The Romance Fiction Web Archive collection: Lessons learned from community, context, and controversy

February 9th, 2023

by Maura Seale, History Librarian, University of Michigan, and Steve Ammidown, Independent Researcher

(Maura): The University of Michigan Library began a web archiving pilot project in 2018. The initial collections (Diversity in Children’s Literature, Interactive Fiction in Queer Digital Culture, and Water Politics in Michigan) selected for the pilot were curated by individual librarians and focused on materials that were otherwise difficult or impossible to collect, but would strengthen and diversify the Library’s overall collections. In 2019, the web archiving team issued a call for additional collections and I proposed a new collection on popular romance fiction. As a longtime romance reader and occasional participant in online romance communities since the mid-1990s, as well as an academic librarian who has developed and managed both physical and electronic collections in many disciplines throughout my career, I was aware of both the value of romance fiction websites and the challenges of actively collecting romance fiction at an academic. The sheer number of books published, brief windows of availability for many titles, the growth in self- and electronic-only publishing, the rise of proprietary platforms that will not license content for libraries are not limited to romance fiction, but do heavily affect what and how libraries build research collections, and has for some time.

While mainstream publishers continue to publish romance fiction, romance authors and readers were early adopters of ebooks, self-publishing, and online spaces such as websites, blogs, and forums. Unfortunately, many sites, some of which were active by the mid-1990s, were hosted by individuals and have since disappeared, even as scholarly interest in romance fiction and the communities around it has increased. Given the challenges in collecting romance fiction that I described above, archiving romance fiction websites represents a different way to collect and preserve information about both the books and communities, for researchers as well as members of the romance fiction community.

Once my web archiving proposal was accepted, I reached out to Steve Ammidown, who I followed on Twitter, and who was then the popular culture curator at Bowling Green State University, which maintains the largest romance fiction physical archive. Steve and I collectively developed the initial list of websites to archive based on our knowledge of the online romance fiction community and contacted site owners to request permission to archive their sites. Most site owners enthusiastically agreed, but some did not and so are not part of the archive. We wanted the archive to also be available and useful to members of the community, and it was important for us that we receive explicit permission. The University of Michigan Library both funds and provides technical support for website crawls, and since the beginning of the web archive, we have proactively tended to it, as Steve describes below. 

University of Michigan's Romance Fiction Collection Description on

Collection description for the Romance Fiction web archive from the University of Michigan Library.

(Steve): On December 23, 2019, a tweet from author Alyssa Cole began a firestorm of reaction that would shake the romance community to its core. Cole revealed that the Romance Writers of America (RWA) were in the process of sanctioning author and RWA board member Courtney Milan. Earlier in the year, Milan had tweeted about a white author’s racist depictions of Asian cultures in their work, and the author had filed an ethics complaint with RWA in return. The incident brought back to the surface long-simmering tensions over racist behavior and gatekeeping by white members of the organization, and over the coming weeks and months would result in the resignation of the majority of the organization’s staff and board, as well as hundreds of member resignations.

Alyssa Cole's Tweet

Alyssa Cole’s Tweet supporting Courtney Milan in calling out racism in the RWA.

The existing Archive-It collection at Michigan seemed like a natural way to at least start the process. I reached out to Maura and we built another list of seeds and specific pages to be preserved. Having already had the experience, as well as having infrastructure, staff, and technical expertise in place, was an absolute lifesaver, and allowed us to focus on finding content instead of scrambling to set things up. The resulting additions to the collection are far from complete, but present a wide enough swath of what went on to help those investigating what became known as the “RWA Implosion” in the future.

Screen shot of web archive of Claire Milan's Implosion of the RWA.

Claire Ryan’s statement, “The Implosion of the RWA”.

(Both): To us, this collection represents the ideal of what institutional web archiving can achieve. It has enabled us to collect and preserve materials that might otherwise be lost, broadening the collections of the UM Library, while also involving the community whose work is being collected in a collaborative process. The seeds of the romance collection provide a vibrant base collection but allow for dynamic and instantaneous collecting in the future. The collection will continue to grow. A University of Michigan Library intern has recently spent some time seeking out additional sites to archive, primarily individual blogs, and while Steve is no longer at Bowling Green State University, Maura is planning on contacting site owners to request permission to add their sites to the archive later this year.

Moving forward, one of the great challenges of collecting within the romance community is its propensity to be early adopters of new ways of communicating. Beyond static blogs and websites, the romance community can be found across social media platforms as diverse as YouTube, Twitter and TikTok – venues where collection and preservation are particularly challenging due to the proprietary and shifting nature of those platforms. Some sites, such as All About Romance and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, in an effort to provide better book recommendations and wrangle thousands of reviews, have moved their reviews into databases, which are technically challenging to preserve at the moment. Podcasts are also challenging, as we have not been easily able to collect and preserve multimedia. We have been able to convince some podcasters, such as the Shelf Love Podcast, to make more transcripts available (which we can collect). However, this process involves significant investment on their part and is unlikely to become a common practice until the technology evolves. The Journal of Popular Romance, which was one of our original seeds, recently published a special issue that included extensive transcripts from the Black Romance Podcast. We would like to see more of this, not just because it allows for the collection and preservation of podcasts, but because it brings together the romance podcast and academic romance communities.

A special Thank You to Scott Witmer, the University of Michigan Library Digital Preservation Specialist, who runs all the crawls of the Romance Fiction web archive, and is just all-around extremely helpful. Without his support this post wouldn’t have been possible!