HP Webmasters Interview

HP Webmasters Interview

Steve Vander Ark
The Harry Potter Lexicon

By Mary-Ann Russon  UrbanWire
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Steve Vander Ark, 46, a librarian for a K-8 school in Michigan and the resident director for the Caledonia Community Players, and published compiler of an encyclopaedia of Star Trek the Next Generation, is renowned throughout the Harry Potter Fandom online for creating The Harry Potter Lexicon – the first, and only complete online encyclopaedic companion to the Harry Potter books. Started in the year 2000, The Harry Potter Lexicon contains every single fact, feature, character and detail from the books in a systematic catalogue, and was recently awarded the third prestigious Fan Site Award [by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling on her official site. Steve is also an active speaker at Harry Potter-related academic symposiums held in America.

In an instant messaging interview, UrbanWire finds out from him how The Harry Potter Lexicon started, and what it’s like receiving the highest accolade possible for a Harry Potter Fan Site.

How did the Harry Potter Lexicon get started?
Why did you choose Harry Potter as a topic to make your encyclopedia site about?
So in order to have made this website, you must have a web design background?
How long did the initial website take to be completed?
How many people are involved in keeping the site live?
How did the Harry Potter Lexicon become part of the Floo Network?
How do you get your sources?
How did you get involved in Nimbus 2003, and in becoming a speaker at Harry Potter-related academic symposiums?
Have you ever been interviewed or featured in a publication before? If so, what was it for, and how did you feel?
How does it feel to have been finally recognised by JK Rowling?
Had you had any prior contact with J.K.Rowling?
What future plans are there for the Harry Potter Lexicon?


UrbanWire: How did the Harry Potter Lexicon get started?

Steve Vander Ark: “When I read the first book, I realised that it had the kind of rich, detailed world that I would want to catalogue. I’ve taken notes [to make my own lists] on everything from Star Trek to Edgar Rice Burroughs to Hogan’s Heros to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. So when I read that first book, I knew that I would want to catalog it. But I also knew from experience just how much time it takes to do that. I wrote an encyclopedia of the first season of Star Trek the Next Generation, which was published. So I knew how much time it would take to do it right. I’m a librarian and I love reference. I have studied reference resources and I know what makes a good resource and what makes a bad one.

“I knew that if I started cataloging Harry Potter, I wouldn’t be able to just do it poorly, but that it would start taking a ton of my time. I didn’t know that I wanted or needed a new hobby, so I resisted. I didn’t write anything down, I didn’t scribble notes in the margins, I just read the book over and over. And over. And I resisted. And then book 2 [Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets] came out in the US (it had come out in the UK some time before). And I can remember reading the names of the books in Mrs. Weasley’s kitchen (Charm Your Own Cheese, for example) and thinking “Oh dear, I just have to make a list of these cool book titles.”

“So I did. Just the books. And then, since websites are the perfect way to do a reference source with links, I put the list of books online. Okay, books and magic spells, and then potions. And then, in spite of my intentions not to commit to it, I kept adding lists. So the Lexicon started almost against my better judgment. But I just couldn’t help it. First it was just lists. Then the lists became lists of descriptions, then the descriptions became paragraphs, and it just grew and grew.”

UrbanWire: Out of all the topics you could have chosen, why did you choose Harry Potter as a topic to make your encyclopedia site about?

Steve Vander Ark: “When it comes to story, the Harry Potter books are special. They are so much more than just stories for kids. They have something deeper going on that resonates with people of all ages. That’s obvious now, when we see how popular they are, but I felt that way from the first time I read the first book. They were and are unique. Now I love books and I really enjoy a lot of them. But I don’t catalog them, no matter how much I like them. The world of the Harry Potter books is different than almost any other, however.

There are elements of mythology and legends from all over the world. So not only is the world of Harry Potter fun to read about, it’s fun to explore and learn more about. That makes an encyclopedia all the more useful and fun and helpful for readers. There is so much to find out about, even the most basic chapters. So I’ve really tried to have the Lexicon become more and more of a reader’s companion, and with the new Reader’s Guide pages being added all the time, it will become more and more of a guide.”

UrbanWire: So in order to have made this website, you must have a web design background?

Steve Vander Ark: “Not really. Well, I read a book on the subject, which taught me about how to create graphics that load quickly and how to make sure that the colors work on different systems, things like that. As for web design, the real challenge of that isn’t the graphics. It’s creating something that’s user-friendly. In other words, how do you create a simple menu system that will allow someone to follow it to what they want. That’s hard to do, and I’m not sure that the Lexicon has it completely right. But it’s not bad.”

UrbanWire: How long did the initial website take to be completed?

Steve Vander Ark: “It evolved. I have studied reference and cataloging in my training as a librarian, so I automatically organize information. It’s what I’m trained to do. So as soon as I started making lists, I started figuring out how to organize them. Originally, there weren’t a lot of lists, so the organization was fairly simple. As I added lists, I fit them into the existing organization. Trouble was, as I added lists I realized that I needed better organization.

“The Lexicon was in quite a different style then. As I planned the new page design, I reorganized the menu system too. That was a couple of years ago. I would say that the whole process took two years, going with the initial plan and then improving it when I overhauled the site two years ago.”

UrbanWire: How many people are involved in keeping the site live?

Steve Vander Ark: “Well, I do most of the editing of the site itself. Michelle works on editing as well, on and off. Penny is my assistant who handles email and manages projects and keeps me on track. I am in the process of adding a new editor, since I’m getting more and more behind on a lot of basic editing jobs. That’s all for the Lexicon itself. The forum has its own staff, with three main hosts/managers and a group of moderators. Then there are teams in three other countries working on translations.”

