Cataloging the Margins: Zine Librarianship

One of the fun things about being in library school, particularly as an archivist, is interacting with different types of materials in the bibliographic universe. One area of librarianship and special collections that has particularly exciting for me has been working with the To the Front Zine Collection at my campus library. Zine librarianship presents an interesting intersection of archival practices and librarianship, while also posing a number of challenges for fitting zines into the practices and standards developed around printed books.

What are zines?

Zines are DIY, independently or self-published “magazines” that have a long history in the United States, dating back at least to the creation of science fiction fanzines in the 1920s. Zines were particularly important in the development of riotgrrl and queercore community cultures that led to a flourishing of independent zine creation and circulation. Additionally, contemporary feminist magazines like Bitch Magazine and Bust Magazine began as independent zines in the 1990s riot grrl and punk music scenes.

What unites zines and makes them particularly interesting as a form of documentary culture is that they are by definition independently created and/or self-published. The barriers to entry to produce a zine are incredibly low, and this has allowed a wide variety of folks to create, collaborate, and distribute zines freely without having to deal with publishing houses or other gatekeepers of media. Zinesters can accurately present their lived experiences in whatever bodies and identities they inhabit, without having to conform to external standards of what is “marketable” to mass audiences. As an intern, I have read through zines that talked about all-natural approaches to toothcare as well as zines that discussed trauma and healing from intimate partner violence; zines made by undergraduate activists on my campus, and zines about radical parenting, and of course fanzines about riot grrl music.

Zine creation and circulation has played an important role in feminist and activist communities, both because of the relative ease of photocopying and distributing zines, and the connections between independent media and feminist and anti-racist activism. Archives like the POC (People of Color) Zine Project and the Queer Zine Archive Project have worked to preserve and make accessible zines created by and for queer communities and communities of color, and explicitly link their projects to visibility and access for these zines. Other repositories focus on locally specific zine cultures, like the Austin Fanzine Project, with others housed within academic or special collections institutions like those at Barnard College Zine Library in New York, and the collection I work with at Simmons College in Boston.

Issues for Librarians

Although zines represent an important form of self-documentation within marginalized communities, they pose a number of challenges for those seeking to organize them and make them accessible. Many zinesters use pen names, zines are published sporadically, let alone trying to apply LCSH to deeply personal and highly subjective and diverse content. Developing accurate and usable metadata has proven to be a challenge, particularly as authorship or even the titles of zines can change from issue to issue. This has led to efforts by the zine librarian community to develop a metadata standard specific enought to capture the uniqueness of individual zines while also being flexible enough to map onto existing bibliographic data systems like MARC and EAD. Individual repositories have also developed internal controlled vocabularies to assist users in identifying zines of interest, like the Anchor Archive Zine Subject List.

Importantly, zines also bring to the front the right to privacy and the right to be forgotten, both in describing materials and in digitizing and making zines accessible. Because so much of zine culture is based on the free circulation and expression of ideas, the rights of the records creators (particularly from an archival perspective) to have a choice in the distribution of their work is highly relevant, although not for the normal copyright type issues familiar to archives and libraries. Some zinesters present and past were explicit in the right to photocopy and distribute their work, however digitization has brought a slew of new issues to the forefront, and led to the creation of a nifty Code of Ethics, developed by zine librarians themselves to fill the void on best practices.

The Future of Zine Librarianship

Zines are awesome not only because anyone can make them, but also because they present such interesting issues for info professionals in describing them and making them accessible to our users. On a personal note, working with zines has helped me deal with longstanding issues related to activism, depression, and self-care, and making these zines available to folks in my campus community is a sincere source of pride for me. The zine librarian community is growing and working on a constellation of awesome projects, including working with educators to use zines as primary sources for research and in the instruction of information literacy standards, the adoption of a universal metadata standard for zines, and eventually a union catalog of zine offerings. If you are interested in more info about zine librarianship, check out the ZineLibrarians.info site, and the ZineWiki to browse zines and find a zine collection or distro (place to buy zines) near you.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Burn_the_Asylum, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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