Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Case Study No. 1923: The Keyholders of MIT's Science Fiction Society

the MIT Science Fiction Society
Read more about the MIT Science Fiction Society at MIT News: http://web.mi t.edu/newsoffice/2012/ science-fiction-society-library-0507.html

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Tags: MIT science fiction fantasy libraries MIT History sororities scifi Steven Brust Jhereg Scott Lynch Charles Stross Atrocity Archives Library (Building Function)
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[scene opens with a female student ("Alexandra Westbrook, Lady High Embezzler, MITSFS") standing in front of a bookshelf, speaking directly to the camera]
ALEXANDRA: I'm Alexandra Westbrook, I'm a junior at MIT, and I'm currently the Lady High Embezzler of the MIT Science Fiction Society.
[she laughs]
ALEXANDRA: And that is our Treasurer position.
[cut to a shot of some more bookshelves]
ALEXANDRA: [in voice over] We aim to have one hundred percent of all speculative fiction written in English ...
[cut back to the student speaking directly to the camera]
ALEXANDRA: Um, however, in reality we probably have around ninety percent.
[cut to a shot of some copies of "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction"]
ALEXANDRA: [in voice over] Speculative fiction includes science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and forms associated with these.
[cut back to the student speaking directly to the camera]
ALEXANDRA: All together, we have sixty five thousand books.
[cut to a male student sitting and reading a magazine]
ALEXANDRA: [in voice over] And this is not including magazines, media, and fan zines.
[cut to a male student ("Paul Weaver, President & Skinner, MITSFS") surrounded by more bookshelves, speaking directly to the camera]
PAUL: We're looking to see if we can get more space ... Um, because as you can see from a lot of the books put in front of other books, we are out of space.
[cut to another shot of the student speaking directly to the camera]
PAUL: Favorites? Um ... there's so many awesome books.
[cut to a shot of a tattered copy of Steven Brust's "Jhereg" (featuring a gold dragon on the cover)]
PAUL: [in voice over] "Jhereg" is a short light fantasy novel by Steven Brust. It has a lot of popularity with the people around here. Um, it's about an assassin and his pet jhereg, the jhereg is on the cover.
[cut to a shot of Scott Lynch's "The Lies of Locke Lamora"]
PAUL: [in voice over] Another one of our favorites is "The Lies of Locke Lamora" by Scott Lynch. Uh, it's about a con man, basically, set in a fantasy series.
[cut to a shot of Charles Stross' "The Atrocity Archives"]
PAUL: [in voice over] Charles Stross is a computer scientist turned science fiction writer, and "The Atrocity Archives" is a book of his about a computer scientist turned Lovecraftian magician.
[cut back to the female student speaking directly to the camera]
ALEXANDRA: The society was originally formed in Nineteen Forty Nine ... Um, with, y'know, just a few students, and all they had was a crate of books. Um, but today in Two Thousand Twelve, we have three hundred members and thirty librarians.
[cut to the male student standing next to a wooden crate labelled "Only members of the STAR Chamber may open boxes containing books, or other mail"]
PAUL: So, this is the original library at MIT. Our original collection lived in it, it was stored in students' dorm rooms until ... um, and moved around from dorm room to dorm room until we actually got a physical library to store our books in. Uh, it currently exists as a time capsule only to be opened at the appropriate age.
[cut back to the male student speaking directly to the camera]
PAUL: Our gavel block, the thing we bang the gavel on in front, is a solid piece of titanium, and it was found in MITSFS and used for that for a while and then some professor took it and brought it to Congress and used it to show off, "Hey, this is what the Russians are making their submarines out of!" ... and then brought it back.
[cut to the male student hitting the piece of titanium with a giant wrench, as other members of the group gather around him in the library]
PAUL: MITSFS meeting called to order. Friday, April Twentieth, Two Thousand Twelve, at six-six-point-six kiloseconds SST.
[he looks over at another male student sitting at a nearby computer]
PAUL: P. Weaver, President/Skinner, presiding. Lemur, OnSec, recording. Lemur will now read last week's minutes.
[cut back to the male student speaking directly to the camera]
PAUL: We run meetings and our meetings are more of like, just, science fiction fans come together and talk about geeky stuff. The business doesn't take care of there, business happens in a smoke-filled room other times.
[cut back to the meeting]
PAUL: All for?
[some of the students raise their hands (and legs)]
PAUL: All against? Chickens?
[he pauses]
PAUL: Motion passes, nine-zero-two plus Spain.
[he bangs the wrench again]
PAUL: And the meeting is adjourned at sixty eight point four kiloseconds SST.
[cut to a shot of plush banana toys hanging from the ceiling]
PAUL: We have a complete obsession with bananas. There's a banana shark and a banana mole, and a banana egg above you, and there's a banana colored couch.
[cut to the male student holding a banana covered in some kind of metal]
PAUL: The circulating banana. You can check it out if you want ... It was covered in armor, to protect it.
[cut back to the male student speaking directly to the camera]
PAUL: Um, every once in a while we um, like, grab a bunch of NERF weapons and attack HRSFA, which is the, uh ... or they attack us, which is the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association.
[cut back to the female student speaking directly to the camera, as she points to the two Greek letters on her sweatshirt]
ALEXANDRA: So, "Psi Phi" is actually the sorority associated with the MIT Science Fiction Society.
[she laughs]
ALEXANDRA: Um, we're not an official sorority, but every once in a while we'll show up to the Greek Griller, and confuse lots of people.
[she laughs]
ALEXANDRA: Especially because they originally look at us and they're like, "Psi phi ... Ohhh."
[she laughs]


