[Series] Emerging Careers in Librarianship: Zines (Yes, zines!)

Photo Credit: Flickr user Colorado College Tutt Library

The Emerging Careers series at HLS will focus mainly, and not surprisingly, on career paths opening up in the digital realm of the library and information science field.  It’s true that our field continues to “emerge” most visibly there, while the death of print, and even of libraries themselves, continues to fascinate us.  But let us not forget the ways that print can still be cutting-edge and community-based, AND offer librarians innovative ways to reach out to library users.  I’m talking about zines, and the librarians who work with zines also know as, get this, zine librarians!

Because you’re a cool library school student you probably already know all about zines, but here’s a brief overview for those who may not be familiar with the subject. Zines are difficult to define because they’re so all over the map, but generally they are self-published “little magazines” on any topic imaginable, or perhaps no decipherable topic at all.  Generally, the zinester writes the content, creates the artwork, does the page layout, and physically puts all the parts together in the production of a zine.  Photocopied, collaged, stapled or not, zines can be bare bones publications unedited and unvetted by any authority, however, they can also be highly polished art objects created by a group of collaborators. The content can be totally personal, known as a perzine, or mainly informational, like a vegan recipes zine, for example.  Zines are often youth oriented, often highly politicized, and offering perspectives not usually seen in the mass media on issues around race, gender, sexuality.  With roots in the Punk scene of the 1970s, zines tend to be edgy and uncensored.  Yay!

But are people still making zines?  It’s true, zines had their heyday in the 80s and 90s.  And blogging has provided a new platform for self-expression, but a blog and a zine are two different things.  People are still attracted to the beauty of such an unwieldy thing as a zine.  As digital information creation and sharing becomes ubiquitous, there is also a renewed interest in what we’re leaving behind.  Hello zine comeback!  Even the most established of established publications, the New York Times, recognizes that zine culture is experiencing a resurgence.

So how does one prepare to become a zine librarian?  The truth is you will probably not be lucky enough to land a paid position with the title of Zine Librarian, but you can make zines a part of your job.  There probably won’t be much discussion of zines in your MLIS program, but, of course, you can hack your program by doing a project on zines in a number of your classes.  Most importantly, there is an online network of zine librarians sharing tips and information about zine librarianship that you can easily join.

Many unique problems arise when working with zines in a traditional library setting, so zine librarians have to be creative in their solutions.  At the ALA 2012 Annual in Anaheim, I attended a Zines in Libraries pre-conference.  The panel of zine librarians provided all the basics that a zine librarian would need to get started, and they even made a zine about it!  They talked about how to pitch a zine collection to library administration providing no less than fourteen different good reasons, including “Both zines & libraries are reflections & creations of their communities.”  They also talked about the debates around how zines should be processed and if zines should be kept safe in the archives or made accessible in the circulating collection.  Deciding how to catalog zines probably provides the most challenging aspect of working with zines in the library.  Zines do not fit easily into the Dewey or LC classification schemes.  And isn’t that a good thing?  Oh, and you can teach information literacy and do outreach with zines, too!

Zines allow librarians to break the rules, to create collections that won’t be neat and tidy, but that will generate a lot of user interest.   It probably helps a lot if you’re already a zinester, but you don’t have to be.  You can learn the very basics of zine layout here, and there are lots of articles and books about zines out there.  Basically, zines are hella fun, for both the library user and the zine librarian.  Zines can provide a fascinatingly unique addition to a public or an academic library collection, and that’s a fact. And, as someone at the pre-conference said, they can even be “life changing.”  Put Zine Librarian in your job description!

Extra Special Bonus Feature:
An interview with two real-life zine librarians: Jenna Freedman, Director of Research and Instruction at Barnard College, and Kelly McElroy, Undergraduate Services Librarian at the University of Iowa.

What led you to become a zine librarian?

Jenna: I proposed the zine collection to my boss a few months into my job as Coordinator of Reference Services at Barnard. She said yes, and I’m a zine librarian! As far as what led me to pitch the collection, I don’t entirely remember, other than the fact that I was already interested in zines and Sandy Berman or Chris Dodge sent me an article about zine libraries.

