"You're Not a Real Fan!": What Libraries Can Offer Fandom

Maureen Langley /

Maureen Langley is a part-time Library Consultant at the Montgomery County-Norristown Public Library. Librarian, geek, and pop culture enthusiast, you can usually find her reading comics somewhere or online at Linkedin, Facebook, and Pinterest.


Kristen Bell at San Diego Comic Con - Image courtesy vagueonthehow via Flickr

Fandom, the microcosm of enthusiasts surrounding a particular interest or work, is powerful. Recently, fans of the show Veronica Mars were able to fund a full-length film based on the show through Kickstarter, the popular crowd-sourcing website. Approximately 90,000 fans contributed more than 5 million dollars towards the creation of the film; this is a current Kickstarter record. Other fan-funded projects include short films, video and board games, and music albums.

Fandom brings individuals together and can be used to promote change, both in entertainment and the real world. I was fortunate to hear Andrew Slack, co-founder of The Harry Potter Alliance, speak at this year's American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting. The Harry Potter Alliance has been successful in using fandom to promote civic engagement among its members throughout the world.

Unfortunately, fandom has a dark side. It can create a sense of exclusion, hierarchy, and judgment toward outsiders. As fandom becomes more popular, I believe libraries have an opportunity to battle this dark side through the concept and core value of intellectual freedom.

Passion, Enthusiasm, and Creativity

Ginny Weasley cos-play - image via Anton Vavilov vimba.ru on FlickrMembers of fandom are often described as passionate or enthusiastic individuals who produce diverse creative works including fan-produced art, music, fiction, costumes, comics, and more. Those who participate in fandom often cite the space and ability to share these creative endeavors as one of its major draws1.

Individuals also cite fandom as an opportunity to receive feedback and constructive criticism of their works2. This feedback can lead to increased confidence in one’s abilities as well as a chance to practice and improve one's skills3. Some individuals even go on to publish original works4.

Fandom also provides an opportunity to improve critical thinking and analysis skills, technical skills, and even managerial and/or leadership skills5. Fans are motivated, by their love of certain works or materials, to take on leadership roles within their community6. Plus, fandom is often conducted online and may require the development of technical skills such as web design, HTML and CSS, social media, and video editing software. All these skills, including leadership, are transferable to real life situations such as job performance and promotions.

Many agree that fandom has changed how we interact with literature, film, and other works. Fans are no longer content to just read or view the works they love. Fans are now more vocal and social and actively celebrate7 and criticize the works they love. They regularly discuss, online and in-person, their thoughts and opinions on characterization, plot, story pace, format, and more. Some believe this has the opportunity to create more critical and conscientious consumers8.

Finally, social interactions and people skills are most often cited as the reason for participation in fandom9. Some individuals within fandom describe themselves as shy or introverted10 and welcome the chance to practice and improve their social skills. Fandom is also sometimes described as a place for social misfits, the disempowered11, and the marginalized members of society12. I believe that this is becoming less accurate as fandom becomes more popular; however, it is still important to note that fandom provides a safe environment full of like-minded individuals who share interests and passions.

The Dark Side of Fandom

Darth Maul, Emperor Palpatine and Mara Jade - image vis Matthew K Doc_Brown on FlickrDespite the positive influence fandom has on the lives of individuals, like most things, it has a dark side. Like any community, interactions between members can be both positive and negative. And, since fandom includes very passionate members, interactions can become heated and intense.

Studies of individual fandom suggest that members create community and hierarchy similar to mainstream culture13 and status within a fandom is often created through knowledge, expertise, and physical items, such as rare issues of comic books. Community moderators gain power through "control of online space,"14 and BNF's (Big Name Fans), fans whose opinions are highly valued due to their contributions to a fandom, can also exist15.

As status and popular opinions are established, it becomes more difficult to expression opposing opinions and suggestions. This can lead to name-calling, trolling, and flame wars; purposefully attacking an individual or their opinions in order to provoke a response. Accusations such as "you'd know that if you were a real fan!" can become common.

