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An Astounding Collection

MIT’s science fiction treasure trove.

On the fourth floor of the MIT Student Center, roughly 60,000 books and thousands of magazines crowd the narrow, overstuffed shelves of the MIT Science Fiction Society Library. Mobiles and paper bananas dangle from the ceiling, an infamous multivolume erotic SF series has been chained in place to prevent its awfulness from infecting nearby books, and newly donated boxes make it hard to navigate without tripping–or stopping to check out an intriguing title. Established in the early 1960s, the library now houses more than 90 percent of all science fiction ever printed in English, making it the world’s largest open-shelf collection of the genre. Fans and scholars alike make pilgrimages to W20-473 to lay reverent eyes on rare finds.

SF bookworms: MIT Science Fiction Society members, circa 1960.

Although MITSFS (pronounced “mits-fiss”) is now famous for its library, its first project was simply to preserve all back issues of Astounding Science Fiction on microfilm. One of the top monthly magazines of SF short stories, Astounding first appeared in 1930 and lives on as Analog Science Fiction and Fact. It’s perhaps most celebrated for introducing the world to authors such as Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein under editor cum talent scout John W. Campbell Jr.

Freshman Rudy ­Preisendorfer ‘52 was inspired by the magazine when he started MITSFS, which brought Asimov to campus for its first official meeting. In those early days, back issues of Astounding were already hard to find. Preisendorfer, however, had a complete set, and at one of the first meetings, he offered it up for microfilming. He had conceived of MITSFS as a literary discussion group, but he later recounted how the dozen members reacted enthusiastically to the prospect of “preserving forever on microfilm the pages of this pioneer magazine.”

They embarked on their mission in the spring of 1950. Gathered at a MITSFS member’s house, they laid the magazines open on a table lit from both sides. A homemade prop, or pole, held what Preisendorfer called a “souped-up” camera over the table with its lens pointing down. The camera could be raised or lowered on the prop to adjust the image. But these first attempts to immortalize Astounding fell somewhat short of the ideal.

Help soon arrived in the form of Vernon Tate, director of the MIT libraries. Tate invited society members to use the microfilming equipment in the basement of Hayden Library, gave them tips on how to operate it, and expounded on microfilm’s history. He later became the society’s advisor.

By September 1950, Preisendorfer got permission from Campbell (himself an MIT dropout) and his publisher to microfilm all of Astounding from 1930 to 1950, the only such rights they had then granted.

MITSFS created an official microfilm committee; by 1952 it had preserved six years of material. But problems weighed down the project that had started with such exuberance. It was hard to justify spending $1 a roll on film when the treasury sometimes held $17 or less; Preisendorfer graduated and took his magazines with him; and apathy crept in as new MITSFS members followed different interests. Microfilming slowed, then stopped. Finally, in 1959, the defunct committee was declared “one with the snows of yesteryear.”

Then, in 1973, MITSFS resurrected the project. This time the society preserved issues on microfiche and even splurged on color snapshots of the covers. But this venture, too, fell by the wayside.

Today, MITSFS’s Astounding collection contains a stack of microfiche and more than 60 rolls of microfilm, 20 of which cover the magazine without interruption from 1930 to 1972. No one knows how long the film will last in its file cabinet; it has already surpassed the estimated life span of some kinds of microfilm used in the early 1950s.

To prevent the society from losing valuable material, MIT undergrad and recent MITSFS president Kevin Riggle has been pushing for digitization. The MITSFS library still has a complete print collection of Astounding, but the bound volumes are more fragile than they were in the ’50s. Although microfilm is less expensive to digitize than books, it’s still not cheap; scanning the 120,000 pages of stored material could cost as much as $24,000. Riggle is preparing a grant proposal and exploring options such as buying digitizing equipment. If he succeeds, MITSFS could realize its early dreams of preserving Astounding (and more) in the most modern format for an appreciative audience around the world.

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