Unofficial Histories: Zine and Ephemeral Print Archivists

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Unofficial Histories: Zine and Ephemeral Print Archivists

A roundtable discussion by Anne Elizabeth Moore, originally published in Punk Planet #75 / September and October 2006.


Close on the heels of the very first zines came a slew of official, published, historical retellings of their origins. While these treatises have served to bring new creators to the form, they have also defined and prescribed what zines have been and can be. No lesser foe to creativity than Frederick Wertham, in fact, wrote the first definitive history of self-published booklets as a follow-up to his infamous 1954 Seduction of the Innocent with 1974’s The World of Fanzines. Since, countless academic treatises have described, popularized, and provided instructional material for entering the world of fanzines— which most of the underground stumbled into by happenstance: photocopying little writings they trade with their friends, leave at shows, or send through the mails.

While some new creators may enter the fray after getting a book about zines from the Barnes and Noble, these academic treatises are remarkable for creating that official, published, historical timeline of zinedom. This is a spectacular feat, considering that zines are created in opposition to official, published, historical versions of, well, just about everything. Fortunately, resources have begun springing up to provide the unofficial, self-published, anti-historical accounts zines provide: the zine archive.

“Librarians in the United States are on the front line of the attacks on privacy and civil liberties,” Naomi Klein told the American Library Association in 2003. “Being a librarian today means being more than an archivist, more than a researcher, more than an educator—it means being a guardian to the embattled values of knowledge, public space, and sharing that animate your profession.”


The five print archives we look at here—spread fairly evenly across the US—can rival the contributions of the average public library in the areas of knowledge, public space, and sharing. Yet they also challenge our official notions of what libraries should be. While most collections aim to house and keep sacred the printed matter they collect, Megan Shaw Prelinger (MSP) and Rick Prelinger (RP) of the Prelinger Library in San Francisco in fact aim to disseminate it, encouraging the free reproduction of their materials, whether copyrighted or not. Milo Miller and Christopher Wilde at the Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP) in Milwaukee have a similar policy, although geared toward digital dissemination: they provide downloadable versions of zines and pamphlets—with an ACT-UP print collection that cannot be missed—and allow for users with home collections to upload their PDFs as well.

Information sharing is a common theme among libraries, although these archivists take the notion to the next logical step beyond the photocopying option available at most libraries. Abby Bass of Seattle’s Zine Archive and Publishing Project (ZAPP) aims to redistribute the ideas housed in its collection by providing zine-making space and materials right next to the archive. It’s a model Nell Taylor and Emerson Dameron of the Chicago Underground Library (CUL) have followed as well. Only Jenna Freedman’s Barnard College Zine Collection (BCZC) is housed inside the traditional Barnard College Library in New York.

Yet what these collections all have in common is that they each tell stories about their communities different from the official, historical versions—as Megan Prelinger notes, “This is a different kind of library experience than is available elsewhere.” In organizing such collections, the archivists interviewed below drastically rethink the ways we normally organize information—which is the first step to rethinking the very ways we operate as individuals, and as a community.

Interviews by Anne Elizabeth Moore

What do you collect?

ZAPP: Self-published and small press periodicals including zines, mini-comics, chapbooks, newsletters, and other independently produced, difficult-to-classify publications.

MSP: Zines, nonfiction books, magazines, government documents, and other printed ephemera that serve our areas of interest: North American regional history, media, cities, urban/rural interface, natural history, and under-represented and alternative social and political narratives.

CUL: Anything and everything independently published in the Chicago metro-area since the dawn of the Chicago metro-area. We collect small press (any genre), independent magazines (any format and circulation), self-published zines, handmade art books, political pamphlets, etc. We define “published” as anything intended to reach the hands of other people, whether it’s a run of 5 or 10,000.

QZAP: Our main focus is on collecting “Queer” zines. That is: zines, comix, flyers, and other DIY documents created by and for (or about) LGBTQ people and communities. As such, it encompasses a variety of materials from a number of subcultures including but not limited to trans folk, riot girls, queer punks, gay anarchists, bicycle riders, and on and on.

BCZC: Zines. Here’s our official collection development policy: “Barnard’s zines are written by New York City and other urban women with an emphasis on zine by women of color. (In this case the word “woman” includes anyone who identifies as female and some who don’t believe in binary gender.) The zines are personal and political publications on activism, anarchism, body image, third wave feminism, gender, parenting, queer community, riot girl, sexual assault, and other topics.”