From mit.edu:

Science Fiction Society's massive library is out of this world
W20 library boasts extensive collection and colorful history.

Nick Holden | Student Life
May 7, 2012

Nearly 200 MIT students, alumni and local residents form MIT's Science Fiction Society, which curates an enormous library containing more than 90 percent of all English language science fiction ever published. The library's impressive stacks make it one of the top three largest publicly available collections of science fiction in the world.

A dedicated subsection of the Society meets weekly to discuss library affairs, as they and their predecessors have since the Society's founding in 1949. In a typical meeting, a student will call members to order with the piercing clang of a three-foot wrench on the end of a desk. The meeting will likely include a medley of unusual philosophical discussions, whimsical sidebars, and maybe even a dramatic reading of poorly written literature.

"The tone at our meetings is largely humorous," says D.W. Rowlands, an MIT graduate student and veteran member of the Science Fiction Society. "There's generally not much 'real business.'"

Despite the lack of actionable agenda items at meetings, the group does vote on motions. In November, in honor of the Thanksgiving holiday, the Society passed a motion to develop a vegan turkey made of bananas, although they shot down a measure that sought to develop a banana-colored turkey.

Each member votes four times - once with each limb - on every motion. This allows a member, for example, to support a measure with his left arm and right leg, while dissenting with his right arm and abstaining with his left leg.

Rowlands serves as the Society's "onseck," short for honorable secretary. Like many elements of the Science Fiction Society, officers' titles are a nod to an obscure piece of science fiction literature or a long-forgotten inside joke.

"Sometimes we carry on traditions, but we have no idea where they originated," says Jade Wang, an alumna of the Science Fiction Society who graduated from MIT with an SB and an MEng in 2002 and a PhD in 2008, all in electrical engineering.

About 20 members of the Science Fiction Society are designated as "keyholders." They serve a number of important roles, most importantly as volunteer librarians. Checking out literature, opening and closing the library, and ensuring that books are in good condition are all responsibilities of these dedicated Society members.

With more than 40 years of experience, Jack Stevens '76 is the longest serving active keyholder. He determines the library's weekly schedule, which he bases on keyholder availability and posts to the Society's website, during his regular Wednesday night shifts. For a period, Stevens also managed the Science Fiction Society's amateur science fiction magazine, the Twilight Zine.

"Science fiction has had an 80-year tradition of amateur publication," Stevens says. "It's another fun thing to do. It's a chance to be involved with science fiction in a different way."

Some Science Fiction Society members have gone on to become widely published authors. Society alumna Jennifer Chung '02 entered the 2011 International 3-Day Novel Contest. In just 72 hours, Chung wrote a science fiction novel about family and chicken teriyaki, a food that is both ubiquitous in her hometown of Seattle and forbidden by her own vegetarian diet. Chung's novel, Terroryaki, toppled the other 547 contest entrants and is now available at bookstores and libraries around the world, including the Science Fiction Library at MIT.

On Nov. 18, Chung returned to campus to read selections from her novel to dozens of captivated fans. She signed copies of her book and fielded a range of questions on her work.

The Science Fiction Society has a number of connections to other science fiction authors as well. Society alum Guy Consolmagno '74 has penned a significant body of science and religious literature as an astronomer for the Vatican Observatory. Before his death, prolific science fiction author Isaac Asimov attended the Society's annual picnics.

With its focus directed overwhelmingly toward preserving the MIT Science Fiction Library, the Society serves a unique niche for science fiction readers. The group meets every Friday and organizes a weekly movie series, yet members of the group distance themselves from the title of "science fiction fan."

The New England Science Fiction Association (NESFA) is a 1970s creation of former MIT Science Fiction Society members who decided to enter the world of "fandom." NESFA hosts a massive Boston-area science fiction convention, Boskone, annually. Although it maintains some ties with NESFA, the MIT Science Fiction Society's only participation in Boskone is through selling its surplus books.

