Library Student Journal: Zines in the academic library: a literature review
Academic institutions are increasingly interested in obtaining items of alternative press and print culture. Zines are but one of the many types of alternative media, and are finding their way into many library collections. Zines are hand made and present a variety of ideas and issues, political stances, and personal viewpointsmostly those that challenge cultural norms. They represent the voices of minority in its many forms, and can be a window to exploring underground subcultures. This paper reviews the handful of scholarly articles looking at zines through a librarian's eye. This paper specifically discusses the issues surrounding zines and their collections at academic institutions. Issues such as cataloging, funding, preservation, and future needs are examined.
"Any collection of information materials preserved through the generations will inevitably influence how we interpret the past. Conversely, the absence of information material silences historical voices, which are then lost to history" (Wiegand, 2008). This statement written by Wayne Wiegand, a professor at Florida State University and an editor of the journal Library Quarterly, expresses the need to collect alternative publications, which have largely been seen as secondary materials in academic libraries. While researching the literature for this paper, it became increasingly obvious to me (a new MLS student) that today's quickly changing libraries are having to compete with a multitude of information technologies. For too long these libraries have been unapproachable and unwelcoming to a variety of patrons outside of academia. Yet the challenge of a rapidly changing world also presents opportunities for academic libraries to make use of their privileged position by expanding or beginning collections of interest to particular groups. The appropriateness of zine collections is related by Richard Stoddart of Georgia Southwestern State University: "Print zines are one of the most direct links to the viewpoints and artistic endeavors, and therefore the understandings, of individual members of a society. As such, zines are a potent cultural tool and should be considered a worthy addition to libraries" (Stoddart, 2004). Rita Marinko, reference librarian at Iowa State University wrote that: "Articles in library journals often address issues of censorship [however one aspect little discussed is] the actual place of the alternative press in library collections" (Marinko, 1998).
This paper aims to examine one particular example of alternative press collections, zines, and their relationship with academic libraries. To do this I conducted an informal literature review by systematically searching four online journal databases using the keywords: zine and zines. I did not include literature on e-zines. My objective was to review zine print culture and its relationship to academic libraries and their collections within the broad context of alternative publications.
The Webster's Dictionary defines a zine as "a noncommercial often homemade or online publication usually devoted to specialized and often unconventional subject matter." According to Webster's, the word was created in 1965, which was the pinnacle of alternative printing publications. As with all dictionary entries this is both a concise yet overly simple explanation. Zines are highly varied and highly problematic for academic libraries. Chris Dodge illustrates, "Their content may be sexually explicit, politically revolutionary, or blatantly anti-social. All embody the maxim: freedom of the press belongs to those who own one" (1996). They can also be quite lighthearted, completely obscure and especially bizarre, as Hakim Bey notes about a journal called The Gourd, a zine on cucurbitology (Bey, 1997). As Julie Herrada, curator of the University of Michigan's Labadie Collection, writes, "cultural as well as intellectual stimulation can be found in the pages of zines, simply because of the diversity of topics and people who publish them. The dedication it takes to publish a zine is matched only by the desire to communicate about topics [of] diverse [nature]" (Herrada, & Aul, 1995). The history of zines dates back to at least the 1930's when fanzines were first created. Many scholars note that the first recognized fanzine journal was Comet. "The medium, however, has been around for at least six decades. Originally called fanzines (from fan club culture), the zines had their roots in science fiction pulp magazines" (Romenesko, 1993). The fanzines of science fiction filled a similar purpose to today's zines, including production for "personal and not financial reasons" by aficionados who celebrated their "devotion and interest" (Friedman, 1997). More importantly this golden age of science fiction writing was made possible through a community of like-minded amateurs who took it upon themselves to build networks, allowing "writers to encourage, perpetuate, and contribute" to the genre; fanzines thus "were empowering and addictive and allowed individuals to ignore, if not destroy, the distinction between those who create and those who consume" (Bartel, 2004). As Stoddart and Kiser wrote, "Zines are the unfiltered voice of the common person. Print zines are not bound to editors or publishers" (2004, p. 192).
