Digitizing Print Culture: Preserving Zines in Libraries and Archives by Megan Metcalf is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Though zines have had a diverse community of devoted followers since the 1930’s, zine collections in libraries and archives have only recently begun gaining popularity. Because zines are relatively new resources for libraries and archives, there are still many questions concerning the preservation needs of these non-traditional formats. Although collecting and preserving zines can present interesting challenges, they are invaluable resources that capture first hand perspectives of those outside mainstream media and popular discourse. Because zines place little emphasis on the original copy, I recommend digitization as a viable preservation and access strategy. Unfortunately, most libraries have not taken steps to digitize zine collections.
The first section of my paper will provide background information and definitions of zines and important related concepts. I make the case that the preservation of zines in libraries and archives constitutes a fulfillment of professional ethics regarding social responsibility, diversity, and equitable access. Then, I will discuss zines as ephemera, and consider established ephemera digitization projects. I recommend that librarians and archivists consider established approaches to digitizing ephemera when considering zine collection digitization. In the second section, I focus on digital preservation concerns. Considering the ethos of zine culture, I argue that not only can concerns over privacy, permissions, and copyright be easily addressed, but also that digitizing zines constitutes an effort to both preserve and promote print culture. Finally, I discuss implementing digitization for preservation and access in libraries and archives. I advocate that libraries and archives should learn from and work collaboratively with community archives, potentially paving the way for community digitization projects.
Figure 1. Image of a page from the zine, Cupsize. The use of the MadLibs logo and concept is an example of a general type of copyright concern which is characteristic in zines.
Zines in Archives and Libraries
The preservation and collection of zines is an undertaking that resonates with the professional code of ethics for both the Society of American Archivists (SAA), and the American Library Association (ALA). The SAA (2011) core values define the archivist’s main function to, “…select, preserve, and make available primary sources that document the activities of institutions, communities, and individuals.” Zines certainly function as primary sources, and the information they contain is both reflective of many important issues and ideas, while at the same time told from a personal point of view. I assert that in preserving zines, archivists fulfill the core values of promoting the widest access and use, documenting and preserving a diversity of perspectives, and social responsibility.
ALA has similar core values that include providing resources regardless of format in such a way that is equitably accessible. For those libraries that don’t digitize zines, it could be argued that this is taking away an opportunity for access (ALA Policy Manual 53.1.14). Considering the vast popularity of the Queer Zine Archive Project’s digitized zine collection, there is clearly a need for these resources to be digitized in order to provide truly equitable access. Furthermore, the ALA values of social responsibility (ALA Policy Manual 1.1), preservation (ALA Policy Manual 52.2.1), and diversity (ALA Policy Manual 53.8) could also be employed to make a strong case for the collection and preservation of zines in libraries.
Before considering how to best preserve zines, let’s take a moment to consider the characteristics of the format. Anna Poletti (2008, p.6) points out that, “As a mode of subcultural publishing, zines are characterized by their material form, as well as by their content, mode of production and circulation.” Zines tend to resist static definition, and as such, any definition must necessarily be fluid and adaptable. However, for the sake of clarity I must attempt to provide some basic parameters that influence understandings of the zine medium. The material form of zines is ever evolving and closely related to the creative production processes of the creators. The quality and type of materials used varies greatly, but the average zine is usually paper based, and loosely resembles a book, pamphlet, or brochure. Woodbrook and Lazzaro (2013) offer an insightful description of zines,
“Typically, zines take the form of quarter- or half sheet booklets that are photocopied, letterpress-printed or silk-screened and bound by stapling, sewing, or gluing, or simply folding pages together. Zines are distributed through informal networks of friends, collectives, bookstores, record stores, music venues, or the mail for the purpose of self-expression, group-expression, or the expression of documentation of a social movement…Zines are often unedited; they are sometimes one-offs and sometimes serials. They are often written by a single author, but are sometimes collaborative efforts” (p.3).
While there isn’t an average production process for zines, there is a formula that some zinesters (a name by which zine creators identify themselves) tend to follow. Often, images and texts (from a variety of sources) are cut out and pasted onto the flat page (usually generic paper). For those who prefer a more sophisticated look, a computer program such as InDesign is used to create the content. You can see how this process does not lend itself to an over valuing of an original copy. Zines are often explicitly made in order to be easily reproducible. Also important to note, zinesters have complete control over the creative process, the finished outcome, and zine distribution.
The Medium is the Message
Jenna Freedman (2014, p.1), zine librarian at Barnard College, provides the following medium characteristics for zines: self published, small and self-distributed print run, outside the mainstream, low budget, motivated by expression and not with intention to profit. While some of these criteria seem to explicitly refer to the methods of zine production, it is absolutely essential to consider why these methods are so highly valued in the zine community. First, the reason that zines are self-published has much to do with the creator’s relationship to mainstream media. Often, those who create zines are expressing ideas that the mainstream might find inappropriate, dangerous, challenging, radical, explicit, or in general just unimportant (See Appendix A). But zine ethos values everyone’s ideas equally. In zine culture, people are encouraged to create and share their ideas, regardless of how seemingly banal they might be. The potential for zines to preserve voices that might otherwise have gone unnoticed is crucially important, and this is one of the reasons why libraries and archives have begun to recognize zines as the important primary resources that they are. Because libraries and archives are familiar with processing and preserving a wide variety of ephemeral materials, they are well suited to contribute to the efforts of zine collection and preservation.