What will never find a home in your archive, and why?

In an environment where you have to stand at a library computer and formulate a query before you handle books, the process of browsing, of random discovery, and of serendipity are pushed to the background. In our library, browsing, random discovery, and serendipity are the only ways to engage the library!
—The Prelinger Library

ZAPP: We do not accept major newsstand magazines, including publications that started out as zines and are now something else (ie, Bust, Bitch). We do not accept newspapers, free weeklies, or other community papers; in fact, we try to avoid collecting items printed on newsprint as much as possible. We also do not accept any comics from the major publishing houses (DC or Marvel). We do not collect these items because they do not meet our definition of a zine, and we believe they are being archived adequately elsewhere. As for newspapers, they are subject to quick deterioration because of the poor quality of their paper, and we don’t have the resources to adequately preserve them.

MSP: Mainstream literature that’s commonly available at public libraries. Because we’re not trying to be a general interest collection. Our library is an assembly of things that visitors would not be able to see together in the same place anywhere else. We think there are enough libraries with Boating and Golf and Rose Cultivation sections. Ours has sections on Utopia, Civil Liberties, Anarchism, Border Regions, and Nature/Culture Interface (among many others).

RP: Though friendly librarians, activists and zine collectors give us a lot of material that might otherwise end up in landfill, we’re not trying to clone the Library of Congress and collect everything. Rather, we’re trying to illuminate corners of culture and society that interest us and, we hope, others who come and use the collection.

CUL: Things from Wisconsin. Iowa. Any other states. The only exception being if the publication or author have past ties to Chicago or went on to be based in Chicago or otherwise meaningfully contributed to the growth or discourse within this community. We don’t currently collect audio or video, though we’ve been lobbied to establish an independent A/V section and may do so eventually.

QZAP: We stay away from more mainstream Lesbian and Gay publications like Out, The Advocate, or Girlfriends. We also do not collect bar rags, weekly, or monthly local LGBT community papers and magazines, or pretty much anything that has had a print run of over 5000 in a single issue.

BCZC: I try to stick to the parameters listed in our collection development policy above. It’s not so much that I refuse to collect other things, it’s that it’s beneficial for different libraries to specialize in different things. That way if you’re interested in riot girl, you come to Barnard. If you want anarchist zines, you go to Michigan, and if queer zines are your thing, you download them from QZAP.

Do you lend media from your collection?

ZAPP: Officially our collection is non-circulating. Under very special circumstances (such as an offsite exhibit or class) we may lend items to other institutions and educators.

MSP: No. Instead, we give copies away. We have no way of tracking material objects that leave the library. Instead we have defined our library as appropriation-friendly. It’s a space set apart from the climate of fear that surrounds the use and re-use of previously published works. We encourage visitors to bring their digital cameras for casual page capture, and to use our creaky Xerox machine whenever they like, and we have a flatbed scanner for publication-ready image capture.

RP: We also pass along duplicates and materials that don’t fit in our collections to other independent libraries, researchers, and artists.

CUL: We don’t lend any media. Much of our collection doesn’t exist anywhere else and we can’t run the risk of losing anything. Publications are available for browsing at our space and a few will be available online as PDFs with the publisher’s permission.

QZAP: We occasionally lend items from our collection, but mostly to people who are interning with us, and who will return them promptly. QZAP’s goal is to scan and preserve our collection in a digital format, and we make that available for free on our website. While it’s a slow process, in a sense anyone with a connection to the Internet has access to our collection.

BCZC: We don’t yet, but that’s purely because we haven’t figured out the logistics of it. Basically, we don’t know where to put the check-out stamp on our little zines that rarely have room for such a thing.

How do you organize your collection?

ZAPP: Our collection is organized by general subject. We have 28 general categories (including Comix, DIY, Humor, Miscellaneous, Queer & Trans, Sex, and Work). Within each subject, items are shelved alphabetically by title.

MSP: The sections start where our feet meet the ground, in San Francisco, and end, five long rows later, in space. It’s a way of organizing subjects as a “walk” through the landscape of ideas, moving gradually from concrete to abstract, from the material to the theoretical, and from the feet to the head . . . and on to the stars. Within sections, we intershelve materials across different media if they’re on the same subject. For example, we have books, periodicals, government documents, and the occasional novel all together on the same shelf if they’re all about the same subject, such as the rural South, or the Cold War.