Today's zines are technologically distinct in part due to xerography, which allows publishing to be cheap, efficient, and to a degree anonymous. Zines are increasingly being published and edited through computers. Yet many are still hand written, with only a small number still produced using typewriters. This paper does not look at the growing number of e-zines or blogs, which some do not recognize as bearing relation to zines as mentioned here. For instance, one aspect of difference is that "Zines, although they're called ephemera in library lingo, are actually a lot more permanent than blogs. The zine reader gets to keep the thing forever" (Freedman, 2005). The distribution of zines ranges from a local to a global audience. They can be found all over the world, from the streets of Vancouver to the alleyways of Kathmandu, Nepal. The topics are similarly wide-ranging: from food history and cookbooks, to travelogues, to music fanzines.
With the growth of online zine databases, a growing number of people interested in zine collections are sidestepping academic libraries by self-publishing histories and information on zines from the past. One example is ZineWiki, which has grown quickly amongst the many websites devoted to cataloging zines. This particular website uses open source wiki software as its base for users to simply add cataloging information to the site (Lastufka & Sandler, 2008). This type of preservation should be a call for academic libraries to become more aware of the vast public interest in zines. Mark Sandler is director of the Center for Library Initiatives in Champaign, IL, and realizes the need for libraries "to become facile at supporting all sorts of media, and they must continue to embrace the new, or face the consequences of losing relevance to the mainstream culture" (Sandler, 2006).
It is important to briefly explain the heterogeneous physical aspects of zines as they relate to collection development and preservation. Many if not all zines are made with photocopied paper. Some are made with recycled media such as wallpaper, grocery bags, or even canvas. Dimensions can vary widely depending upon the size of paper; even then, the publisher may cut or alter the dimensions. Added to this is the possibility of oddly-shaped zines that come with added media, which may include CDs, buttons, stickers, mini comics, and even candy. This may predispose zines to be frustrating on a variety of levels. Susan Davis, a serials librarian of the University at Buffalo, has worked with its well-known poetry collection, which includes a large amount of alternative publications such as zines. She notes that her department attempts to "apply reasonable control" while balancing the need for "quality control with the strange and wonderful formats and whimsical publication patterns." Additionally she remarks, "we try hard not to bother people too much with our claims and bureaucratic procedures" (Davis, 1995).
Indeed, the collecting and preservation of zines has been a fairly new endeavor by academic libraries. The methods used were based on fundamental preservation needs. Many of the journal and book articles written about the care of zines were written at digitization's infancy, and there are many digital possibilities for preserving the zine collections at major research institutions. Economic resources can be difficult to secure for special projects such as zine collections. However, it is important to note that zines or other specialized materials can be a saving grace to libraries in today's changing landscape. I return to this idea later in this paper.
In 2004, Richard A. Stoddart and Teresa Kiser published a paper in the journal Library Resources & Technical Services in which they addressed numerous aspects of preserving academic library collections. They offered basic methods of long term preservation and described the usefulness of archival folders and climate controlled rooms but also acknowledged that space could be an issue. The authors noted that "others have no plans for preservation...when and if the collection begins to deteriorate, they will repair as much as possible and otherwise discard as needed" (Stoddart & Kiser, 2004). At Columbia University's Barnard Library zine collection, the staff has a system of collecting two copies of each zine, when possible, one of which is kept for archival purposes. The staff affixes acid free flags in the zines, which are then kept in climate-controlled archival boxes. According to Jenna Freedman, the Coordinator of Reference Services at Barnard College, the collection does not remove "potentially problematic items" such as rubber bands, staples and other deteriorating assemblages (Gisonny & Freedman, 2006). A contrasting approach is taken by the New York Public Library (NYPL). They are one of the many libraries that do not have a specific preservation model or system. Zines are considered to be serials and are treated as such. The Assistant Chief Librarian for Periodicals at NYPL claims that the zine collection is currently being moved to its own section within the periodical section, and this should help to "facilitate further examination of preservation issues, options for future digitization initiatives, possible internship projects for library school students, and a thorough inventory of the zine collection" (Gisonny & Freedman, 2006).
