What SFWA Authors Need to Know about
Archiving Their Literary Papers1

by Lynne M. Thomas
Head, Rare Books and Special Collections,
Northern Illinois University

BooksWhat do you mean, literary papers?
Literary papers can also be referred to as manuscripts, foul papers, or archives (even when we’re talking about electronic files). They document your individual writing process, from “this is a great idea for a story or novel,” through numerous drafts, to “hurrah, it’s published at last.” Receipts with story ideas on the back, any and all drafts including critiqued manuscripts, copy-edited manuscripts, and page proofs are all considered part of your literary papers.

Why would anybody want this stuff?
You and your work are important. Science fiction and fantasy literature permeates our culture. The mission of libraries, archives, and museums is to document our culture. We want to preserve the historical record of the SF/F field in all of its diversity for future researchers. The best way to do that is to collect the materials that are created by writers working in the field, right now, before those drafts get thrown away or accidentally destroyed in the next laptop crash. Authors who donate their literary papers are more likely to be studied in the future, merely because they have taken steps to guarantee that their papers will survive. Toni Morrison nearly lost her life’s work in a house fire. Jane Austen’s literary papers were scattered to the winds, and only recently reunited digitally; the vast majority of her letters, which would have provided additional insight into her life and work, were burned by her sister Cassandra after her death.

Archival collections often document Very Famous or Important People ™, but they also document the experiences of what it is really like for the average person in any given field. You can’t study the day-to-day life of a genre writer if nothing is left to document the wide variety of subgenres and career paths that create such depth and breadth of influence both in and outside of the genre.

We often don’t know who will qualify as “important” until well after the fact (cf. H.P. Lovecraft). Individual writers, groups, and sub-genres are re-evaluated over time. But that can’t happen if the literary papers documenting them no longer exist. So please, assume that you are Important.

Okay, so who would want this stuff?
There are many libraries, archives, and museums that collect the literary archives of SF/F authors. You might try places such as your alma mater, or (if you already work at an academic institution) your place of work. The best fit for your papers will probably be a library that already collects SF/F literature and archives. In an SF/F-friendly library, your materials, once available for research, stay together alongside those of your peers and colleagues, providing greater context for your work.

As you might be aware, there is also a collector’s market out there for literary papers. The advantage to selling your manuscripts is simple: cash. The disadvantage is that it’s likely that your archive will be broken up, making future scholarship (and other retrospectives of your work, such as reprints in anthologies) very difficult, especially since most libraries don’t have budgets for purchasing archival collections (Cf. Andre Norton). Only certain portions of your archive may sell (i.e. the manuscripts for books that won awards, but not the others). You might not find a buyer at a price you are willing to accept, or at all.

In the computer age, the market for literary papers is shifting, sometimes dramatically. Many contemporary authors’ literary papers are electronic, which has less value to collectors. As publishers move to paperless editorial systems, original literary papers on paper are disappearing. A manuscript print-out is worth less in an age where an author can print out numerous copies of each manuscript, while still retaining the original electronic file. The literary archives of current authors will likely have much less market value than those of previous generations.

How do I figure out who will want my literary papers?
Colleen Cahill of the Library of Congress has put together a list of SF/F friendly libraries that are actively collecting SF/F books, which she kindly furnished as an appendix to this article. Some, but not all, are also collecting SF/F literary papers.2 Start with Colleen’s list. Look at SF/F collection websites. Talk to archivists, curators, and librarians. Every collection is different, but most have some guidelines that sketch out what they are and are not looking for to add to their collections.

What if I’m embarrassed to ask?
Archivists don’t consider it gauche to be asked if they want your archives. This is what they do. Don’t be discouraged if an institution says no. It just means your collection is not the right fit for that particular institution–try another. Talk to your friends, colleagues, and peers, to see what they are doing.

Sadly, the tax break that you will get for donating those materials is negligible, because you are the creator of the materials. The IRS rules were set up thinking in terms of keeping painters from donating quick sketches to get big tax breaks (think Picasso using a sketch on a napkin to pay his café bill, and you’ll be on track). So creators (that’s you) can’t deduct the market value of your materials, just the cost of their physical production (toner, paper, etc.). The library and art museum community are lobbying to change these rules, but we aren’t there yet. Alternately, you can arrange to bequeath your materials to the archive of your choice, and your estate may benefit from the more substantive, market-value-based deduction.3

Ok, fine. How do I actually go about archiving my literary papers, then?

