The Zinester in the Library

  • Posted on Jan 01, 2010 by

Like many bookish kids that came of age in the 80’s and 90’s, I spent a good portion of my adolescence pouring over zines. The exact definition of a “zine” can be hard to pin down, people generally use the old I-know-it-when-I-see it axiom to refer to these generally small and self-published booklets. They tend to embody a “Do It Yourself” ethos; the tools of the trade have historically been scissors and glue sticks and Xerox machines or letter presses. They usually are not produced with a profit motive in mind. Zines document marginal and minority interests and subcultures from music to politics to personal stories. Zines are often associated with the punk rock scene of the ’70s and ’80s, and they indeed grew out of this time, but Thomas Paine’s famous pamphlet could certainly be considered a zine as well.

Zines were things that you read in your bedroom in high school and kept in a shoebox that you dragged with you from loud dorm to less-loud dorm and then to your first apartment. Zines were something that you worked on by yourself or with friends, late at night sprawling on the floor, listening to whatever angry or sad, wailing or pounding, terribly important thing it was that you were listening to.

The kids who were sprawling on their bedroom floors in the ’80s have invaded the academy; they are writers and professors and librarians now. The librarians among us have been working diligently to establish zine libraries, be they collections at public or academic libraries or independent collections at community centers. One of the most exciting panels at this year’s Artists’ Book Conference featured three very cool and totally impressive zine librarians. 

Susan Thomas of The Borough of Manhattan Community College Library spoke about the murky territory between zines and artists’ books and spoke specifically about art zines.  Her article on the topic will be appearing soon in Art Documentation. Art and design zines are an interesting corner of the zine world. In some ways they are rather different from zine culture at large; they are often less political and less personal. They may have a dose of the cool-kid/art-mag air (think dark glasses, leather jackets, small type or, at least, I think: dark glasses, leather jackets, small type…). Yet they are not the same as traditional art magazines. As a rule, they do not have a masthead or an ISSN number and will generally have an irregular printing schedule. These may seem like silly details, but they are the hooks by which a publication travels through the market place. Art and design zines generally do not work within this economy.

Jenna Freedman was up next. She is the reference librarian at Barnard College and founded the college’s zine library.  Her talk focused on zines in an institutional library. She covered everything from how to sell the idea to your administration to budgeting, cataloging, preservation, and outreach. Jenna advocates for using MARC standards to catalog the records so that they are integrated with the rest of the catalog. It’s also important for a library looking to develop a zine collection to have a clear scope. At Barnard the collection revolves around women’s issues, third-wave feminism and Riot Grrrl. Jenna recalls that one of the best pieces of advice she received when she began the collection, was to acquire two copies of each zine. One is saved as an archival copy, and the other circulates. To me, this is a perfect illustration of a library navigating difficult territory. A library has the seemingly contradictory charges of making material widely available as well as preserving it. This dual mission is especially critical in the case of ephemeral and rare material like zines. If libraries do not preserve zines in a systematic way it is quite likely that one of these days all those shoeboxes under the bed will be lost to the dust-mites and sands of time.

Brooklyn College librarian Alycia Sellie’s presentation was titled “Why Libraries Should Create Zine or Alternative Press Collections.” She looked at zine collections from the perspectives of a librarian, the zine community, and a “zinester” (zine writer) herself.  She spoke about The Wisconsin Historical Society Newspapers and Periodicals Collection a model, she said, for the kind of collecting work libraries can and should do. The Historical Society is committed to building a comprehensive collection of material that fully represents American life. If a library is truly going to preserve and curate cultural heritage, it has a duty to include otherwise marginalized voices. All the more so because it is exactly these voices that sometimes get lost in the shuffle, She spoke about some very exciting people who have been tireless advocates for collecting marginalized material and thinking about librarianship in a progressive or radical way including Chris Dodge author of the Street Librarian column at the Utne Reader and the legendary “renegade cataloger” Sanford Berman.  Like Jenna, Alycia emphasized the importance of cataloging zines and creating standards that will ensure reliable access to zines in the future.

These presentations were exciting, interesting and dynamic and reminded me both of what I have always loved about zine culture and about the substantive and yes, even “radical” nature of Librarianship. 

Search Artists’ Books in Arcade to explore the zine's in Brooklyn's and MoMA's libraries

Kate Adler, Assistant Librarian for Arcade, New York Art Resources Consortium

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