Zine archive at Barnard

One of the many fascinating links sent to me by Dave Lull is to a New York Times article about "zines". Dave is an intuitive person who has a knack of sending me links to articles that seem "just right for me", in this case, evoking memories I had forgotten I had.

"Zines" are self-published personal, political and artistic writings. But they aren’t electronic, they are what is charmingly called "analogue", i.e. objects written on paper. They most emphatically are not blogs, instant or otherwise interactive (though they can feature letters from readers).

The NYT article is about a librarian at Barnard College who has made a scholarly online catalogue of these zines — searchable, with instructions at the link. Because the zines are do-it-yourself, counter-cultural and anti-commercial, they tend not to be archived or otherwise collected and preserved. For similar reasons, they tend to be highly personal and individual (the NYT piece lists some titles). The Barnard librarian, Jenna Freedman, produces her own zine (Lower East Side Librarian) and is part of a group of radical, militant librarians called Radical Reference, and does great work in preserving this art-form (if that is the correct description). She looks very nice from the picture of her in the Times piece, and the photograph of part of the zine archive in a link within that article, shot through with pink bindings, definitely beckons.

Barnard’s zine archive is of titles "primarily in the area of women’s studies, featuring personal and political publications on activism, anarchism, body image, feminism, gender, parenting, queer community, riot grrrl, sexual assault, and other topics. They are created by women of color and NYC and other urban women. The term "woman" applies to anyone who self-identifies as such."

What’s the point of zines? One author writes: "I’m not even trying to be dramatic, but to the world at large, I am a freak. My voice is downplayed, ignored and/or made into a joke in the mass of verbal and physical disapproval that bombards me every day when I leave the safety of my house or make the stupid decision to read a newspaper, magazine or turn the television on. When I am out of my element, I am told that my very existence is wrong or problematic because I am a fat, queer, mentally ill, politically radical woman with very little money and little to no regard for beauty standards and so on and so forth. But you know what? I am so NOT fucking SORRY. As long as myself and others are disrespected, invalidated, unsafe and ignored by the masses, my experiences, ideas and opinions need to be heard and I will keep on talking this shit and it is not going to be pretty. Besides, how else are these stories going to be documented? " I don’t know if I know just how she feels, but sure I feel as if I do.

I had written quite a lot more about this, but when I tried to publish the posting, unbeknownst to me, Blogger had cut out and I lost it from the middle of the above quote. I’ll try to re-create the train of thought in the rest: I wrote that these articles remind me of my childhood when my sisters and I obsessively made "zines" in school holidays and weekends (though we didn’t call them that, of course). These objects were home-made, pure self-expression, unfettered by what anyone else thought outside our own imaginations. They were grand in concept but less so in reality as the sheer effort involved in filling eight pages made from a large folded-up piece of paper became painfully apparent once we had started. Yet we were never daunted — next opportunity, we were starting again. My childhood life must be littered with these half-completed creations.

What happens to that purity of expression? It fades out, as the child gets older, more homework, hormones hit, adults start focusing the child on "career" and so on — most people modulate their creative impulses into something more tempered, more suited to "life skills". Though not, perhaps, in the case of the Bronte sisters and brother, with their feverish creation of little home-made books covered in tiny writing.

Zines can exist only if they have very small circulations, manageable by the author concerned. If the print run gets large enough to require more people, then other interests come into play — commercial, advertisers — and this can affect content. The zine stops being a zine.

Here is an excerpt from the Barnard archive: Of & about Letters: Love-letters & Passed Notes & Everyday Declarations of Friendship. I just need now to get there to read some of them — to see for myself this highly personalised "outsider art".