Many archives and libraries recognize the value of collecting and preserving ephemera, and have been doings so for some time. Ephemera as it is generally understood are items that are short lived or transitory (Burant, 1995, p.190). Zines certainly qualify as a type of ephemera, so they are not unlike other formats that archives and libraries effectively collect and preserve. Digitization is a viable preservation strategy for ephemera, and therefore zines, because these materials are prone to otherwise remain inaccessible or hidden. It is not unprecedented for libraries and archives to adopt digitization of ephemera as access and/or preservation strategy. Some examples include the Princeton University Libraries rapid digitization of Latin American Ephemera, American Memory Printed Ephemera, Duke University Libraries Broadsides and Ephemera, and the Printed Ephemera Collections at Tamiment Library.
Considering the ephemera digitization project at Tamiment Library, Altermatt and Hilton (2012) note that ephemera has proven challenging for libraries and archives to, “…collect and describe because it often originates as out-of-scope material removed from existing collections or as individual items collected by or donated to the repository” (p.174). Depending on content, zines as individual items may or may not fit within the context of a larger collection. Therefore, it makes sense that a designated zine collection is created and digitized, which will enable increased access and interest in the material.
Digital Preservation Concerns
Zines present several preservation concerns for librarians, archivists, and collectors. Many of the preservation concerns of zines could be partially alleviated through adopting a digitization as preservation strategy. Digitization does not take away from preserving the physical copies of the zines, as some worry it might (Wooten, 2009). However, digitization does alleviate concerns regarding the degradation of cheaply produced zines, and the mechanical damage that zines are prone to. Opponents to zine digitization cite concerns relating to privacy and permissions, copyright, and the preservation of print culture (Wooten, 2009). I will now address these concerns, arguing that they do not make a strong enough case against zine digitization.
Due to the anti-establishment position of many zine creators, there are concerns regarding copyright. Specifically, some of the material that zinesters use may in fact be borrowed from other sources, which may or may not be subject to copyright restrictions. However, if zinesters themselves choose to include copyright protected material in their zines, this is generally a conscious political stance. It is understandable why many libraries and archives would fear digitizing these materials, but the situation is not as bleak as it might first seem. First, we must consider fair use. It is not difficult to discern whether digitizing a specific zine constitutes fair use or not. Under the Copyright Act of 1976 the fair use of copyrighted work includes use for comment, criticism, teaching, and news reporting, which is arguably the intended purpose of the use of copyrighted materials within zines. Furthermore, fair use considers if the use of the copyrighted material is: not-for-profit, the amount of copyrighted material used, and the effect of the use on the market value of the original copyrighted work (U.S. Copyright Office, 2011). Generally, the amount of copyrighted work used in zines is arguably negligible (See Figure 1 for an example). Because zines are almost always non-profit, this also eases copyright concerns. Additionally, the audience for zines (even with digitization) is not large enough that the original copyrighted work could lose any revenue. While there may be exceptions to these statements, any copyright risks could be identified by librarians and archivists prior to digitization. Finally, just because a few zines may pose copyright risks, it does not follow that libraries and archives should abandon zine digitization all together. In this situation I would argue, the benefits of digitization far outweigh the risks.
There is another consideration regarding copyright and zines, which is that the use of copyrighted material within zines is often a conscious political choice. Zinesters who don’t respect copyright often perceive of the use of copyrighted materials as a radical refusal to participate in the capitalist mainstream commodification and ownership of the abstract. While it may be difficult for librarians and archivists to reconcile themselves to this particular aspect of zines, it is also not ethical for them to ignore it, as they are positioned in a privileged context that has a large impact on the way that knowledge is valued, accessed, and disseminated. Many librarians and archivists have expressed frustration at the high cost of library resources, which is a foremost concern in that it limits the quantity and quality of the resources they are able to provide access to. Zines represent a stance against barriers to accessing information. Not all librarians or archivists would risk taking a stance on issues such as these, but I would argue that it constitutes an ethical imperative of the profession.
Figure 1. Image of a page from the zine, Cupsize. The use of the MadLibs logo and concept is an example of a general type of copyright concern which is characteristic in zines, and which I argue is negligible.