Along with preservation issues, it is also worth investigating how zines are accessed by patrons. It is possible to exclude many potentially interested patrons by not making zine materials highly visible or readily accessible. By their very nature, zines are intended to be freely read and distributed. "Regardless of how zines are cataloged in the collection, the main objective is to make them available to patrons" (Stoddart & Kiser, 2004). Several libraries have simple shelving allocated for zines among either the periodicals section or in a leisure reading area. According to Paul Mercer, a senior librarian at the New York State Library, where the world's largest collection remains, the zine collection is accessed by "zinesters and would-be zinesters looking for inspiration, curiosity seekers, and serious scholars of popular culture, literary, political or art history" (Stoddart & Kiser, 2004). At Barnard, the zine collection is displayed on racks, and zines are labeled, tattle-taped, and bar coded. And in 2004 the collection began circulating, becoming one of the first to be cataloged in OCLC. The Barnard collection goes to great lengths to make patrons feel welcome, as evidenced by this statement from their website: "Those without access privileges at the Barnard library should contact the Zine Librarian to make an appointment. We want you to come visit, we just have to know you're coming so we can alert the desk attendant. Please don't be put off by this!" (Freedman, 2008). Of course, many academic libraries simply house their collections within special collections and they are, therefore, a bit more troublesome to view. Yet as with any specialized collection, more often than not librarians are excited to help patrons.
One other noteworthy issue in terms of zine accessibility is the fact that some publishers may resent collection of their zines by academic libraries. Ron Chepesiuk understands that publishers are uninterested in preserving their zines because, "they don't want to be institutionalized" (1997, p. 69). It is therefore the "library professions' responsibility to try and convince zine publishers that their efforts should be preserved" specifically within academic libraries (1997, p. 69). Another viewpoint is that "zinesters have an unyielding sense of pride in their work, and decisions such as selling or even donating zines to libraries and archives can appear as serious compromises" (Herrada & Aul, 1995).
The literature search did not reveal much cataloging experience. Of the small number of papers that address this concern, the first issue that arises is whether zines are serials or not. Richard Stoddart and Teresa Kiser ask: if zines should be categorized as "alternative press, underground press...vanity press...or something else altogether?" (Stoddart & Kiser, 2004). From the literature I reviewed, several libraries did not catalog their collections at all. Stoddart's research revealed that some academic libraries used Microsoft Access as a cataloging tool. I have noticed that several non-academic libraries use online cataloging tools, such as LibraryThing, or other open source cataloging software. Ron Chepesiuk notes that, "much to the chagrin of the technical services department, many zines don't have dates, and frequently change their titles" (Chepesiuk, 1997). The tediousness of dealing with such ephemeral publications can lead to zines being viewed as less important than other types of alternative collections. Yet cataloging these types of materials is not a new problem. Interestingly, a very similar challenge was described in an article presented at the ALA meeting in Denver in 1937:
The cataloging history of the Factsheet Five Collection at the New York State Library (NYSL) is revealing in terms of the problems that can arise with not only zines, but with specialized collections more broadly. Factsheet Five was the name of a zine that reviewed other zines. The publisher of Factsheet Five, Mike Gunderloy, had amassed an enormous personal zine collection, which he eventually handed over to Billie Aul at NYSL. At least 4,000 of these zines have been cataloged, but the entire collection is many times larger and has little hope of being completely cataloged. After receiving the collection, Billie Aul had optimistic intentions to complete the project in 15-20 years. Due to typical economic challenges, changing attitudes, and the fact that she transferred to another department, the job is still unfinished. In an interview Billie commented that, in retrospect, she should have "simply used the finding-aid approach of maintaining an alphabetical listing of the titles" (Stoddart & Kiser, 2004). As Jenna Freedman notes of the Barnard College collection, "Zine cataloging requires a lot of flexibility. Occasionally the cataloging rules are so unforgiving that it is useful to supplement the record with keywords" (Gisonny & Freedman, 2006). At Barnard the zines are subject cataloged in the local system and are assigned call numbers that begin with the word "zines." NYPL also catalogs their zines, but as serials. They also use the genre heading "zines" (as used in the Library of Congress list of subject headings) when cataloging. To close, cataloging zines is an important part of a collection and if economically feasible should be done with critical thought and some creativity. Sandy Berman instructs catalogers to make a library's resources easily identifiable and available, stating that the cataloger's job is not to "mindlessly adhere to rules and protocols, but to serve their information desk colleagues and the public. That's who they are working for" (Roberto & West, 2003).
