Working in the Archives: Researching Fred Patten, furries, and counter-culture media at UC Riverside
Located at the University of California's Riverside campus is the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy, a world-renowned archive of books, film, fanzines, and ephemera documenting and evoking the history of sci-fi and fantasy fan culture. Originally formed in 1969, when collector and physician Dr. J. Lloyd Eaton donated his library consisting of "about 7,500 hardback editions of science fiction, fantasy and horror from the Nineteenth to the mid-Twentieth centuries", the Eaton is considered one-of-the-world's largest collections of papers and documents entangled with its subjects. While much of the collection remains to be processed - COVID-19 notably limiting work since early 2020 - both students and staff see the archive as a hidden treasure, with the collection holding such things as first-editions of Dracula, Frankenstein, and Fahrenheit 451.
The archive is frequently touted for its rare submissions by instructors and instructing archivists, but the collection also holds the papers and materials of lesser-known (though highly pivotal) figures of science fiction and fandom history, such as furry historian and editor Fred Patten. Following his convalescence, Patten's friends and loved ones helped relocate the editor's documents to UC Riverside's holdings. Dr. Melissa Conway, or the Eaton's prior librarian, explained to scholar Regina Young Lee how "Within days [the fans] had everything here, boxed beautifully, [and] they helped Fred get a right wheelchair...I had not been aware of this fandom community before this job, so six years ago, and this experience was almost the first. It was beautiful." ("Textual Evidence"). Patten passed away on November 12th, 2018, leaving behind his sister, Sherry, yet the work he did continues to live on both in the collection and beyond, he having been such a figure in the growth of furry and America's history with anime.
Entering Special Collections as both a researching scholar and furry, I've come to accept that the Fred Patten Collection is where a majority of my research happens, if not the many online, distributed archives and databases fans have created thus far. Furries have often asked what it's like to step into the open reading room, lock up my bags, and leave my drink at the front just to engage with any furry materials, or "stuff", as Henry Jenkins describes when thinking about the things fans gather and treasure over time. Like Jenkins, I see the fanzines, sketches, conbooks, and correspondences as a "cultural inheritance" - artifacts that gesture to something I never could have experienced, yet feel attached to in my own ways (Comics and Stuff 315). Although my own collection of conbadges, sketches, and pins identify me as furry on their own, seeing Patten's collection also brings an appreciation of where we - as a fandom - have come from. At once, I can pick and hold actual ConFurence registration forms simultaneous to furry parodies of Fred M. Wilcox's Forbidden Planet. Zines such as Vootie, Rowrbrazzle, and more just wait to be looked at, full of conversations that in many ways still act out in the fandom today.
The Eaton thus offers a special direction to the question of what furry is. As a scholar, I'm frequently asked what I study, and when I explain that my work brings up me to furry, being interested in the ways that underground comix, queerness, pornography, and speculative fiction (versus just strictly sci-fi) shape what it means to be a furry, I also frequently get raised eyebrows - or perked ears. Some argue that furry isn't exactly a fandom, but is instead a counter public. Others read furry as a geek community with no true alliance. In a 2020 Master's thesis, Benjamin Silverman argues that what gives us our shape is our messy though playful forms (fursonas) created through picking what we like and utilizing it. He argues that being furry is about finding ourselves as people, yes, but more so how we - as animal people - "displace" what it means to be someone and how we come into being, ultimately allowing for a "virtual worlding" that "carve[s] aspirational or speculative worlds" online ("Fursonas" 52, 67-68). Unknowingly, I cited a similar source to Silverman in an archive project this past year, arguing that to research what makes furry furry means accounting for the ways that it messily swallows and allows one contact with many different interests, subcultures, and fandoms at once, even lending to seeing the fandom as offering what Silverman describes be a world making space.
Going into the Eaton collection and requesting Patten's materials, out of anything else I could have asked for, illustrates furry's close proximity to Sci-Fi, fanzine, and underground and queer fan histories. At once, his work places furry in the midst of an archival "messiness", other sources and texts standing nearby, yet furry waits to the side - productively, I would argue - where it can lurk and enjoy things as we do: messily.