UrbanWire: How did the Harry Potter Lexicon become part of the Floo Network (a network of different Harry Potter websites, including The Leaky Cauldron.Org)?

Steve Vander Ark: “BK DeLong [head of TLC, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) web developer] and Melissa Anelli both emailed and asked me. They had the vision of linking several of the best Harry Potter sites together with a common link bar so that fans would have a “one-stop” place to go to get all the information they needed.

“At the time I was looking for a new server for the Lexicon too. We chatted about the possibilities, and finally I realized that what they were wanting to do would solve my server problem too. The last hurdle was the fact that the Lexicon was filled with absolute links, which would have to be changed. That was way too much work to do with the tools I had.

“Then BK helped me set up Dreamweaver to do all the links automatically, and so the Lexicon moved to new servers, got a new address, and became one of the Floo Network partners. I designed the Floo Network navigation bar and also the Quick Quotes Quill site. I also designed the temporary Galleries site and the current Floo Network main page.”

UrbanWire: How do you get your sources, for example, getting the news from Portuguese translators of the Harry Potter books about the sex of Blaise Zabbini (a character whom fans have been debating about for years)?

Steve Vander Ark: “That depends. Some of the translators use the Lexicon as a resource as they translate, but they often have questions that the Lexicon doesn’t answer. So they email me and we start exchanging emails. Then when something new comes along, they mention it to me. I don’t have anywhere near the kind of contacts that other people have. Mel [Melissa Anelli] knows everybody. She can track just about any rumour down. I wish I had her contacts! So I guess my best contact is… Melissa.”

UrbanWire: How did you get involved in Nimbus 2003, and in becoming a speaker at Harry Potter-related academic symposiums?

Steve Vander Ark
presenting at Nimbus 2003

Steve Vander Ark: “I was asked to be on the board of directors for the parent corporation of Nimbus, HP Education Fanon, when it was being incorporated several years ago. As the dates drew nearer for the conference, my wife and I were hoping that it would work for the two of us to take a mini-vacation with just the two of us and come down from Michigan for the event, but we weren’t sure it would work out. As we were considering, I was asked by several of my friends in fandom to present along with them and to serve on one of the panels. With that incentive, my wife and I made the decision to make the trip south last July.

“What do I usually present on? I have a range of topics that I can speak [on]. Probably the most typical [approach] is to chat about some aspect of the Wizarding World and what we know about it. Usually, talking about what we don’t know on a topic is at least as interesting as talking about what we do know, since hints and intriguing possibilities turn up in those kinds of discussions.

” Along those lines, I have a presentation, which lays out the timeline of the books and the history of the Wizarding World. I have another, which explores the geography of the Wizarding World, and how it matches up with the real world. I’m doing that one at Convention Alley this coming weekend, as a matter of fact. I also have one on the Weasley family, talking about everything from The Burrow to the ages of the Weasley children and of Molly and Arthur. I also have a more general presentation, which is an introduction to Harry Potter; I’ve used this at libraries for audiences, which aren’t packed with enthusiastic fans.

“This time, at Convention Alley, I’m doing a new talk for the keynote. I’m discussing the “rules” analyzing the Harry Potter books, both the rules which others have proposed and my own set of rules. My take on analyzing the books doesn’t always match that used by other fans, so it should be an interesting talk.”

UrbanWire: Have you ever been interviewed or featured in a publication before? If so, what was it for, and how did you feel?

Steve Vander Ark: “I have been interviewed several times by the New York Times, I was in USA Today, I was on The Today Show, and I’ve done interviews with various news organizations. I’ve [also] done a few live radio shows. The questions tend to be similar, so the answers are fairly easy to come up with. Trouble is, sometimes the answers require that the reader follow a train of thought, so you want to explain yourself carefully.

“The weirdest interview was The Today Show. I wasn’t in New York [where it is filmed], but I was “live” with the people there on the stage so I was looking at a camera and having to talk like we were having a lovely little chat even though I couldn’t see them at all. So even though it was television, it was really more like a radio interview. Except [that] everyone could see how tired I looked.”

UrbanWire: How does it feel to have been finally recognised by JK Rowling?

Steve Vander Ark: “Well, it’s incredible, of course. The email arrived a few days after the site was already posted, so it wasn’t a surprise or anything. An email came in from Jo through her website (so no, I don’t have her email address), which was a form notice addressed to my staff and me by name, which was nice.

“I was in the process of doing some reorganization to make things run smoother on the Lexicon, and all of a sudden we were getting massive traffic. It was great to me recognized by Jo for the work we’re doing. It was nice to know that she doesn’t resent it, since it’s her world and we’re building a huge website about it. The best part was knowing that she uses the Lexicon herself to research things. That was so incredibly amazing to discover. It doesn’t get any better than that. It really validated what we were doing. If it’s good enough for her, we must be doing a good job of it.”

UrbanWire: Had you had any prior contact with J.K.Rowling?

Steve Vander Ark: “None. Ever. Of course, I would love to have a chance to sit over coffee and chat with her. I don’t know if that would ever happen, but it would be great.”

UrbanWire: What future plans are there for the Harry Potter Lexicon?

Steve Vander Ark: “Apart from continuing to edit and add things from the first 5 books, there are several new projects in the works. The Reader’s Guides are expanding and we’re writing new chapter guides.

“There are several other new projects, which are more or less on the drawing board only right now. I have a couple of new artists whose work needs to be added to various pages. There is a whole new batch of famous witches and wizards in the new Electronic Arts Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban computer game that need to be added, and I have a backlog of content, waiting to be edited, formatted, and uploaded, including essays, artwork, maps, etc, so I’ll stay busy.”

Steve Vander Ark photo courtesy Steve Vander Ark.
Nimbus 2003 photo courtesy Melissa Anelli.

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