands now as a recognized historical landmark in the state of California, preserved for its exhibition of Victorian architecture and world renown for its unusual history. The house even has rooms still exhibiting the original damage inflicted by the widespread effects of the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, preserving a snapshot of a harrowing moment in American history.
However, not all history lies in buildings and national parks, not even in tangible things we can touch and preserve in museums. Some history, critical moments that have influenced aspects of life as we know it today, that have shaped the cultural landscape and even changed the way we create art, lies in a far more ephemeral space where the struggle to preserve it is real, and not always successful.
Open Doors, a sister project to Archive Of Our Own (AO3) and backed by the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), is a tireless effort to preserve various archives of fanfiction and fan culture as a whole. This effort, which seeks to rescue fan works from the dangers of web host obsolescence and site closures such as the end of Yahoo Groups, is more than just an effort to ensure that our favorite fics and old message groups are not lost to us.
In its projects, including its most recent announcement that it intends to try and save the prolific Kirk/Spock Fanfiction Archive, the Open Doors project is doing work as vital as the endless restoration of the Winchester Mystery House: they are preserving a snapshot of history for future generations, immortalizing the evolution of modern literature, and ensuring that the digital world’s ties to old school fandom and the zines of yesteryear are not forgotten.
While fandom has a history that dates back to the death of Sherlock Holmes, and the fans who wore black armbands to mourn the demise of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brainchild, the advent of modern fan culture as we know it is a bit more recent. Preserved between the pages of amateur publications called fanzines (simply zines for short), it has roots in the letter writing campaign that saved the original Star Trek and the dawn of a legendary underground birthed by the internet: fanfiction, and the phenomenon known as slash.
Named for the punctuation between names in a recognized fandom relationship—in this case, Kirk/Spock—slash is a genre of romance-based fanfiction that focuses primarily on same sex relationships. While this does include female pairings, it has been most traditionally reserved for male pairings, with the term ‘femslash’ differentiating between the two. While it isn’t quite as prominent a part of fandom parlance these days, the mark is still used in archives and implied in conversation to differentiate between romantic and non-romantic relationships (id est, “Kirk/Spock” the couple versus “Kirk & Spock” the characters featured in a story).
What does this have to do with the history of fandom—or even the preservation of history in general? The answer to that question is the presence of one critical component that many key members of the Star Trek fandom credit for the rise of Kirk/Spock, the popularity of slash overall, and even the very survival of the show’s legacy.
That component is the overwhelming presence of women in the fandom–women like Bjo Trimble. Bjo was not only the first BNF, or big name fan, of the Star Trek franchise, but also the driving force behind the aforementioned letter writing campaign that saved Star Trek.
Without her efforts, the show may never have reached its fixture as a piece of landmark American history and a treasured part of American culture. Nichelle Nichols, the first black woman to portray a leading role on a television show outside of the typecast slave or servant, would not have been part of the first interracial kiss on broadcast television. Smart phones and tablets, inspired by the communicators and data PADDs of Star Trek’s future technology, may never have been created.
Fans, and fandom, with all the creativity and brilliance it engenders, are a part of the show’s evolution into a cultural touchstone. They are a part of history—as big, as vital, and as worthy of preservation as the architectural marvels of the Winchester Mystery House.
The presence of fans like Bjo, one so well known and respected she and her husband had walk on roles in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, set the standard for the BNFs of the future as the traditional fandom of zines, newsletters, and in person social clubs like the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society gave way to the bulletin boards and Usenet groups of the early internet. Though Bjo Trimble wasn’t a participant in the culture of fanworks that are popular today, her initiative carried into cyberspace through fans such as internet user calling herself Killa, who created the Kirk/Spock Fanfiction Archive in 2004.
The rescue of the Archive, which was announced by Open Doors in July of this year, is as vital a heritage effort as that of preserving a historical location like the Winchester Mystery House and can prove to be more laborious, in some cases. The Archive represents a period of fandom history in which the archiving and distribution of fanworks was severely fragmented, highly restricted, and often threatened by fandom infighting and personal conflicts. This could lead to the permanent loss of works if a site closed suddenly, and made sharing works difficult as many archives could be quite choosy about what they approved for publication. Even more centralized sites, such as FanFiction.Net, could and often did remove entire works without warning for merely perceived defects or allegations of violating site rules.
At the time, the Archive bridged a gap and centralized a good deal of content that reached far beyond slash. General fiction, poetry, and of course the aforementioned romance: the Archive had it all. What’s more, it was highly inclusive and had a means of categorizing its works, allowing writers and readers to curate their own experience. Readers today take such things for granted with AO3, which provides such tools to consumers of fanfiction, but for its time the Archive was novel, necessary, and even made efforts to bring analog works to digital format from users who did not use the internet, as well as translating works into other languages in the name of accessibility.
Right now, Open Doors is in the most critical part of the preservation process: the waiting period. Before the works within the Archive can be transferred, permission must be gained from the authors themselves. Fourteen years after the Archive’s original platform, eFiction, stopped updating in 2005, the whole thing crashed, and many stories were lost in the process. For those stories whose authors have not yet responded to inquiries for permission to archive their works, the future remains uncertain.
There is, however, still hope. In some cases, archival work on sites slated for preservation can take years. One such site is the Harry Potter archive, Fiction Alley, which was announced as a rescue project in 2018 and is still working its way towards completion. Another historically significant archive, Fiction Alley was co-founded by bestselling author Cassandra Clare, an author who broke into professional authorship with her YA series The Mortal Instruments.
This is the case for the preservation of fanfiction archives as a preservation of literature’s evolution: alongside Clare, names such as E.L. James, Naomi Novik, Neil Gaiman, John Scalzi, and Lev Grossman are just a few that are closely linked to the practice of writing fanfiction. Some have published fanfic and later evolved it into original stories for publication. Others drew on the themes of their fandoms to create new worlds, while still others openly support the practice of writing fanfiction not merely as a creative endeavor, but as a means of communicating directly with fictional worlds and individuals—as a new and wild frontier in the world of art.
There’s a division here, a geological fault line, that looks small on the surface but runs deep into our culture, and the tectonic plates are only moving farther apart. Is art about making up new things or about transforming the raw material that’s out there? Cutting, pasting, sampling, remixing and mashing up have become mainstream modes of cultural expression, and fan fiction is part of that. It challenges just about everything we thought we knew about art and creativity.– Lev Grossman, TIME Magazine – The Boy Who Lived Forever
The maze of rooms, doors, zigzagging staircases, and windows looking out on nothing came to a conclusive and definite end when construction ceased on the Winchester Mystery House in 1922. The state of California now preserves it as an architectural marvel, a wonder of its time. Fanfiction, however, is infinite. Centralized archives ensure its survival and allow for a custom experience. Older sites such as the Kirk/Spock Fanfiction Archive, old fanzines, and other such collectives may not be protected by government entities, but groups like Open Doors will not allow these marvels and histories to vanish into the binary code of the World Wide Web. They will not let these stories be lost, nor will they allow the world to forget the larger stories that these creations have been a part of: the story of art, the story of human culture, and the story of world history.
For the house that fans built, one carefully chosen word at a time, the construction truly is an endeavor that will never end.
Liz Carlie, the Mad Woman with a Box, a regular book reviewer for SCIFI.radio and a regular guest on ‘The Event Horizon’. She has been in and around science fiction fandom for years, and works with the American Red Cross on blood drives at science fiction conventions all over Southern California.