Billie Aul of the NYSL commented that "You don't have to be a large library with a special collections section to collect zines. All you need is a place to put them and an understanding that they don't quite fit your library's definition of serials" (Herrada & Aul, 1995). This statement by expresses a very practical reason why libraries may wish to collect zines. There are clearly other, more philosophical, reasons for maintaining zine collections that connect to the very foundations of the librarian profession. Several articles referenced the Library Bill of Rights. This document written in 1938 by Forrest Spaulding, and given a major revision in 1948, was itself an attempt to combat the growing attempts to censor freedoms. Some saw zines as perfect vehicles to putting the Bill of Rights into action. Randy Scott, curator and Assistant Head of Special Collections at Michigan State, observes that "Libraries preserve records of man's cultural communication, and since so much communication today is going on outside the old commercial and academic channels, we have to seek out nontraditional materials like zines" (Chepesiuk, 1997).
Zines are but a microcosm of the larger topic of alternative publications. According to Chris Dodge, zines should not be confused with the alternative press publications beginning in the 1960's: "The alternative press that began in the 60's and is thriving today is more structured than the zine and is more like the traditional press, with editors, associate editors, staff photographers, and advertising" (1996). This topic has been gaining more notice in the recent years and can be read about in the current issue of Library Trends, which devotes a special issue to Alternative Print Culture: Social History and Libraries. As libraries are facing monumental challenges, special collections and digital projects are being seen by some as a saving grace to both stature and necessity of maintaining academic library institutions. Special collections in combination with an easily accessible online digital collection is one way to make libraries viable as the use of books is declining. These alternative collections will be important to patrons today and in the future, as they are needed to "track public attitudes, political opinions, alternative perspectives, and counter-culture events" (Ardito, 1999). Furthermore, reference librarian Hong Wang notes that, "Scholars and researchers interested in studies of political, cultural, and social activities find alternative publications a significant source of understanding their subjects." He also reports that there are multiple synonyms for "alternative publication," but the latter term is currently considered more appropriate in "comparison with others such as anti-establishment, dissident press, underground press, independent magazines" (Wang, 2006). These various terms aim to reflect the role of the alternative press in countering the mainstream conglomerate media. Zines, and other alternative publications, are important outlets for and historical records of alternative thought.
Literature reviews are a useful tool for synthesizing research already published on a topic of interest. This type of synthesis helps develop new theory as well as new research questions, in part by revealing knowledge gaps within the field of librarianship. While gathering literature for my qualitative summary of zine collections, I noticed, a lack of academic analysis of zine collecting. This was partly expected, but I was curious to quantitatively examine the number of publications about zines to see if there were any trends over time. For example, Dodge (1996) reported that in the early to mid 1990's the growing popularity of zines led to mainstream media attention not only in magazines and newspapers, but in academic journals across a broad range of disciplines. To assess whether this trend also applied specifically to the library and information science journals I searched three online databases: ISI Web of Knowledge, EBSCO Host: Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts, and Library Literature. I used the search term "zines" because it recovered a greater number of useful records, whereas the term "zine" yielded hundreds of irrelevant articles. Consistent with my summary of the literature above, I excluded publications solely about "e-zines."