    1. Start early. You do not have to be dead (or nearly dead) before you begin thinking about the disposition of your archives. In fact, it’s preferable to begin the process earlier rather than later, so that you know what to keep over the course of your career. This goes double for electronic materials, because they are more difficult to maintain over the long term than paper. I don’t know about you, but I have floppy disks that my current computer can no longer read. When those floppy disks contain the first drafts of your novels, that’s bad. Computers die. Technology changes. It’s important to migrate your electronic files forward, since in many cases, they are the original manuscripts.
    Developing a relationship with the library that will eventually house your legacy means that you will also have more control over what happens to your papers. That way, you won’t need to scramble when dealing with end-of-life issues, and your loved ones and literary executors will know your wishes after you pass. This ensures that you can be comfortable with the way your archives are treated before you no longer have control over them.
    2. Really? THIS stuff? But I don’t even show these awful drafts to my wife/critique partner/agent/pet iguana!
    You should be saving anything that documents your personal writing process. That includes everything from your jotted down plot points on envelopes to any and all drafts (even that first one you want to disown), to critiqued manuscripts, to page proofs and ARCs, to copies of the completed book if you have them handy. Every writing process is different (for some writers each novel’s process is different from the last). It’s hard for scholars to compare and contrast different drafts of materials to see how a novel is shaped, or to compare writing processes between two short story critique partners, if the documentation of those processes doesn’t exist to begin with. Documenting how you work helps to demonstrate that writing is work, and should be valued as such.
    3. What else should I be saving? These are typically found in a literary archive, in addition to the manuscripts of works in their various stages.
    • Rejection letters, editorial letters, and other writing-related correspondence. This can be done a bit at a time, if you like. That correspondence documents how the market for long and short-form fiction works, which is rather key when you’re studying that market. (Yes, email counts.)
    • Your Blog/LiveJournal, particularly if you talk about writing. While it is important to also document the SF/F slap fights that invariably turn up, for many writers, blogs have become the equivalent of writing notebooks. There are lots of lovely little programs that help you archive your blog posts, like LJArchive and WordPress Archive , for example.
    • Your authorial website, in as many incarnations as you can document. Even if you haven’t done it before now, the next time you do a redesign, how about a snapshot of your backup before the new site goes live? It can tell us quite a bit about design aesthetics within the genre, as well as about the sophistication of web design and advancing technology for the period.
    • Ephemera from conventions, speaking engagements, and awards ceremonies you have attended. Do you attend conventions? Have you been a Guest of Honor? Did/do you only see your favorite remote critique partner at one convention each year? We need to know that. It helps us to draw connections between you and your friends and critique partners.
    • Examples of promotional materials for your work. Did you create bookmarks, postcards, pens, and other freebies to promote your work? Did your publisher? Examples of each would be welcome, helping to document how marketing works in the field.
    • A Grocery List. I say this with my tongue firmly planted in cheek, but at some point, some graduate student may be writing a paper about What Genre Authors Eat. What I’m trying to get at, though, is some documentation of your quotidiana. Your appointment book from three years ago. A grocery list. A “honey-do” list for home maintenance. We want to see What Real Life Is Like For A Writer.
    • Here’s what can wait until you’re good and ready (or not here to see it happen): love letters to your spouse(s) or partner(s). Tax documents. Pictures of your children and pets. Personal correspondence that might be relevant to your biography, but isn’t ready for the world to see just yet because you don’t want to deal with answering questions about it. These can all be dealt with as part of your estate, if you prefer. While it does seem rather intimate, this is how we study your writing influences (friends and family and pets), and the economics and business of writing (tax information, business correspondence).
    4. What if I have already thrown away archival materials before now? It’s ok. Really. Better to have a portion of your archive intact than none at all. Just start saving materials from now on.
    5. How do you get the materials into the collection, once we reach an agreement? Each institution is different, but these are some common things to look out for.
    Get your agreement in writing. Most libraries and archives will offer you a document called a “deed of gift.” (If they don’t, be sure to ask for one). This agreement spells out very clearly between you and the institution how your papers will be dealt with, including things like copyright (which you and your literary heirs keep), physical handling, restrictions on access to the collection if needed, and what happens if the institution or you change your mind later about the collection. Like any contract, make sure you understand it before you sign it.
    Any discussion of your archives should also consider your literary heirs and/or literary executors. I know we don’t like to think about death, but if you decide that you’re going to archive somewhere, and then you pass away without telling anyone your plans, you can’t guarantee that your plans will be followed. Make sure that the person you’ve entrusted with your estate knows your plan for your papers. Ideally, you will have made this decision already, and be working actively with your archivist. Even more ideally, your heirs/executors have at least met said archivist (online or in person), thus removing at least one level of social awkwardness and distress at a very difficult time. Better yet, spell your wishes out in your will, just to be sure. You do have a will, right?