CUL: Our organization is based on when the item was entered into the catalog. This system has pluses and minuses. On one hand it helps our goal of breaking down genre and format stratifications, but it also isn’t the most efficient way to browse. We’re still working on a compromise.

QZAP: Currently our collection is organized as alphabetical by title.

How did you come about this method of organization?

Each publication is cataloged by the usual things like title, author, publisher, date, but we also include multiple non-hierarchical genre listings, keywords, and an abstract. Which means that we basically read everything we collect.
Chicago Underground Library

ZAPP: The categories were developed by a group of volunteers at ZAPP. Initially we categorized the entire collection alphabetically by title, but we thought shifting to a subject-based system would facilitate better shelf-browsing. Users may or may not have a specific title in mind, but they almost always have specific interests. We looked at other zine libraries (such as the IPRC in Portland), publications like Factsheet 5, and considered our own knowledge of zines and our initial impression of our collection to create a list of subjects that we felt best represented the topics in our collection.

MSP: When we were developing the idea for the library, we debated whether the Library of Congress or the Dewey Decimal systems would fit our collection. We decided they would not, and that our library needed its own local system of organization that was indigenous to the subjects themselves. I (Megan) designed our taxonomy.

CUL: We have an awesome group of volunteers made up of librarians, library students, archivists, and others who meet on a semi-regular basis to solve issues related to our particular collection. This group helped us establish our system early on and continue to work with us on adding to the data. We have also consulted with other independent media catalogers who face similar complications.

QZAP: It seemed to be the simplest way at the time that we started the Project.

BCZC: I originally wanted the zines to be classified by the Library of Congress system, but our cataloger found this to be both challenging and ineffective. Challenging, because sometimes it’s hard to tell what a zine is about, especially if content varies substantially from issue to issue. Ineffective because the lack of “aboutness” leads to them all having the same call number which leads to them just being more or less alphabetical by author or title anyway.

How do you catalog it?

ZAPP: We treat zines as monographs, not serials. In other words, we catalog each issue of a zine as a separate item with its own bibliographic record, instead of creating one general record for the entire run of a periodical. In our records we try to include as much descriptive data as possible, including creator name, title, date of publication, issue and volume number, contact information, format, size, and a brief description of contents. Since the contents of most zines cannot be summed up in one category, we include up to three sub-categories in each record to facilitate cross-referencing and increase user access. We are using a database created in MySQL by one of our volunteers. It’s similar to Access, except that it’s non-proprietary software so we can host it on the web (our ultimate goal). Users can search on almost every field in a record.

MSP: Our collection is not catalogued. Part of the purpose of making our own library is to provide a counterpoint to the query-based mode of access that prevails at most public and academic libraries. In an environment where you have to stand at a library computer and formulate a query before you handle books, the processes of browsing, of random discovery, and of serendipity are pushed to the background. In our library, browsing, random discovery, and serendipity are the only ways to engage the library! That being said, our cherished collection of classic science fiction is an exception: it is fully catalogued. That’s so we know what we already have when we’re browsing far-flung used bookstores.

RP: The collection itself is the catalog. Walking through the aisles is like touring a garden of ideas (some identifiably good, some bad, all shelved together), thinking about how different subjects connect and interact with one another, and feeling this or that book (magazine, map, flyer, zine) beckoning.

CUL: Because we use a computerized database to house and search our collection’s information, we have created a keyword system to enable the most thorough searches. Each publication is cataloged by the usual things like title, author, publisher, date, but we also include multiple non-hierarchical genre listings, keywords, and an abstract. Which means that we basically read everything we collect. Our contributor list also includes not just the editor or main authors, but everyone who had anything to do with the publication, whether they were photographers, illustrators, or typesetters. The more information included with each item makes it easier to discover connections between publications you may not have known about, especially in a narrow collection like ours.

QZAP: We are in the process of moving to a database-driven system including bar-code technology so that we will be able to better keep track of the collection. When we started three years ago we had about 300 items, and we’ve easily doubled that. Because a good portion of QZAP involves using technology (scanning, web development, promoting free and open source software, etc.) moving to a database system for cataloging it makes a lot of sense. We’re also optimistic that our new system will easily integrate with the website, thus easing the pains of data entry from two or three places to one.

BCZC: They’re cataloged according to Library of Congress standards, as detailed in the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules (2nd Edition, Revised.)

