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Truth stranger than science fiction

BY ALISON CASSITY | JULY 08, 2015 5:00 AM

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The Main Library is about to become home to a new kind of collection — more than 17,000 science-fiction books.

Seventy-four-year-old Allen Lewis of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is in the process of donating his entire collection of science-fiction books to the University of Iowa library, a collection estimated to be worth around $750,000.

The UI Libraries has not yet arranged an arrival date with the donor.

Lewis has been reading science fiction all his life, but only became a serious collector around 25 years ago.

“In the early ’90s, I saw looming on the horizon that I was retiring soon, so I decided I’d take a paperback collection that I already had and turn it into hardback,” he said. “After that, it just took off rolling.”

After attending his first science-fiction convention in 2001 to get his books signed, Lewis said he was hooked. Since then, he has attended close to 12 conventions each year, traveling around the world to meet authors and collect their signatures.

“I probably have over 30,000 signatures,” he said. “About 75 percent of my collection has been signed. My only regret is that I didn’t meet some of the famous old-timers.”

Lewis’ collection, which contains 17,000 books, including first editions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, comes to the UI just three years after the 2012 acquisition of James L. Hevelin’s science-fiction collection.

“The Hevelin Collection is a great opportunity to study the development of [the science-fiction] genre, as seen in many of its important formats, through a single collector,” said Greg Prickman, the head of UI Special Collections and University Archives.

The Hevelin Collection, composed of books, magazines, and fanzines, spans the mid- to late-20th century.

The Main Library’s science fiction holdings include many post-1950s texts.

The addition of these volumes will give the UI one of the largest and most extensive science-fiction libraries both nationally and globally, said Pawel Frelik, a former president of the Science Fiction Research Association.

This, he said, puts the university at the forefront of the growing field of science-fiction research.

“In the last two or three decades, science-fiction studies has become a rapidly developing field of multidisciplinary research drawing on literary studies, media studies, cultural studies, techno-science studies, as well as other fields,” Frelik said.

Because so few works were considered worthy of collection by libraries at the time of their publication, current Science Fiction Research Association President Craig Jacobsen said that for science-fiction enthusiasts, the UI is becoming an important center for research.

“We are all indebted to those avid collectors who amassed and cared for these archives and who are now willing to entrust them to institutions that will preserve them and make them available to others,” he said.

Lewis said he was prompted to donate his collection after running out of space in his Sioux Falls residence. Choosing the UI was easy, he noted.

“There are very few places willing to take this large a collection,” he said. “The University of Iowa was the only one that would take all of my books together with no strings attached.”

For Lewis, science fiction has always been a fascinating genre.

“Quite often, science fiction takes an aspect of our society and takes a good, hard look at it to expand it,” he said.

This is precisely what makes the genre popular for study today, Frelik said.

Science-fiction collections, he said, are crucial to understanding how social issues have evolved over decades, and they allow a glimpse into how those same issues might be dealt with in the future.

“[Science fiction] is currently one of the very few cultural forms that, across a range of media, so consistently and critically engage practically all political, social, economic, and ecological problems of contemporary world,” Frelik said.


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