Libraries Preserve the Latest
Trend in Publishing: Zines
by Ron Chepesiuk
In 1992, Mike Gunderloy, the former editor of
Factsheet Five, issued a press release announcing his intention
of donating his huge collection of zines to a library. Gunderloy
wanted to give his collection to a library that would not only
preserve it, but make an effort to get people interested in studying
those contemporary, underground, antiestablishment, and often
ephemeral products of self-publishing known as "zines."
is right across the river from where Mike lives, so we got real
excited," recalled Billie Aul, senior librarian, manuscripts
and special collections section, at the New York State Library in Albany. "We were
the first one there and got the collection."
The Factsheet Five
collection at the New York State Library occupies 300 cubic feet
of shelf space, includes between 10,000 and 20,000 titles, and
is the biggest and most comprehensive collection of its kind
in the world. "Mike got copies of zine that were being published
by all kinds of obscure groups in the 1980s," Aul explained.
"It's a phenomenal collection."
The Factsheet Five
collection is also an acquisition that reflects a trend in librarianship.
In addition to the New York State Library, a number of libraries
across the country are beginning to collect, preserve, and make
zines available for researchers, including DePaul University,
Bowling Green State University, Michigan State University, Washington
State University, and the San Francisco Public Library.
Chris Dodge, a
cataloger at the Hennepin County (Minn.) Library and an expert
on the alternative press, remains skeptical that the library
profession is making a concerted effort to preserve zines, but
he added, "Any effort to diversity collections of nontraditional
materialfor example, zines, comics and graphic materialis
No one can really
define the term "zine," say zine curators and experts,
but such publications share a number of characteristics. They
have offbeat, frequently provocative, and often weird names,
such as Baby Fat, Diseased Pariah News and Holy Titclamps. They
lampoon, attack, parody, entertain or instruct on virtually any
imaginable aspect of our culture, from AIDS to poetry, dirt bikers,
New Wave comics and the popular television show "Beverly
A zine is almost
always unsophisticated in appearance and format, often produced
by desktop publishing, collated by hand, and limited in audience
and distribution, usually to fewer than 2000 copies.
contain writings by people for whom the traditional media is
not an appropriate forum," explained Andrea Grimes, special
collections librarian at the book arts and special collections
center of the San
Francisco Public Library (SFPL). "They are getting into
print for the first time."
SFPL includes zines
as part of its Little Magazine Collection, which started in the
1960s and had as its impetus the Beat movement and hippie counterculture.
Grimes estimates the collection has 1000 titles, of which 20
percent are zines. "It will be very difficult to study the
literary life of San Francisco since the 1960s without using
the zines in our Little Magazine Collection," Grimes explained.
Randy Scott, a
librarian who curates a large collection of zines at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing,
believes that zines serve a useful social purpose. "Zines
are a form of communication among like-minded isolates all over
the world," he explained.
The MSU zine collection,
said Scott, can be described in three categories: comic zines,
science-fiction zines, and queerzines, a recent development that,
according to the librarian, has "gender-bender avant-garde
promise." MSU has more than 1,000 science-fiction fanzines
dating back to the 1960s, including a significant number of Star
be confused with the familiar alternative press publications
that have their origins in the 1960s. "Zines are usually
published informally and are the effort of one person or maybe
a couple," Dodge explained. "The alternative press
that began in the '60s 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."
But Aul maintained
the zine is still a part of the alternative press tradition extending
back at least 200 years in American history. "There has
always been a publishing network in this country outside mainstream
publishing and that includes zines," she explained. "So
zines are really just another form of alternative publication."
In 1992, an estimated
20,000 zine titles were published in the U.S. alone, and zine
watchers say the cottage publishing "industry" is growing
at a rate of 20 percent a year. "Zines are an important
part of popular culture because they reflect the attitudes and
values of the masses," said Laila Miletic-Vejzovic, rare
books and special collections librarian at Washington State University
The WSU library
has a large collection of counterculture comics, many of which
are zines, dating from the 1960s to the present. Like most libraries
preserving zines, the WSU library built its collection through
the generous donations of individualsin this case, Paul
Bryant, a member of the English department, and Steve Willis,
a New Wave comic artist and former librarian.
can tell us a lot about slang and language in our society, so
they are as valuable a special collection as anything a library
can collect," Miletic-Vejzovic observed.
head of special collections at the DePaul University Libraries
in Chicago, considers zines to be a form of primary source material
as important for the study of the history of today's mass culture
as letters, diaries and scrapbooks. "Unfortunately, the
telephone and e-mail are replacing letters as the principal form
of communication, so a lot of history is disappearing,"
DeGraff said. "If we don't preserve zines, historians and
other researchers are going to have to write about our era solely
from secondary sources."
The DePaul zine
collection, title the Chicago and Great Lakes Underground Press Collection,
grew out of the first annual Underground Press Conference, held
in Chicago in August 1994. Like WSU's zine collection, DePaul's
grew out of the interest and support of two people: Ted Anton,
a member of DePaul's English department, and Batya Goldman of
the Chicago-based Mary Kuntz Press. The collection extends from
1980 to 1995 and includes 200 titles.
libraries have limited their focus by type or geographic area,
but a few libraries like the Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green (Ohio)
State University have broad collecting themes. "Our
Popular Culture Library's unusual collection of primary materials
has earned it an international reputation as a resource for interdisciplinary
cultural research," explained Head Librarian Alison Scott.
"So our focus is broad and includes all of American culture."
The Popular Culture
Library has made considerable efforts to publicize its resources,
Scott explained, because of the public's perception that the
library's nontraditional holdings, such as its zine publications,
are eccentric in nature and so are not as serious or as valuable.
Curators say that,
although the zines they curate are of recent origin, scholars
and students have begun to use them for research. Unfortunately,
though, many zines will never be preserved. "Because of
their underground nature, zines are often difficult to locate
because many are published for just one or a couple of issues
and die," Scott explained. "For every zine that is
collected, I'm sure at least another six fall through the cracks."
Many zine publishers,
moreover, don't want their preserved in a library because they
don't want to be institutionalized; in fact, they often resent
the fact that libraries have zine collections. "Zines are
counterculture and their publishers like to be outside the mainstream,"
DeGraff explained. "They feel that having their zines in
a library flies in the face of what they are doing. I understand
their point of view, but I think that it's the library profession's
responsibility to try to convince zine publishers that their
efforts should be preserved in a library."
But for those zines
that end up being preserved in a library, many difficulties arise
in handling them. Much to the chagrin of the technical services
department, many zines don't have dates, frequently change their
titles, and often involve original cataloging. "A lot of
effort has to go into cataloging zines, and in this day of dwindling
library resources, that's hard to justify," DeGraff said.
find it easier to handle zines as archival collections rather
than serial titles. "We won't use OCLC," Aul revealed.
"Instead, we are writing archival finding aids to describe
our zines. We plan to put information about them in the online
catalog, but it will be a very brief record."
Given the ephemeral
nature of zines and their value as a record of contemporary culture,
zine curators would like to see more libraries make a more active
effort to preserve zines. "Zines can be found in almost
every community in the country, if libraries look hard enough,"
Scott added, "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
Libraries That Accept
American Libraries' contributing editor Ron
Chepesiuk is professor and head of special collections at Winthrop
University Library, editor of ALA's International Leads, and
a member of the editorial board of Reference Books Bulletin.
He is the author of Raising Hell: Straight
Talk From Today's Top Investigative Journalists.
This article originally appeared in the February
1997 issue of American
Libraries. Copyright 1997 American Libraries. Posted with
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