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Sci-Fi Nerd Heaven: This University Library Houses a Book From 1517 and an R2-D2 Wastebasket

[dropcap size=big]"T[/dropcap]his is the droid you are looking for," reads the sign.

On a top shelf in a quiet back room on the fourth floor of the Tomás Rivera Library at UCR sits a trash can sandwiched between statues of Spider-Man and The Hulk. It is no ordinary trash can. Protected inside its box, this R2-D2 Wastebasket with enough detail to make Star Wars fans drool. If you can find one on eBay, it will set you back a few hundred bucks. Here, you can request to take a gander.

Maybe it's a little strange that people would come to a library to see a trash can and have a Star Wars joke, but The Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy at UC Riverside has never been ordinary.

The oft-requested R2-D2 trash can. Photo by Liz Ohanesian. From the holdings of Special Collections & University Archives, University of California, Riverside.

This sci-fi library collection started with one man – Dr. J. Lloyd Eaton – who had a treasure trove of books heavy on sci-fi, fantasy and horror. UC Riverside purchased Eaton's stash of reading material in 1969, a time when stories about robots and aliens weren't necessarily fodder for academia. A decade later, the collection came under the curatorial care of a professor named George Slusser, known for his own work in studying science fiction, and the Eaton blossomed into a world-renowned hub for these genres.

Now, it's a home for much more than books. Here, you can find anything from fan fiction to porcelain dolls of Star Trek characters.

JJ Jacobson is the campus's librarian for science fiction, and tends to the preservation and growth of the Eaton Collection. On an August morning, she leads me through the rows of books, collectibles and papers that comprise this massive, and eclectic, stockpile of knowledge.

"People talk about what's the largest science fiction collection in the world," says Jacobson. But, there's more to a collection than its size. "The way I think of it is what kind of research can be done with the collection? That's a measure of greatness. And, one of the pleasures of the Eaton is deep and broad and rich enough that wonderful research can be done."

The kind of research that can be done with the Eaton Collection goes far beyond vintage comic books and pulp novels. While works from the 20th and 21st centuries are a large part of the Eaton, the collection consists of works that date back centuries. The oldest book here is a copy of Utopia by Thomas More from 1517.

Want to peek into the world of Kirk/Spock? There are shelves filled with boxes of fan-crafted tales recasting the Star Trek heroes as lovers. Interested in learning more about furries? You can do that here too. Want to write about the short-lived (but brilliant) '90s TV series Alien Nation? The Eaton Collection has scripts and storyboards.

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Photo by Liz Ohanesian. From the holdings of Special Collections & University Archives, University of California, Riverside.

[dropcap size=big]S[/dropcap]cholars and professionals from across the world have used the Eaton, but Jacobson notes that fans of genre entertainment come here often too. Why not? The collection is about them as well.

Eaton was a doctor who collected books. Jay Kay Klein, for whom Jacobson's librarian position is named, was an adman by trade. On the side, he took photos at science fiction conventions and penned a few short stories. Klein left his body of photography work — about 68,000 images — to the Eaton, and gave them the copyright. The library is in the process of digitizing the pics, about 6,000 have been done so far. 

Fred Patten, who wrote for a number of fan-centric publications over the years and helped introduce the U.S. to anime, donated his collection to the Eaton, which includes boxes of flyers and ephemera from conventions. Patten also contributed to the Eaton's hefty collection of fanzines.

"It's funny how collections grow," says Jacobson. "People, when they're ready to part with their precious collection, they think I want it somewhere where it will be appreciated. How about a science fiction collection?"

Star Trek memorabilia at the Eaton Collection. Photo by Liz Ohanesian. From the holdings of Special Collections & University Archives, University of California, Riverside.

Sometimes, it's the new additions to the collection that become Jacobson's favorite pieces. Author Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring, Skin Folk) is a professor at UCR and has been donating her papers to the Eaton. Recently, she brought the library a few new pieces, including a jigsaw puzzle of her book covers. "Right now," says Jacobson, "this is my favorite thing."

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Courtesy of UCR.
Courtesy of UCR.

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]his fall, the Eaton delves into a classic with a show based on Frankenstein. "Mark Glassy & Frankenstein: Men of Many Parts" is curated by Jacobson and the library's Director of Distinctive Collections, Cherry Williams, but the works on display are not from the Eaton's holdings. Instead, it focuses on the immense collection of Mark Glassy, a cancer researcher (and UC Riverside alumnus) who has amassed a bounty of Frankenstein-related items from models that he has built to a beer stein.

In a way, Mary Shelley's genre-defining book represents what the Eaton collection does; it's influential because it doesn't stick to one category and, in a way, it creates its own space. "The best way to see it is to come and do research here," she says. "With a collection that is so broad and deep and numerous, it's hard to give an overview."

Even Jacobson, who has been working with the collection for a few years now, is still learning about what it holds. "I'm always discovering some new area of the collections," she says.

"Mark Glassy & Frankenstein: Men of Many Parts" opens in the Special Collections Reading Room at Tomás Rivera Library, University of California Riverside runs through December 14. Hours are Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. To access the Eaton Collection, register through the Special Collections Request System and follow the instructions on the library's website.

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