"Our primary mission is to be a library, not a discussion group," Rowlands says. He says that the group refrains from participating in "fannish" activities. Instead, the Society covets its motto: "We're not fans, we just read the stuff."

The Science Fiction Society's dedication to its role as a library curator is steadfast. In operation for more than 60 years, the library stands as the oldest collegiate science fiction collection in the country, and its role has changed little since its beginnings.

"It's been a constant. It's kind of neat that way," Stevens says. "Here is a niche bit of literature that has inspired a whole lot of people at MIT and elsewhere. The Science Fiction Society is all for fun and enjoyment and keeping one's sense of wonderment, because that's what science fiction is all about."


From technologyreview.com:

Brother Guy Consolmagno '74, SM '75, a Jesuit and an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, was a first-year student at Boston College when he first visited the MIT Science Fiction Society (MITSFS) library. He quickly transferred to MIT.

"Visiting that library for the first time was one of the greatest days of my life," Consolmagno says. "Science fiction reminds you that science is fun-it's the best adventure anyone could have. I asked myself, 'How could I be anywhere else?'"

Located on the fourth floor of the Stratton Student Center, the MITSFS (pronounced mits-fiss) collection is one of the world's largest public science fiction libraries-home to an estimated 90 percent of all English-language science fiction ever published. More than 45,000 books occupy less than 1,700 square feet of space; another 16,000 books sit in storage at an East Boston warehouse.

"Plus, we have complete runs of almost every science fiction magazine dating back to the 1920s," says chemistry graduate student D.?W. Rowlands, a MITSFS member. "Our library keeps growing. It's a good problem to have, but it's exhausting."

The library's collection includes mainstream titles like the Lord of the Rings and Star Trek novels, rare works like fanzines (fan-published magazines), and even a small collection of science fiction erotica magazines from the 1950s that are locked away from public view.

Early History
The society dates back to 1949, when Rudolf Preisendorfer '52 and a group of like-minded students met to read his collection of Astounding Science Fiction magazines and later set out to collect back issues of other periodicals from the genre. A few years later, members began dragging a wooden crate filled with books between dorm rooms and the Spofford Room for meetings. (The crate is still on display at the MITSFS library.)

In the 1960s, the society grew and, under the leadership of a group that included Anthony Lewis '61, L. Court Skinner '62, SM '64, PhD '65, and Marilyn Wisowaty Niven '62, eventually became a formal MIT club whose popularity spread beyond campus. Annual picnics were attended by well-known authors of popular science fiction.

"MITSFS was a big part of my undergraduate years-the picnics were huge events," Skinner says. "Isaac Asimov was a great guy, but Hugo Gernsback was a bit of a curmudgeon."

Skinner served as society president for three years. Today, the student leader of the MITSFS is known as the skinner, one of many distinctive titles that include lady high embezzler (treasurer) and onseck (honorable secretary).

"I certainly didn't think that the title would last this long," Skinner says. "But it's an honor to have your name continue to be associated with MIT."

Today's MITSFS
The current-day MITSFS is open about 40 hours per week and holds weekly meetings, usually on Friday evenings, that members admit usually feature very little business. Each meeting begins with the clanking of a two-foot steel wrench onto a massive slab of titanium, and each member of the society, collectively known as Star Chamber, can vote up to four times (once per limb) on any issues brought to poll.

"There is definitely a social aspect, but we're really just an awesome science fiction library," says Alexandra Westbrook '13. "Even if a book isn't popular or well known, we have almost everything."

In addition to a near-overflow of books, the library's shelves are strewn with bizarre trinkets, including a collection of randomly placed toy bananas that no current member can explain.

"MITSFS has a lot of inside jokes that predate current students and, it seems, most alumni," Rowlands says. "We definitely have an obsession with bananas, but no one seems to know why."

Physical size remains MITSFS's biggest issue-there are no plans expand the library. But the society continues to expand, thanks to active membership, a small endowment, and a boundless supply of both science fiction literature and readers at MIT.

Matching MIT's Mission
"Science is the heart of science fiction, but the meat of it is engineering," says Susan Shepherd '11. "MITSFS keeps growing because of MIT's central mission-explore science, push boundaries. Someone who wants to change the world-that's the type of person who loves to read science fiction."

MITSFS currently has about 300 dues-paying members, and Rowlands estimates that about 60 percent are current MIT students. Annual membership, which is open to the general public, starts at $15, but there are more expensive options, including a $260 lifetime membership and a $2,600 membership that transcends mortality.

"The real purpose of the $2,600 membership was a way for people to give to MITSFS and feel like they were getting something in return," Rowlands says. "But if you die and come back undead or uploaded, you do have the option to maintain your membership."

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