Please describe the space where your collection lives.

Zines and other self-published periodicals discuss topics and feature voices rarely heard in mainsteam media. In a world of ever-increasing media consolidation and honogenization of news and entertainment, zines offer a necessary and welcome alternative.
Zine Archive and Publishing Project

ZAPP: Our collection resides in the basement of Richard Hugo House, a literary arts center on Capitol Hill in Seattle. Hugo House is in a sprawling old Victorian mansion that was once a funeral home—the ZAPP library was once the embalming room! Some claim to have seen ghosts. The walls are lined with shelves full of cardboard magazine boxes holding zines. There is also an old-fashioned card catalog that currently holds minizines (although this may soon be dismantled, since it’s not the best storage system for minis). In the corners of the room there are comfy chairs and lamps for zine perusal, and a big welcome desk by the front door. Scattered about the room are revolving magazine stands displaying zines selected by our volunteers as their favorites. There are also several computers, a scanner, and a printer for zine design, cataloging, Internet browsing, and other activities. It is cozy and dim and full of good things to read.

MSP: We are in a 1700-square foot warehouse room in San Francisco’s South-of-Market neighborhood. The room has a 14-foot ceiling, and we’ve built our shelves 12 feet high, so the room feels very tall. The upper shelves are reached by rolling ladders. The room has a blue-gray floor and yellow walls, and is sparsely furnished with some folding tables and wire-backed chairs. There is a mountain of cardboard boxes of materials being processed that’s piled in the back of the room. The room has the sweet smell of old paper.

CUL: We are temporarily housed in the basement of a coffeeshop. It looks like a basement and smells like a basement and coffee. The coffeeshop has its own lending library of general books, not necessarily independent, so when we’re not open, the collection is locked away in a very large filing cabinet. The space is large enough to host workshops and the coffeeshop itself has a stage for readings and lectures, as well as free Wi-Fi for those who might work on their own publications in the space. We may redecorate the basement a bit and have already taken precautions to protect the publications from the usual basement dangers. But it will retain all its basementy charm.

QZAP: Currently our collection lives in what would normally be a dining room in our home. Since we don’t actually use it for “dining” it’s quite a good space. There is a nice hemp rug on the floor, it’s dry, there are shelves of books and other media, computer work stations, wireless access, a stereo with turntable for listening to everything from 8-track tapes to records to MP3s.

BCZC: The zine shelf stands between the current periodicals and the newspapers and atlases in the library. It’s on the same floor with the reference desk and reference collection, literature stacks, periodicals, microfilm, and computer workstations.

Why do you feel it’s important to collect this printed matter?

ZAPP: Zines and other self-published periodicals discuss topics and feature voices rarely heard in mainstream media. In a world of ever-increasing media consolidation and homogenization of news and entertainment, zines offer a necessary and welcome alternative. The history and culture of many marginalized groups, including queer, punk, trans, and many ethnic minorities, are vividly represented in these publications. Zines demonstrate that anyone can publish their thoughts and images cheaply. Despite their unique character and historical importance, few libraries make a sustained effort to collect these items. By archiving zines, we hope to inspire current and future generations of zine-makers, and preserve the amazing and often unheard histories within their pages.

MSP: A lot of what we collect is ephemeral: it wasn’t published with the intention of existing very long. So it hasn’t stuck around too many places. That includes things like zines, government pamphlets, maps, and posters. Also, for us it’s important to collect original source materials. A lot of people have contemporary books that interpret historical materials, but don’t have access to the historical materials that they interpret. We like to shelve contemporary theory next to the primary sources that those books interpret, so that our users have the opportunity to triangulate for themselves the connections between primary and secondary sources. This is a different kind of library experience than is available elsewhere. We are able to do this because some libraries are under pressure to change the way they use space: to get rid of historic materials to make room for computing and community centers. We understand that libraries have to adapt their function to the needs of their communities, and we’re grateful to the helpful librarians who have kindly arranged for us to be able to adopt some of their interesting historic materials.

CUL: What struck us about Chicago, in particular, was that there were a few communities, but they were all small and no one was talking to each other. People weren’t learning from each other or collaborating or working together to solve the exact same problems they all faced. So we started collecting, both as a means to preserve the past and create an alternative history of Chicago to what you may find in the public library or historical society, but also as a way to show the current and future communities what’s going on. By getting everything in the same place, you’re able to contrast and compare and learn and see how other people have dealt with the issues you’re facing.