Some are concerned that as fandom begins to increase in popularity, it will lead to a form of groupthink and fans may become the new bullies16. Anyone who does not agree with the prevailing opinion may feel excluded or even be ridiculed by fellow fans. And many members of fandom cite negative and unpleasant interactions with other fans as a deterrent not to participate17.

Fandom can be less welcoming and accepting than we’d care to admit. So what can libraries do to help?

What Libraries have to offer: Intellectual Freedom

Sailor Moon hearts her library - image via Bart Heird on FlickrTo me, intellectual freedom is a superhero. Not only does it fight censorship and uphold democracy, but it also teaches individuals to respect others’ beliefs or opinions. Intellectual freedom is the natural enemy of groupthink and can therefore be applied to fandom. Yet intellectual freedom is more often applied to subjects such as religion and politics. I believe that, as fandom increases in popularity and becomes a part of mainstream culture, intellectual freedom must extend its reach.

Like politics and religion, fandom involves a variety of opinions and viewpoints.  Also, like in politics and religion, differing opinions and viewpoints can be welcome, but this is not always the case. There are groups and individuals who consider their opinions and viewpoints to be canon (official or correct) and reject anything else as "wrong".

Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to read or view any materials no matter the content or opinions expressed therein. It is based, in part, on the 1st amendment, which grants citizens the right to free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. It is fair to argue, then, that opinions and viewpoints expressed by members of fandom should be respected and not censored or attacked by other members of fandom. If fandom is to continue to thrive, I believe it should understand and adopt the concept of intellectual freedom.

Libraries have a variety of opportunities to promote intellectual freedom among fandom. Fandom events at the library should strive to be inclusive and open to the public. Fandom members with opposing viewpoints could be given the opportunity to debate their views at library-sponsored events. Contests which promote fan creations in a variety of formats provide an opportunity for unique and varied visions of source material. Finally, intellectual freedom can be discussed alongside other hot topics, such as intellectual property, at library-presented panels at conventions.


Ghostbusters read banned books - image courtesy ALA The American Library Association on FlickrFandom welcomes people to express their love, appreciation, opinions, and criticism of a variety of materials and works. This accepting and welcoming attitude, however, can be threatened by groupthink and harsh judgment by other fans. Intellectual freedom has the power to defeat judgment and groupthink and therefore must be applied to fandom.

I hope I have convinced some of my fellow librarians that fandom has become an important part of our society and must be approached as such, and that intellectual freedom can and should be applied to popular culture. Not only will it help strengthen society as a whole, but it will improve the library’s image as a welcoming place for those seeking knowledge on any and all subjects. Libraries have more to offer fans than comic book and science fiction collections or a DVD collection that contains all the series of Doctor Who. Libraries have the opportunity to be an example of freedom of speech, whether it’s with regards to politics or Batman comics.

[1] Veronica R. Koven-Matasy, “Fannish Librarians: The Intersection of Fandom and Library and Information Science,” (MLS, diss., University of North Carolina, 2013), accessed December 15, 2013, Carolina Digital Repository, 27.

[2] Ibid., 28.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Robin Brenner, “Teen Literature and Fan Culture,” Young Adult Library Services 11, no.4 (2013): 33.

[5] Koven-Matasy, “Fannish,” 29-30.

[6] Ibid., 24.

[7] James Kennedy, “Fandom 2.0: A Celebration of the Reader,” Voice of Youth Advocates 33, no. 5 (2010), 412.

[8] Brenner, “Teen Literature,” 35.

[9] Koven-Matasy, “Fannish,” 21-13.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Jeffrey A. Brown, “Comic Book Fandom and Cultural Capital,” Journal of Pop Culture 30, no. 4 (1997): 13.

[12] Koven-Matasy, “Fannish,” 9-10.

[13] Brown, “Comic Book,” 13-15.

[14] Koven-Matasy, “Fannish,” 24.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Adam Sternbergh, “Tyranny of the Fanboys,” New York Magazine (2010), accessed January 18, 2014, http://nymag.com/news/intelligencer/67292/.

[17] Koven-Matasy, “Fannish,” 20.