Kelly: When I moved to Seattle after college, I stumbled onto the Zine Archive and Publishing Project. Volunteering there was part of what pushed me to go to library school. Since then, I have been lucky to work and volunteer in organizations with preexisting zine collections, or places where I’ve had the flexibility to incorporate zines into my tasks. But if I understand what you mean, I am a zine librarian because zines are an awesome form of publication, containing perspectives that might otherwise go unheard.

Were you a zinester before?

Jenna: Yes. I contributed to literary zines in the 1990s, and began my own in 2001. I wasn’t quite all the way to zinester yet, when I pitched the zine collection in 2003, but by the time it was on the shelves in 2004, as my friend Celia put it, that’s when my zine was all growed up. It’s also when I started connecting with members of the zine community, other than librarians.

Kelly: No – my first real experiences with zines were in a library setting. Since then, I’ve made zines of my own, but I did not start out as a zinester.

Did anything you studied in library school prepare you for this work?

Jenna: I can’t say that anything specific did, other than meeting Celia! But I don’t want to say that library school didn’t prepare me at all. How I envisioned building the collection has to be something of a reflection on what I learned there.

Kelly: I volunteered at ZAPP long before I went to library school. In my current position, my work with zines is generally through instruction, which I don’t think is probably typical of zine librarians, if there’s such a thing. If you’re putting together (or maintaining) a zine collection, you’ll have to be ready to deal with alllllll the nuts and bolts: acquiring and processing them, figuring out how to classify and catalogue them, and preserving them. Zines have their own quirks, but all this basic stuff still comes up.

Do you see a trend towards more zines in libraries?

Jenna: I know a lot of library workers are interested in zines, but I’m not sure if it’s more than in the past. I’ve had library school students contacting me the whole time I’ve been working with zines. I think Julie Bartel comments in From A to Zine that she had LIS students contacting her all the time, too, and she started the collection at SLCPL about five years before I launched mine at Barnard.

Kelly: That’s a good question, but I don’t have a good answer. Things like the Zine Pavilion at ALA may suggest that, but more attention doesn’t necessarily mean it is an upward trend all around.

What should librarians who want to work with zines do to prepare or become involved with this work?

Jenna: I could probably say a bunch of other things that have more to do with zines in particular, but I kind of think the most important qualities and skills I had were the idea, the ability to make it happen. I also think it’s important to be at an institution where you can make the case for zines. I wouldn’t have proposed the collection at Iona College, where I worked before Barnard. There, if I’d been inspired to launch a special collection, it might have been something to do with radical priests or Ireland. Or maybe I would have come up with something else to do at Iona that would have been special and fun and was organic to the institution. Although more libraries should have zine collections, especially if they’re driven by a zine niche, or if they’re in an area that isn’t already served by a zine library, I’d like to see people start other creative collections and services. There also aren’t enough baking pan, singles (records), T-shirt, religious tracts, and greeting card collections in the world.

Kelly:  Many fantastic zine libraries have been started or maintained by people with no formal library training, just a love of zines and their communities and a dedication to preservation and access. So, anyone, librarian or not, who wants to work with zines should just go out and find likeminded folks: check out this list of zine libraries and infoshops from Zine World and stop by your local zine library to see how to contribute. You can also get involved with the Zine Libraries Interest Group. Honestly, I think an equally valid question would be: Do zines fit in the work I already do? Zines may fit into your reader’s advisory or teen programs or _________. It doesn’t have to be a separate thing.

Thank you, Jenna and Kelly!!


Barton, J., Fox, V., McElroy, K., Schwenk, K., Smith, L., Wenzel, S.G., & Berthound, H. (2012) Zines in Libraries: Collecting! Cataloging! & Community! [Zine].

Categories: Emerging Careers

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31 replies

  1. This is awesome & really informative. It’s good to get the word out to would-be/current librarians that there are other options out there than just the local library or the reference desk!