QZAP: Zines are a way for disenfranchised people to connect to each other for low or no cost. In our lives this has been particularly important. As a result, we found a need to actively work to preserve the materials that represent more marginalized aspects of queer people, queer life, and cultures that aren’t represented by more mainstream LGBT communities. Ultimately, though, all of the material in our collection is representative of another person. As such, I think that for those of us who actively work on the project that these people have merit. As a result their work (published material) is important, because they are important to the inter-connected network of humanity that we are all a part of. It is this spirit of humanity that we are seeking to preserve and make available. If in the process it connects people to each other, smashes systems of hatred, homophobia and bigotry, fights injustice, and leads to a more sustainable and peaceful planet, then so be it. By doing what we do, and representing what others do, we really are making a difference and changing the world. How could we not?

BCZC: Two of librarianship’s mandates, per the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights are: 1) Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation. 2) Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.

Zines are made by people who have no other way into the library shelves, because of their age, economic status, point of view, style, etc. Despite their lack of appeal to corporate publishers, zine authors have something to contribute to the literature of our collective experience. If libraries don’t collect and preserve their work, it will be lost. Plus, I love zines.

How do you pay for the space used to house your collection?

What other costs are involved in your archive? How are they covered?

Zines are made by people who have no other way into the library shelves, because of their age, economic status, point of view, style, etc. Despite their lack of appeal to corporate publishers, zine authors have something to contribute to the literature of our collective experience.
Barnard College Zine Collection

ZAPP: ZAPP is a program of Richard Hugo House. As such, we receive all our funding through the house’s annual budget for this program. We do not pay directly for rent or utilities, but we are expected to meet an annual income goal (about $1700) to help defray the costs of our program. We have a part-time director who is paid 10 hours a week (only about half the time she spends in ZAPP). All other labor is volunteer. Our collection of over 15,000 items is almost entirely donated. We have a small annual budget, the bulk of which goes to pay the director’s salary. The rest goes to library supplies and program support (workshop supplies, instructor fees, etc).

MSP: We are supported by operating a film archive as a small business. We make our living through providing stock footage to commercial users. We also have other day jobs to supplement that income and help support the library: I am on staff part-time at a wildlife hospital. There aren’t really any costs besides rent associated with our project. We do not charge any fees for use of the library, and we are open to the public. But people sometimes make donations anyway, and when that happens we use the money to buy food and drinks for our volunteers.

RP: The community has supported us as well. When we opened two years ago 60 of our friends visited over an eight-day period and worked to shelve most of the materials. Since then we’ve had two parties to sort paper ephemera and zines; about 75 people came to eat, drink, work and read. We’ve also taught about 20 visiting university and art-school classes there and picked up a little pay that way. Like many other DIY projects, we think of the library as an unfolding experiment. We’re trying to let the library develop organically, and we will try to keep its structure and organization consistent with its activities as they evolve. It’s been really exciting to be amateur librarians!

CUL: Right now we are working toward filing as a 501c3 nonprofit. Our space is donated, as is most of our collection. Our web-hosting is donated and we have a number of really fantastic legal, business, and library professionals who have donated time to helping us make this happen. Basically we pay for stuff by people being awesome. But of course once we’re a nonprofit, we’ll begin the grant-writing and fundraising process for things like a humidity- and temperature-controlled space, professional archiving and preservation materials, acquisitions, and better beer for our catalogers.

QZAP: Since the collection is housed at home, we work to pay the rent/mortgage. Other costs include printing for our “propaganda” (stickers and postcards, mostly), acquiring the technological tools that we need like scanners and software, paying for postage, and the occasional travel costs when we go to a conference or zine festival. Mostly these costs are covered out-of-pocket, or through donations. We recently were awarded a grant, which will help sustain us for the next 12-18 months, but really we rely on our own day jobs and the donations of others to keep the project going.

BCZC: Fortunately the cost of space is not an issue here. The space itself could be at some point, as the library’s holdings expand, and the building does not. The most expensive thing regarding this collection was the bookshelf, which cost over $1,000 to begin with and then another $1,000 or so for the shelving inserts that display the zines and keep them from getting all floppy. Other expenses include my travel to conferences to buy zines (Allied Media Conference, Boston Zine Fair, etc.) and of course the cost of zines themselves. •

© 2006 Punk Planet | Punk Planet is a project of Independents' Day Media

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