The Origins of a Collection

This essay was written by Hal W. Hall, the Curator of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Collection from its inception until his retirement in August 2010. A version of this piece is published in the catalog for 100 Years Hence: Science Fiction & Fantasy at Texas A&M.

 

Why is there a science fiction collection at Texas A&M University?  Like most stories, it is a bit convoluted.

 

In 1968, I came to Texas A&M for an interview, and arrived early for a reason.  I had read about a “science fiction collection” in the A&M library, and wanted to see it.  I asked at the desk, and the attendant was stumped, so I was directed to the reference librarian.  “Science fiction collection?  I have no idea.”  After a bit more consulting, I was taken to a small 3 shelf bookshelf, half full of Science Fiction Book Club titles.  Heck, I had more science fiction than that.  And so I departed Texas A&M, unsuccessful in either the job search or the collection search.  Two years later, I returned as the serials librarian, still interested in science fiction.

 

Any collection starts with an interest:  a collector, a fan, or a scholar develops an interest, and buys a book or an artifact.  Other items are added over time, until a unique and important collection has resulted.  The story at Texas A&M follows this plot, with several actors.

 

In 1970, as the new serials librarian, I was reading a “fanzine” – a newly developed interest of mine.  In the “fanzine,” near the back, was a 4-line advertisement:  Science fiction magazines for sale, 2000 issues.  Since I liked to read science fiction, this caught my eye.  I went to the Director of the library, Dr. John Smith, and suggested we buy the magazines and start a “real” science fiction collection, since the cost was reasonable at one dollar per issue.  Dr. Smith, being a good librarian, contacted the English Department and the College of Engineering, asking for their thoughts on a science fiction collection.  The English Department response was positive, if not overwhelming: this is an engineering school, so that sounds like a good addition.  The College of Engineering, on the other hand, was quite enthusiastic about a science fiction collection:  “Engineers look good in science fiction!”  So the die was cast.  We would build a collection

 

The magazine collection was purchased, and additional issues were located and purchased, singly and in large groups.  Another ad in a fanzine offered “Weird Tales – near complete” with a Chicago phone number.  Back to the Director –  “This is a great deal on a scarce and important magazine, for only $600.00.”  “But it is a pulp – how do we know the condition?  Fly to Chicago and examine the material.”  $1,500 dollars later, Weird Tales was on the way to College Station.  Trust would have been cheaper!  A few months later, another one-line ad, this time for Astounding, resulting in a complete bound collection from the first issue through 1975, for $750.00. 

 

Concurrently, Vicki Anders, Head of Monograph Acquisitions, started collecting books.  One of her initiatives was to buy paperbacks from the students.  She offered fifty cents each for the books, and would take two of each title.  The Aggies knew a good deal when they heard it, and responded with vigor, resulting in about 10,000 paperback books within two or three years.  A beginning of the hardcover collection was made in those same years. 

 

By 1974, the collection was of a size and scope to be respectable, so a formal announcement was scheduled.  On October, 28th, 1974, the Texas A&M University Libraries announced the “Science Fiction Research Collection” at a formal event in the library.  Among the guests were Thomas D. Clareson, the head of the newly formed Science Fiction Research Association, and James E. Gunn, a well-known writer of science fiction. 

 

The collection continued to grow under the direction of Donald H. Dyal, adding both in the area of published materials and in archives and manuscript collections, and later under the care of Stephen E. Smith and David Chapman. 

 

One of Don Dyal’s contacts was George R. R. Martin.  After a long correspondence, Martin chose the Cushing Library as the repository for his papers.  Over the past twenty years, he has continuously added to his archive, at the rate of one to three boxes ever month or so.  He is a natural archivist.  His materials come to the library well-protected in wrapping material and sturdy boxes, with a typed listing of the contents of each box – extremely helpful when a book is in Japanese, or a collection of papers is a challenge to identify.  The regular deposits make collection maintenance a pleasure.  By accident or design, this is a model of the best kind of relationship between writer and archive.

 

Over the years, the papers of Chad Oliver, Howard Waldrop, Bill Crider, and Martha Wells have come to Cushing, as well as the Star Trek collections of Tim Weaver and Sharon Faye Wilbur.  A small set of linguistics books came to Cushing, all signed by J. R. R. Tolkien.  A collection of comics was donated, and continues to grow.  An archive of the Southern Fandom Press Alliance added breadth and uniqueness to the collection, as do a number of other collections.

 

Today, the collection contains 27,945 titles, over 46,000 pieces, and houses some 100 archival collections.  It ranks in the top ten collections of science fiction and fantasy in the United States, and has been used regularly by visiting international scholars.  A wide variety of books and articles have been generated using the resources of the Science Fiction Research Collection.  This exhibition highlights the treasures of the collection, and give a flavor of the field, touching on authors, history, themes, and the unexpected connections that exist in the science fiction world. 

 

It is a work in progress, with more material promised to the collection in the future.  The pleasure of building a science fiction and fantasy research collection truly does lie in the journey, not the destination.

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “The Origins of a Collection

  1. Thanks!! My colleague Hal Hall, who recently retired this past fall, started the blog, and I’ve been attempting to revitalize it. Adding more content is one of my goals for this year, because we do a lot of neat things that I want to try to document. 🙂

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