  2. This is a great post Kevin! I was never a Zinester but I really like getting zines when I was younger. I enjoyed reading about the travels of a train hopping punk rocker or even just music recommendations from folks. I even have a Giant Robot zine back when they were just starting up their magazine! It’s great that libraries are incorporating zines, I should see if there are any near me.


  3. Cool, Kevin! I didn’t really know what a zine was before reading this post. What a cool niche for librarians.


  4. I’m an LIS year 2 student at McGill in Montreal, planning on doing a research project this fall concerning zine collections in academic libraries and some of the political issues regarding their collection (especially their fulfilling of James Danky’s concept of collecting all literature produced in a given area, if I’ve understood this correctly). Hopefully the project will continue to take shape over the course of the summer. I don’t have plans to try to start a collection at McGill, but my ambition is academic librarianship, so wherever I end up, starting a collection will definitely be a priority!


      • Thanks for the link! Also, a question: would it be possible for you to send me the paper you presented at ALA? Or send an abstract? Just so I’m sure I’m not covering the same ground as you in mine, as well as for interest’s sake. My email is david.tkach att mail dot mcgill dot ca Thanks in advance!


  5. A shout-out to Cambridge’s Papercut Zine Library. http://www.papercutzinelibrary.org/wordpress/ . And remember–there’s no right or wrong way to make a zine. No expertise required, just go to it! Also, academic library folks should consider volunteering at a community/public zine library, if there is one near you, over establishing a new zine collection in an academic library. Zines are about access & collection development for all. 😉


    • Thanks for the link and thought-provoking comment, Skoog! I think a zine collection in an academic library setting can be great because it will likely bring awareness of zines to students who may have never heard anything about zines. But I agree that community-run zine libraries need our support!


      • I would also say that academic libraries can provide resources for archiving and access often far beyond what a community-run zine library can accomplish. There is of course the problem of the reasons behind what the academic library is collecting, but here I think of the great collection donated by Kathleen Hanna to NYU and what that means for future scholars of 90s feminism. Considering the resources at that library’s disposal, I think it serves as a good example of an academic library being an ideal home for such a collection.


        • I’d argue with it being an “ideal” home. To take the NYU Riot Grrrl collection as an example, it’s located in a closed stacks environment with the primary purpose of scholarly access. The website lists the open hours as Mon-Thurs 10am-4:45pm and appointments must be made in advance. It’s open only to NYU students/staff/alumni and “scholars from other institutions throughout the US and abroad.”

          That’s not particularly conducive to visitation by your average Jane. It’s an overwhelmingly intimidating environment for those who are unfamiliar with research libraries (which is the great majority of people). Yes, academic libraries provide preservation which nonprofit archives usually don’t have the resources to maintain, but we can’t equate scholarly access with universal access.


          • Hmm, I suppose I was thinking of the library in which I currently work, which is in an urban environment and has quite a few members of the general public using the print (and online) resources every day. I didn’t know NYU was more restrictive, and I also hadn’t realized that Hanna’s stuff was in Special Collections. I suppose I envision the ‘collect two of everything, and one goes into general circulation’ model of zine collection development.

            Also, hopefully if there were enough interest the NYU library would digitize the collection, which of course introduces the problem of the ‘digital divide’ and what not, but still.


  6. I just started volunteering at ZAPP today! Several of us from UW’s MLIS program are helping out with cataloging the collection. It has been interesting thinking about how to write descriptions for zines and choosing accurate keywords for them. So many different writing styles, perspectives, and topics are covered in zines. I’m excited to learn more.


        • I’d love to! (Sorry for the late reply; for some reason subscribing to follow-up comments did not work.) What are the next steps for guest posting, or who should I get in touch with? I can be reached directly via email at amj22@uw.edu. Thanks, Rose and Kevin!


  7. Really interesting entry Kevin. I think zines have a lot to offer collaborators in terms of developing information literacy skills as well as strengthening and documenting community ties. I think the community library where I currently work would be happy to support such a project…thanks for a great idea!


    • Great, Laura! Let me know if you end up proposing a zine collection for your library. I would love to hear how it goes.


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