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Lynne Thomas, Professional Geek

Posted on April 12, 2008 by Flames

For the past, five years Flames Rising has been fortunate to publish content from some interesting folk. From musicians to up-and-coming authors or horror fans, our reviewers have come from all walks of life. Flames Rising review Lynne Thomas is no exception. Here Lynne opens up and describes her fascinating job as the Head of Rare Books and Special Collections at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL, where she focuses on Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror literature.

Come take a look at this awesome day job, and learn how you can help preserve the science fiction, fantasy and horror books you love to read.

Introducing Lynne Thomas

My name is Lynne Thomas, and I am a professional geek.

You see, I’m the Head of Rare Books and Special Collections at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL ( Like most rare books departments, we collect old books, but our real focus is on collecting popular culture materials from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, including children’s books, comic books, SF, and their 19th century precursors, dime novels. Although the books that we care for do not circulate outside of our department, they are available to readers whenever we are open, and also by appointment, and we interpret “reader” in the broadest possible terms. Curiosity is reason enough, in our book.

I collect and preserve Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror literature as part of my job. I firmly believe that SF, in its broadest sense, has a massive impact on our culture. My goal is to make certain that, when scholars are ready to study the influence of SF on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the materials to do so will be available.

I read a wide range of SF, follow SF-related blogs and websites (like this one), blog about SF on our departmental blog (, participate in an SF reading group at my local public library, occasionally review “girly” urban fantasy for Flames Rising, and attend regional SF conventions, often as a panelist, to promote and expand our collections. In fact, I was at OddCon in Madison, WI the first weekend of April, doing just that.

You read that right, I go to SF cons as part of my job. When I interviewed for this position, my ability to discuss early printed books and Buffy the Vampire Slayer with equal authority was considered a professional asset.

Most of our materials come in through donations. Hundreds of SF books donated by publishers for Nebula Award consideration come in, for free, as part of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) Circulating book program, for us to maintain as a research collection. The books are mailed from author to author, in a reading circle of Nebula voters, before they vote on the awards. The last author in the circle sends the books to my department to be added to our research collections.

But books aren’t all. NIU also has a significant collection of SF pulp magazines, going back to Amazing Stories in the 1920s, and including titles such as Galaxy, IF, Asimov’s, Wonder Stories, Shock, Suspense, and many more. We also have a small collection of materials related to H.P. Lovecraft, including books from his library, and a small cache of manuscript letters.

I actively solicit the archives of professionally-published SF writers at regional SF conventions, in the hopes of making sure that their papers stay together, in one place, for future researchers to use to write about one of the most important areas of 20th century culture. Currently, Sarah Monette, E.E. Knight, Donald J. Bingle, and Jack McDevitt have all taken me up on this offer, sending manuscripts of their novels, correspondence, maps of their created worlds, and the like, for safekeeping. Those archives are placed in archivally safe containers, and documented with finding lists that are posted on our website, so that researchers can use them. About 20 other SF authors have also agreed to donate their papers, but until they actually hand stuff over, I’m not allowed to divulge their names in public. They know who they are, and if you follow our departmental blog, or if you happen to catch me commenting on their blogs, you may be able to guess at a few of them. I’m hoping to keep adding to their number over the long term.

So much creative SF work is created electronically, that there is a danger that much of it will be lost if writers don’t think twice before deleting emails, blog posts, or ditching manuscripts once the book or short story has gone to print. I’m the person who reminds them not to hit delete, because otherwise, SF will never get its due as a major influence on American culture, and an art in and of itself. That which does not get saved can’t be studied.

If you’d like to help us save more SF, either through donations of books or funds, or by inviting your favorite author to join our archives, please contact me at lmthomas AT niu DOT edu.

You can help preserve a part of geek culture for posterity?but you still can’t have my job.

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One Response to “Lynne Thomas, Professional Geek”

  1. Since this was written, NIU also added the papers of Elizabeth Bear and Kage Baker.

    I am very proud of my wife. 🙂

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