Lynne M. Thomas wasn’t always a geek. “I didn’t grow up reading a ton of science fiction and fantasy,” she says. “I’m a fairly recent convert.”
It’s rather surprising, given how Thomas has become known as “Archivist Lynne,” a fixture in the world of science fiction and fantasy fandom who shares her archiving expertise, collaborates with working authors, and enthusiastically celebrates and preserves materials that are not always considered “proper” literature. She has also made her own contributions to the field as an editor and podcaster, and has been recognized for that work with several Hugo Awards and nominations.
Thomas brings the same passion and dedication to her role as curator of Rare Books and Special Collections for NIU Libraries, where she works to expand the collections and share them with the community.
Finding her calling
Thomas received bachelor’s degrees in French and comparative literature from Smith College, where she also worked in the rare books room. It was there that she found her calling. “That was how it all got started,” she says. “I’ve literally worked my way up from student assistant to curator.”
After obtaining her master’s in library science from the University of Illinois, Thomas took a short-term position at the Yale University Library. It was during this time that, thanks to her husband, Michael, she became interested in science fiction—the television series Doctor Who, in particular—and in the world of science fiction and fantasy fandom.
As her time at Yale ended, Thomas applied for the position of head of Rare Books and Special Collections at NIU—a department unique for its focus on popular literature, including science fiction. “They had had trouble filling the position,” she says, “because many classically trained rare books librarians—if they’re geeky about populist things, they’re quiet about it; it’s not really a scholarly interest for them.”
As Thomas’ interest in science fiction, as well as her belief in the field’s cultural and historical relevance, grew stronger, it became apparent that NIU was a perfect fit. “I love the materials that I’m responsible for and that makes me more passionate about expanding the collections.”
A diverse collection
Since her arrival at NIU in 2004, Thomas has been in charge of the now approximately 150,000 items that comprise the department’s 40-plus collections. American popular culture materials—including Western magazines, comic books, children’s literature, and the third largest collection of dime novels in the
country—account for close to 50 percent of the collections.
“We provide tangible evidence of our own history so that students can learn to think critically about what they’re putting into their world.” —Lynne M. Thomas
The collections also include materials from private Midwest presses, books that demonstrate or discuss the history and art of book making, radical political pamphlets, and a robust science fiction collection that contains the literary papers of more than 60 science fiction and fantasy authors.
The diversity of the collections ensures its usefulness to the entire campus. As Thomas explains, “I can provide teaching support for classes in dozens of disciplines. Our most used materials tend to be for classes in English and history, which is not a surprise, but we also work with black studies students, we work with gender studies, we work with music folks, we work with our medieval studies program, the museum studies program.”
When a class visits Rare Books and Special Collections, Thomas shares first and early editions of the materials they are studying, as well as supplementary texts from the same time period to provide historical context. Thomas believes the experience is often eye-opening for students, and that the collection’s strength in populist materials makes it all the more relevant to them. “We provide tangible evidence of our own history so that students can learn to think critically about what they’re putting into their world and what they’re getting out of their world. We do that through popular culture materials, which are often much easier for students to identify with than ‘high-culture’ materials.”
The embedded curator
After her arrival at NIU, in addition to hosting classes and otherwise managing the day-to-day operations of the department, Thomas began to embed herself in the world of science fiction and fantasy fandom by attending and participating in conventions. “I routinely did panels about libraries and archives, talking about how one does archiving and what kinds of things you should save and how to do it.”
Thomas found the community to be welcoming and receptive. In what she calls an “experiment that went amazingly right,” she began to use her presence at conventions to initiate contact with authors about their literary papers. “When you go to a convention that has a sufficient number of professionals or a convention that’s relatively small and intimate, that means you have a good chance of having a substantive conversation with someone about their literary legacy and their papers; what they’re doing with them and whether they’ve even thought about it.”
The approach proved most successful—the library now holds the manuscript materials and literary papers of 61 science fiction and fantasy authors. And Thomas is an accepted—and celebrated—member of the community.
In addition to campus educator and convention fixture, Thomas received another hat to wear in 2009 when she was asked to co-edit, with Tara O’Shea, a book of essays dedicated to the television series Doctor Who. With some help from her husband, Michael (her “unseen, unpaid assistant”), the resulting volume, Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It, was published by Mad Norwegian Press in 2010. “It’s basically a love letter to fandom and to Doctor Who. We were thrilled that the Doctor Who and general science fiction fandom communities embraced it.”
And embrace it they did. The book received a 2011 Hugo Award for Best Related Work. Thrilled at even the nomination, Thomas jokes of the whole experience, “Is it ever a bad thing when someone says, ‘We love you!’ and hands you a big, shiny award? I don’t think it is.”
The award was especially meaningful to Thomas due to its peer-nomination process. “I can’t underestimate how important it was to have the support and approbation of my peers in the science fiction community, but also the support of my colleagues at NIU to have the freedom to work on projects like this,” she continues, “to be at an institution that supports this kind of work within the community because they understand that part of what I’m doing is documenting that community.”
“Having a space where imagination rules supreme, which is what we do here, is really important.” —Lynne M. Thomas
Thomas has since co-edited two other “Geek Girl Guides,” Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them, and Chicks Dig Comics. She is also the editor-in-chief of Apex Magazine, which publishes science fiction, horror, and fantasy.
In 2012, Thomas received another Hugo Award for Best Fancast for her work on the SF Squeecast, a podcast that brings together members of the science fiction and fantasy community to share favorite works in the field, and a nomination for Best Semiprozine for her editorial work on Apex Magazine.
Preserving the future
Even with all those hats to balance, Thomas is looking towards the future. “The next phase professionally for me is focusing on fundraising for Rare Books and Special Collections. For our collections to grow in a sustainable manner, I’m going to need to focus on things like encouraging people to build endowments for the collections. We have a lot of really wonderful materials and we don’t have a way to sustain them long-term.”
In an economic environment where even the most pragmatic disciplines are facing reduced funding, Thomas says that support for the humanities tends to be considered secondary. Yet, she believes that NIU’s Rare Books and Special Collections department has something extremely valuable to offer. “Having a space where imagination rules supreme, which is what we do here, is really important,” she says. “There are a lot of people who work and function in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] fields who are science fiction fans, and the reason they went into STEM fields is because they read science fiction.”
For Thomas, it all comes back to the power of stories. “As much as I understand the importance of fundamentals, it’s often the ‘extra stuff’ that gives you the fundamentals. They do it in a weird way; they do it through themed learning communities where you’re thinking about greening a campus, and suddenly you’re learning about engineering because you need to figure out how to make that HVAC system more efficient—but you wouldn’t have thought about doing that until you got interested in the problem in the first place. And maybe you didn’t get interested in the environment until you were read a Dr. Seuss story as a kid that focused on the environment.”
Thomas continues, “How we tell each other what’s important is based on the stories we tell, and the stories change to reflect the times we live in—but you can’t know that if you’re not collecting the stories over time.” Preserving and sharing those stories is Thomas’ life work. We are lucky she is doing that work at NIU.