The University of Iowa

FanFiction at the Library


Andrew Frisbie

Collection Development Librarian, North Liberty Community Library

Posted on: March 1, 2016

Zelda fan art by Jinny Liang
I have been working in libraries since I was 16, when I started working at the library in my hometown of Atlantic, Iowa. I worked at the university libraries for both Iowa State and the University of Iowa during my student years.  I received my Master in Library and Information Sciences from the University of Iowa in the fall of 2006.  I have been the Youth and Teen Services Librarian at the North Liberty Community Library in North Liberty, Iowa, for 10 years.  I have nearly 10,000 comic books and have created my own system for organizing them, similar to the Dewey Decimal System. In short, a born librarian.

In the ten years I have worked at my library, I have developed strong relationships with many of the youth who come through our doors.  I tend to get chatty with regulars about what they are reading.  Many are skittish at first.  I was the same way when I was younger: “Oh no, this adult is noticing me!”  Through ordinary library interactions (checking out books, looking for titles on the shelves), I’ve convinced many of them who are in the fifth grade or older to volunteer for the library.

One of my volunteers a couple of years ago was Shelby.  She had been coming in with her mom and was clearly an avid reader, but she didn’t talk much.  As a volunteer, Shelby helped me manage our twice monthly Lego free-build time, and we would work on craft preparation during the off weeks.  It took some time and effort, but when I got her talking, she revealed she likes to read fanfiction online.

Fanfiction (or fanfic) is a really big deal to some adolescents.  For everyone else, there is the wrinkling nose and “Really?” reaction.  Those who are into it write their own stories set in an established fictional universe, often from a popular existing book. For example, the Harry Potter series is an extremely popular basis for creating fanfic.  The writer might change the scenarios of the existing stories or write about the events from another character’s perspective.  Other varieties of fanfiction involve the authors inserting themselves into the story.

Shelby was an avid fanfic reader, and she was dipping her toes into writing some herself.   Other teens had revealed they wrote fanfic, but they were extremely secretive about it and reluctant to show it off.  Shelby also was shy, but just talking about what she had read and what she would like to write gave her a confidence boost.  Each week, she shared a little more.

Eventually I suggested we should start our own fanfic project.  We set some very general rules such as no put downs and only constructive criticisms.  These probably were not necessary with someone of Shelby’s character, but the rules gave us reassurance.  Like Shelby, I had written fanfiction before, but shared it very sparingly.  This gave me some experience with writing new stories in a pre-existing fictional universe, but I didn’t have a lot of experience talking about it or having someone else read it.

Shelby and I decided to each write a couple of pages and then swap our work the following week to continue what the other person had started.  Then we would swap back to the original writer and continue.  Without prior knowledge, we actually chose the same fictional universe in the same time period to write in.  It was a video game universe, The Legend of Zelda.  Shelby inserted herself into the story as a character, and I wrote from the perspective of the main character.  The main character of The Legend of Zelda never speaks, so he’s sort of a blank slate in terms of actual character.

When we swapped our writing to continue the other person’s story, I decided to retype Shelby’s handwritten sheets to make it easier to add on my contribution.  Although I am an avid reader, I don’t claim to be a great writer or always use correct grammar.  As for spelling, I would be lost without spellcheck.  In retyping her pages, I made some slight grammatical and punctuation changes to Shelby’s writing.  When we met to exchange papers again, we talked about what we liked in the other’s story, and I described the minor changes I made.  I didn’t want it to feel like it was an assignment or that she was being graded, but I also didn’t want to encourage bad grammar.  I also explained that small edits were normal when making a revision, and that we probably would always make a few mistakes when focusing on capturing our ideas.

We discussed what the stories could do moving forward, and because we had two characters in the same universe, they slowly merged into one story.  Over a couple of months we swapped stories, six times. It was a great experience.  It was reading, it was writing, and it was collaborative.  With most of the kids and teens who are regulars at the library, my first question is, typically, “What are you reading?”  With Shelby it has become, “What are you writing?”  She is always working on something, and although I don’t think she has ever posted any of her work online, I encourage her to do so.

I realize fanfiction is not the most stellar writing available for teens to read.  I have combed some of the larger fanfic websites just to see what’s out there, and it runs the gamut from the really interesting to the really bad.  At the time of this writing, had over 22,000 pages with 25 stories per page just in their Harry Potter section.  That’s over half a million fan-made Harry Potter stories on one site alone.  I know that a lot of authors don’t like their characters being treated in such a manner and don’t approve of fanfiction on principle.  I just saw it as a fun way to get a shy kid to come out of her shell a little, and from the volume of fanfiction out there, I feel the concept has helped others find their voice as well.  Shelby still volunteers in the summer when she has more free time.  I expect I’ll see her this summer.  When I’ve talked about this with other staff, we’ve brainstormed starting it up again as a group: Fanfiction Anonymous.  I’m hoping Shelby will be a charter member.

Artwork by Jinny Liang