The Observatory: Scanners (Do Not) Live in Vain

(My copy of the April 1969 issue of F&SF, cover by Bert Tanner. Mind the tape and torn corner!)

Today we’ll be talking about one of my favorite topics that is not myself: preservation. The question of preservation is one that has haunted the SFF landscape since at least the ’40s, when we started seeing select stories from the magazines get immortalized via hardcover anthology reprints. Adventures in Time and Space (ed. Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas) and The Best of Science Fiction (ed. Groff Conklin), published the same year, were big deals at the time because they were chunky hardcover volumes funded by mainstream publishers (Random House and Crown Publishers respectively) which rescued stories deemed worthy of rescue from the brittle pages of pulp magazines. And these were quite literally pulp magazines, both in the quality of the paper and the dimensions of the volumes, although by 1946 Astounding Science Fiction had transitioned to the relatively sturdier digest format; but even this would not be enough.

The truth is, magazines are not built to last; they have been, for as long as we’ve had them, meant as disposabls, with exceptions. Presumably the format of a magazine determines both its monetary value and how likely it is to withstand the merciless forces of time: for example, the aforementioned pulp magazines were cheap and nowadays, if you could find them at all, would be all torn and battered and tanned almost being recognitions. Conversely you have something like Omni, or even that phase in Analog‘s life where it tried out the bedsheet format, whose volumes are extraordinarily tall and wide, and made of fine smooth paper that would not tan or tear so easily, the result being that these are fine collector’s items. Seeing, however, that the digest format has been the standard since the death of the pulps, by far the most likely format you’ll find for a vintage SFF magazine is the digest format. Consider that in 1965 all of the surviving SFF magazines on the US market had virtually identical dimensions, with the difference in hardiness between say, Analog and F&SF, being now more subtle.

I’ve learned from first-hand experience that collecting F&SF from the ’60s and ’70s is a bit of a dangerous game, because for some reason copies of this magazines and era are especially brittle. Pictues above is my copy of the April 1969 issue, which didn’t start out with the tape forcibly marrying the front cover to the body of the magazine: the front cover just sort of tore itself off completely while I was going through its pages one day. At first the idea of taping a magazine together struck me as a little dirty, but then I realized that it’s better to have that than a volume with a missing front cover. I have another F&SF issue from 1969 whose spine snapped clean in half, the volume now being held together by the thin paper on the spine and Allah’s infinite mercy. I have several volumes which feels as though they might break apart in my hands if I handle them no less gently than my girlfriend during a much needed cuddling session.

Indeed some magazines are hardier. I have a good portion of Bova-era Analog on my shelf and these bastards have barely seen damage in the half-century that they’ve been in someone’s possession. But there are a couple exceptions where the spine (it’s usually the spine) has now encountered a crisis of faith and is no longer as sure if it wants to stay in one piece. And the less said about my copies of Galaxy Science Fiction (the ’60s ones, the ’70s ones are basically fine) the better. My point being that the magazines I physically have are old and must be handled with care—a good deal more care than needs be shown towards a hardcover or even paperback volume of the same vintage. These things were not meant to last.

The vast majority of the magazines I use for my review site are not physical copies but digital scans, either from the Internet Archive or Luminist. I’m pretty shameless about this because I think it’s necessary, for both my wallet and for the sake of preserving magazines, to rely on scans, which of course means we need people with physical copies and the tech with which to scan them and upload them to the internet. Scanners are some of the most important people in keeping track of our field’s history, despite them often being anonymous and looked down upon by anti-piracy purists. Scanners are what make my review site possible; without them I probably would’ve never become an SFF blogger, and I also probably would not have fallen head over heels for the rich and eccentric history of SFF magazines. I started getting into this business a couple years back, entirely thanks to scanners making issues of Galaxy—a magazine that went under more than forty years ago—avaulable online. Thing is, you’re only getting a small fraction of the picture, especially for short fiction, if you ignore this history.

The legality of uploading free copies of magazines, which after contain stories which have probably not fallen out of copyright, to the internet is murky, but what’s not murky is the necessity of doing this if one hopes to make these magazines available to the public. The spreading of online scans in recent years has made it so that these volumes, which contain material that has never been reprinted anywhere (usually editorials, science articles, and book columns, but also sometimes fiction), are no longer restricted to the hands of collectors. While there’s definitely still value in owning second-hand physical copies of magazines (I do it myself, as you know), even if you don’t intend to scan the materials for posterity, someone like me who digs through back issues like a raccoon digs through garbage will find it infinitely more useful to go to online archives for his reading materials. My wallet and my shelf space remain intact!

Scanner do this for the same reason I do it, and more or less with the same exceptions: they don’t do it for profit, as they don’t expect to get even a dime out of it; they do it, and I do it, for the love of the field. There are several sites which upload scans of vintage magazines, but to this day there are specific issues which either have yet to be preserved online or which remain, as far as we know, basically lost forever. The phrase “lost media” is a perennial favorite for people who are into real-life stories of the spooky, macabre, and the unexplained, but usually there’s nothing spooky or morbid about lost media; a lot of the time media becomes lost for the simplest and most mundane of reasons. Episodes of an old-timey game show or adventure serial become lost media because the studio wiped the tapes; issues of vintage magazines become lost media because these magazines were made to be disgarded and forgotten, and so nobody kept them.

Of course, this is all true for print magazines. Online magazines face a different issue, which will require its own editorial in the future, because scanners, helpful as they are, cannot scan magazines which have never seen paper. Consider the sad fate of Sci Fiction, the award-winning fiction department of the Sci-Fi Channel’s website, a revolutionary online magazine that produced several much-anthologized works—and yet you can only now access Sci Fiction via the Wayback Machine. Sci Fiction also got shut down, despite the quality of its fiction, because it failed to be profitable for the Sci-Fi Channel, and that’s an issue still very much haunting modern online magazines like Clarkesworld and Uncanny Magazine. Amazon (who after all can never be trusted) recently announcing that they will discontinue the Kindle Newsstand, a point of revenue for several online magazines, will force supporters to find alternative routes like direct donations and Patreon if they haven’t already.

The lifeblood of the SFF magazine is always being threatened in some way, it seems. There was the bubble followed by the implosion of pulp magazines in the ’50s, then the threat original anthologies posed to magazines in the ’60s onward, and of course the paperback has been a consistent threat to magazines, all but driving serials to extinction (worth its own future editorial), for the past several decades. Despite being a cornerstone of the field’s history, magazines must be kept alive via guerilla tactics and current subscribers finding backup means for supporting them. Scanners, ultimately, are a byproduct of a medium which must be stored in the heavens of the internet or else become handfuls of dust.


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