Figure 1 shows the number of scholarly articles by publication year from each of the three databases. The overall number of publications is low, ranging from 18 to 22 once restricted to scholarly articles about print zines. I graphed results from all three databases together because, while they have a great deal of overlap, the combination of the three is likely a more comprehensive picture. Aside from the unfamiliarity of zines and their culture, the low numbers may also reflect the representations of the alternative press in major databases more generally. In their study of serials in academic libraries, Marinko and Gerhard found that alternative press not indexed into a database is generally lost to scholars, yet these alternative publications are one source of writings about zines. The figure also shows a significant dearth of publications between 1996 and 2003. In the mid-nineties, zines seem to have been "discovered." They were certainly a large part of the underground culture, in all its diversity. Without examining the sociological reasons, the nineties had diverse sub-culture leanings, found even in mass media, advertising, and the arts. As for the spike of publications after 2003, one possibility is that this relates to the post 9-11 environment in the United States. Librarians have expressed concern with the recent and multi-faceted attacks on civil liberties, and zines represent a voice of concern. Even if these are not overtly political, they can offer critique in more subtle ways, as voices seeking autonomy in our society. Or perhaps the publication spike may be due to a more simple reason, as a growing number of librarians were in fact publishers or collectors of zines back in the 1980's and 1990's. This renewed interested in zines in the 2000's corresponds with the small but growing number of academic libraries taking a more serious approach to collecting zines. Librarians are interested in preserving the materials of cultures on the fringe. "A periodical that brings a specific viewpoint to a collection thus can have a value that cannot be measured by the frequency with which it is cited" (Marinko & Gerhard, 1998).
Much of this paper assessed zines and their culture within the United States. There are, of course, many types of zines written around the world. In some instances they are seen as a very serious threat to the status quo or mainstream society. From zines written by South Africans during Apartheid, to queer writings in Indonesia, the act of publishing can be a radical and dangerous proposition. I am excited by prospects for further research related to zines and libraries. I am left with many questions relating to specific components of collection development, such as funding, cataloging, and digital preservation. I am presently questioning whether the growth and development of zine collections is rising, or is the opposite true? Is there interest in collaborating with existing radical libraries outside of the academic world? I also wonder whether zine collections will be thought of as monetarily valuable ephemera. What is the role of collecting blogs, e-zines, and other digital compositions? This paper has also given me insight into many of the scholarly journals and interesting individuals in academic library institutions, both today and in the past. I had little knowledge of the variety and scope of publications for and about critically minded librarians. It is hopeful to witness librarians stepping outside of the traditional professional experiences to support a variety of marginalized viewpoints.
Bey, H. (1997). Permanent TAZs. Retrieved March 12, 2008, from http://www.t0.or.at/hakimbey/paz.htm
Dodge, C. (1996). Preface to special feature: The zine connection. In S. Berman & J. P. Danky (Eds.), Alternative library literature, 1994/1995. A biennal anthology (p. 303). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Freedman, J. (2008). Barnard College Library Zine Collection. Retrieved March 4, 2008, from http://barnard.edu/library/zines/
Lastufka, A., & Sandler, K. (2008). Main Page - ZineWiki: The history and culture of zines, independent media and the small press. Retrieved March 12, 2008, from http://www.zinewiki.com
Jeremy J. Gardner is a MLS candidate in the Department of Library and Information Studies at the University at Buffalo. He currently resides in Ithaca, NY, where he works for the non-profit agency Challenge as an archival technician. He is also a library intern at the Paleontological Research Institute.
Copyright, 2013 Library Student Journal | Contact