Archives in the News: 'Archive of Our Own' Wins Hugo Award
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
There's a lot to be excited about in this one piece, so I'll try to contain myself. At the 2019 Hugo Awards in Dublin, Ireland the fanfiction website Archive of Our Own (AO3) won for Best Related Fanwork!
Established in 2007 via the nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), this is the first time the website has been nominated for an award and to come away with a Hugo is a big deal. Not only is it recognition from one of the biggest science fiction literary societies, but it's also confirmation of the importance of fan-created art and the necessity of building communities in order to preserve art and culture. On their About page, AO3 specifically states the purpose of the website:
...to serve the interests of fans by providing access to and preserving the history of fanworks and fan culture in its myriad forms. We believe that fanworks are transformative and that transformative works are legitimate.
We are proactive and innovative in protecting and defending our work from commercial exploitation and legal challenge. We preserve our fannish economy, values, and creative expression by protecting and nurturing our fellow fans, our work, our commentary, our history, and our identity while providing the broadest possible access to fannish activity for all fans.
Fanfiction is by no means a new thing. People have been writing it for a long time. The first use of the term "fan fiction" in print was in 1939 as a means of criticizing amateur science fiction writers. It wasn't until the 1960s that modern fanfiction and fan communities rose around the creation of fanzines. And what fandom did a good portion of this community center around? Star Trek. And who made up the majority of contributors to fanzines featuring Star Trek fanfiction? Women. The Star Trek fanzines were also the first instance of slash fiction - Kirk/Spock - where authors paired the two characters in a romantic relationship outside of the official canon.
The relationship between fan-created works, specifically fanfiction, and the authors of the original work, however, has been contentious over the years. Some creators have embraced or, at least, acknowledged the relationship between their work and fandom (J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, Neil Gaiman) while others have shunned the communities for infringing on their property (Lucasfilm, Anne Rice, George R.R. Martin). The biggest difference between now and, say, the Elizabethan era fanfiction of Shakespeare is our modern day copyright laws that prohibits profiting from the established works of others. That doesn't mean writing fanfiction can't be lucrative. Regardless of your feelings for E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey books and movie adaptations, they started as Twilight fanfiction.
And while the Hugo win for AO3 is a big deal for readers and writers of fanfiction, myself included, what strikes me as the greatest accomplishment of the website is the community archive built around the shared desire to preserve and celebrate fan-created works. Naomi Novik, co-founder of AO3 and Hugo nominee for her book Spinning Silver, accepted the Hugo and said this in her speech:
All fanwork, from fanfic to vids to fanart to podfic, centers the idea that art happens not in isolation but in community. And that is true of the AO3 itself. We’re up here accepting, but only on behalf of literally thousands of volunteers and millions of users, all of whom have come together and built this thriving home for fandom, a nonprofit and non-commercial community space built entirely by volunteer labor and user donations, on the principle that we needed a place of our own that was not out to exploit its users but to serve them.
Even if I listed every founder, every builder, every tireless support staff member and translator and tag wrangler, if I named every last donor, all our hard work and contributions would mean nothing without the work of the fan creators who share their work freely with other fans, and the fans who read their stories and view their art and comment and share bookmarks and give kudos to encourage them and nourish the community in their turn.
It's a beautiful acknowledgement of the work that goes into building and sustaining a thriving collaborative space. The archival community should, at the very least, look to the success of AO3 as an example of a community archives. There was a need for space and protection from exploitation and AO3 (and OTW) provided those needs. Users donate, volunteer, or create for the site and retain control over their work, how that work is discovered, and how they want to engage with the community at large. Websites like AO3 are becoming the norm and the archival community needs to look to them as part of the future of our profession. Hopefully this award win will shine a greater light on what makes fan-created community archives worthy of out attention and investment.