    6. I’ve got an awful lot of stuff here. Going through it all will take FOREVER. Not necessarily. Talk to your selected archivist-librarian-curator. We may be able to come to your house to pick up materials, or to arrange to have them shipped to our libraries. We may also take materials in manageable chunks, rather than all at once. I encourage writers who archive at NIU to keep an archival box as they work. Whenever a short story is completed, all of the drafts go into the box. When a novel requiring a map is published, the original map and the materials involved in the novel’s creation go into the box. When the box is full, it gets shipped to NIU’s archives, or picked up in person at home or at a convention. One box is achievable, right? The time between writing projects is often a good opportunity to gather and box up materials for your archives.
    7. How do I keep my papers in good shape until they find a home? 95% of preservation for paper-based materials is keeping them in the dark, in an environmentally controlled area. Your bedroom closet is perfect for archival storage: relatively consistent temperature and humidity, and it’s dark in there when you’re not using it. If you need more space, like a basement, be sure to consistently run a dehumidifier if you live in an area of the country where basements get damp. You can use boxes, or plastic tubs; whatever strikes your fancy. Try to keep your containers up off of the floor, just in case you have a flood.
    8. How organized do I need to be? That really depends on you, and the archive you are working with. Labeling things and keeping some sort of logical order to how things are produced is good. Spending a large amount of time creating spreadsheet inventories is probably overkill for most people. Basically, it’s very helpful if you don’t take large stacks of paper, throw them in the air saying “Whee!” and re-assemble said stacks in random order before eventually donating them to an archive.
    9. What about all of my electronic files? Backing up your files to an online dropbox, a gmail account, or a portable hard drive (or even better, all three!) is a good way to ensure that if your computer crashes, your manuscripts will live on until you’re ready to deposit them in a library. Every library is at a different stage of preserving the digital files that they are entrusted with, but we are all well aware of its necessity, and we’re working on it. Talk to your archivist about how to go about depositing electronic files. It may be as easy as a blind-copy to an email account, a digital drop box, or copying files to portable hard drives, CDs, DVDs, flash drives, etc. for inclusion in an institutional repository or digital preservation system. How much electronic material is publicly available and when is based on your deed of gift agreement and copyright. In other words, no, we will not be putting all of your stuff out on the internet for all to see without your express permission. We will, however, maintain multiple non-public copies accessible only to staff so that your digital objects survive long enough for them to go out of copyright).
    10. What happens to my materials when they get to the library or archive? Every library is a little bit different, but here’s how it works at NIU. First, NIU writes you a thank you note, broadly listing what you have given us. That thank you note is accompanied by our deed of gift document, also listing what you’ve given NIU in greater detail, which we ask you to sign and return to NIU. Once we get it back, I sign it, and so does my Dean, and NIU mails you a copy of the fully signed deed, keeping the original in NIU’s files.
    NIU’s special collections department is a secure, environmentally controlled area of the library (like your bedroom closet, but with an alarm system and cheerful staff). Your physical papers are kept in the dark when they are not in use.
    To make them ready for patron use, special collections staffers “process” them. Your paper-based items are transferred into acid-free boxes and folders to help them survive longer, and then a list of what lives in which box is made available to the public. Libraries may reorganize the materials slightly (how much depends on the library or archive) so that like things live together. When a patron wants to use materials, they can simply look at the public listing, and request the boxes relevant to their needs. When they have completed their research, the library gets the boxes back, and they go back on the shelves until they are needed again.
    NIU’s library is currently in beta testing of our institutional repository and digital preservation setup, so digital objects are currently backed up on two external hard drives and the central campus servers. Once the preservation system is fully configured, those files will be transferred into the system, and the appropriate metadata (descriptive information to help with searching) added. Access to these objects is worked out with the donors to ensure compliance with copyright law and the donor’s wishes, while still encouraging research use where possible.
    11. Do you want money for this? Will it cost me anything? Some libraries ask for a financial gift with the acquisition of collections; others do not. NIU doesn’t require any financial donation along with the donation of your literary archives, for example.
    Funds to help support the acquisition, processing, and maintenance of your literary papers and those of your peers, however, are always welcome. Literary papers don’t just magically appear on the shelves, fully processed and accessible. It takes the work of professional librarians, archivists, library staff, and systems technicians to maintain, protect, and organize all of those paper and electronic materials you just gave us so that they will remain accessible long after we’re all gone.
    I’ve never met a librarian who didn’t say “hurrah!” when told that money had been given or bequeathed to help with their collections. Endowments (an ongoing fund that when invested, creates interest), ensure ongoing support and growth of our collections by paying for purchases that add to the collections, academic conferences, or fellowships for scholars to come here and use the materials.
    This is a basic summary of how archiving works, but every institution is different. The most important thing is to begin the discussion sooner rather than later, so that a plan is in place before it’s too late to make one.


[1] This guide is adapted and expanded from a blog post that I originally published in 2010 on my blog, Confessions of a Curator.
[2] Full disclosure: I work at one of those libraries actively collecting literary papers, which is why I was asked to write this.
[3] Gifts to non-profits (like libraries) may require professional appraisals in order to receive a market-value tax deduction. Please see IRS form 8323 for details.