Sunday, July 31, 2011

Fandom Before the Internet: The Fan Club Directory

How did fans keep up with the latest news, enthuse with friends, and sustain their enthusiasms before the Web, Facebook, and Twitter? We take it for granted that a "community" can be non-geographic these days, but before the Internet that concept was not wholly accepted; a community without shared experiences and practices in a particular place felt considerably weaker, more like a loose association ("the international community," "the scientific community") than one based in a neighborhood or other locality. Nevertheless, fans' intense feelings of connection motivated them to seek one another out and attempt to build a sense of community, something that they did mostly with regular face-to-face meetings (at conventions, performances, and parties) and print communication (fanzines, newsletters, and private letters). Much of this activity, especially for fans of lesser-known stars and art forms, was DIY, and it required an amazing amount of labor and love. You really need a certain level of devotion to work at a job all day, manage a family, and then also spend your remaining time, night after night, doing the rather isolated work of collecting clippings, writing articles, compiling fan art, and mailing out photos and tapes to fellow fans.

I'll be exploring these aspects of fandom a bit more (and maybe compare them to today's practices), but for this post I just wanted to highlight an extraordinary publication, which is now defunct: The Fan Club Directory. Published between 1979 and 2002, the Directory was a two-staple, roughly 75-page booklet, produced annually by the National Association of Fan Clubs (NAFC). It listed alphabetically every fan club that elected, for free, to become a member of the NAFC, giving readers the U.S. mail address of the current president and/or contact person. The NAFC was an organization dedicated to representing "all fan clubs in all fields of entertainment," and so the listings in the Directory were unintentionally jarring: announcement of The Amazing Pudding, the fanzine for Pink Floyd, sat right across from the Annette Funicello fan club (both are listed alphabetically under "F"); "The Celestial Affiliation of Time Lords: A Time Travel Fan Organization" was next to the "Charlie Daniels Band Volunteers;" Elton John and Al Jolson were side by side. It read like a fantasy middle-school classroom before everybody went off to become famous in their various pockets of the world.

Some of the clubs were focused on stars or shows that I don't recognize anymore--Becky Hobbs, Secret Oktober, etc. But full-page breakouts were allotted for entertainment stars with more than one club, including Englebert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, Barry Manilow, and Elvis Presley. There seemed to be a mixture of both "official" fan clubs, run by an artist's management, and "unofficial," run by fans out of their homes. Of equal historical interest were the details in the Directory's ads. You could learn, for example, that The Flying Nun Fan Club "has been looking for the original hat and dress from 'The Flying Nun' for the 25th Anniversary." (One can only wonder: did they find it? What did they do with the artifacts?). Or that there was a new Keith Carradine Club in Gronau, Germany, "searching for new members who are interested in international contact with other Carradine fans all over Europe." Or that a group called "Operation Tribbles" helped to coordinate Star Trek clubs to donate stuffed "tribble" toys to people in rest homes, hospitals, and hospices around the world. In all, the Directory offered a heterogeneous slice of late 20th century popular culture in the English-speaking world. 

When I first received The Fan Club Directory in my mailbox back in 1993, I remember being amazed at how many clubs there were and how much work it must have been to bring that information together in one place. Of course, that was right at the dawn of the World Wide Web, when fans were just joining online "bulletin boards" and "discussion groups." Blanche Trinajstick, the Editor/Publisher of the Directory, retired from "fan club work" in 1992, stating that "for more than 30 years I have not known the meaning of 'spare time.'" Her successor, Linda Kaye, published the Directory for another decade before finally calling it quits in the face of the Internet explosion, which both made being a fan and communicating with other fans far easier and slowly eroded the usefulness of a printed directory. As Kaye wrote retrospectively: "While the NAFC provided a great service for a quarter of a century, the Internet made the task of keeping up with confirming the legitimacy of 'new' website clubs and responding to mountains of e-mail requests for fan information and clubs dealing with fans most of us have never heard of a burden too overwhelming to continue."

Yes, the Internet changed things. But I am wary of simply understanding technology as determining radically new kinds of human behavior. In fact, I see The Fan Club Directory as an important and necessary antecedent to today's social networking. While it is all but forgotten among the current iPod generation, I hope that at least it will be preserved (along with fanzines and other fans publications) as evidence of how enthusiasm in our culture has been continuously, as well as variously, organized.


  1. There was a fabulous fan print publication back in the day for the original Star Trek fandom. I don't remember the name of it but it was analogous to an online bulletin board. Readers would send in comments which the publisher would print. Then readers would respond to those comments which would be published in the next issue, and on and on ad infinitum. If you kept your copies you could follow a "thread" from beginning to end. Sometimes new threads would split off the original and the publisher would separate those and the conversation would continue. It was quite ingenious for a print publication.

  2. That's great! I swear that many of the "innovations" of the internet existed before in print culture. (Ellen Gruber Garvey has done good work on connecting our modern "cutting and pasting" with 19th century scrapbooking, for instance). Anyway, thanks for this--if anyone out there knows the name of this publication, let me know. I'd love to know more about these sorts of fanzine practices.

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