Privacy and Permissions
Upon first glance, librarians and archivists might very well be overwhelmed at the task of digitizing zines, particularly because getting permission from the zine creators is often practically impossible. It is not uncommon for zines to have anonymous authors, zinester names are often not legal names, and if a zine provides contact information, that information is often not stable over time. Particularly for older zines, it is hard to know if digitizing particular zines would in any way constitute a violation of privacy, whereby these individuals would not wish their creations to be shared online, to a much wider audience than they had potentially originally conceived. However, librarians and archivists might look to the example set by the Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP), and their approach to sharing zines via digitization. The workflow for the digitization of zines at QZAP has concerns over privacy and permissions built in. At QZAP, the first step prior to digitization is to attempt to contact the creator(s) of the zine to get express permission to include it in the digitized archive. At libraries and archives, print materials often become processed into collections with little to no attempt to create the original author or creator. Considering this, reaching out to content creators in the process of digitization can not only create a network of individuals invested in helping to preserve zines, but it can also be viewed as a more honest or intimate approach to collection development. This is evidenced by the number of zine creators who send their zines into QZAP with the expressed desire for it to be made available digitally. The ethos of zine culture emphasizes the sharing of zines far and wide, as zines attempt to provide an alternative to mainstream media. Therefore, it is justifiable to assume that most zine creators would not be upset to learn that their work was made available digitally, as the very point of making zines is to share them. It is simple enough to post a disclaimer on the library or archive website (as QZAP does) that zines will be removed expressly if at any point a zine creator does not want the zine available digitally.
Preserving Print Culture
James Panero (2013) argues that the meaning of print culture is quickly becoming alien in the digital age. However, I would argue that digitization, specifically of zines, not only preserves but also promotes print culture. Prior to the invention of the printing press, books were accessible to very few. Similarly, digitizing print materials can make resources more accessible to a vastly larger audience. Furthermore, the format and production of zines lends itself to reproduction in print form. Because zines are made by being photocopied and scanned, their file formats produce a printed product that is easy to assemble into a nearly identical replica of the original. Zines are made to be reproduced, and this reproduction is encouraged. Therefore, the digitization of zines (which often encourage readers to copy and share) could actually lead to more print zines, rather than less.
Because zines are ephemeral, they are often prone to mechanical damage when handled. Especially if there is only one copy of the particular zine in the collection, it should be digitized before the damage occurs. The quality of the zine materials varies widely, and a failure to take preservation actions will allow the fates to decide which zines will last and which zines will perish. This speaks to a larger concern of collective memory in archives and libraries.
Grosvenor (2013) notes that visual representation for marginalized groups in the archival context has been fraught with ethical concerns. Grosvenor (2013) looks at the absence or presence of African American photographs in archives, asserting that often what isn’t buried is not properly contextualized to reflect the true heritage of African Americans. A lesson can be learned from Grosvenor (2013) who points out that as both visual exhibition and documentary objects, these photographs are important resources for a marginalized community looking to remember history authentically. Zines are another resource that is both documentary and visual. Because individuals from marginalized communities are often the zine creators, zines constitute primary documents with immense visual importance. Accessing print culture through digital visual representation allows for an appreciation of these print mediums that would have otherwise remained invisible to most library users.
Digital Preservation Planning for Zines
Though digitization is a viable preservation strategy, there are still lingering concerns over the permanence of these records. Many digitized zines are hosted by independent community zine archives, like Milwaukee’s Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP). Many zine collections hosted by libraries and archives have done very little digitization at all. Because digitized zines in independent archives (like QZAP) rely on the work of very few collective members, and through donations that fund the server space, it is vulnerable to decay. This has already happened to Zinelibrary.info, and all the zines which had been digitized and housed on the website are currently inaccessible due to lack of time and money with which to keep the project going. If the library or archive in question is overly concerned about copyright issues, they can keep the system closed to non-patrons. I will now consider how libraries and archives might implement digitizing zines for access and preservation, recommending measures for information organization and community collaboration.
Organizing for Access
In 2001, the ARL special collections task force began investigating the large amount of unprocessed and under-processed materials in archives and special collections. The findings of the ARL task force speak directly to my concerns regarding a failure to digitize zines. Failing to digitize, or even just catalog items, blocks access to those researchers who can’t for whatever reason, come to the physical archives (Jones, 2004, p.89). Due to the tendency of archives and libraries to have unprocessed or under-processed items, any digitization project will have to thoroughly consider how access to the items with be organized. Luckily, community archives and zine libraries have been developing a metadata standard for zines, called xZINECOREx, which actually maps to Dublin core (See Appendix B). Not only can zines easily fit within current schemes of information organization, but also they can do so in such a way that constitutes a contribution to a community project. Zine librarians and archivists not only continue to work on developing xZINECOREx, but they are also working towards a union catalog for zines which will be similar to WorldCat. Altermatta and Hilton (2012, p.172) note that proper organization of digital collections can not only increase access and reveal the depth of the digitized resource, but can also work to foster interest in print and material culture.
“For decades, members of marginalized groups have collected, preserved, and curated collections of materials for and by communities through the work of individual activist archivists” (Wakimoto, Hansen, and Bruce, 2013, p.439). There are many examples of local community activist archives, such as the Lavender Library Archives and Culture Exchange of Sacramento, the Lesbian Herstory Archives, and the Queer Zine Archive Project. Local community archives recognize the absence of representation and preservation of resources that are meaningful to marginalized communities. Fostering connections between libraries and archives and zine enthusiasts, local community archives, info shops, or zine distribution centers can make zine digitization less costly and time consuming overall. Digitizing zines would begin a process of collaborating with those communities typically made invisible by dominant productions of knowledge. Furthermore, collection development policies that rely on community member contributions and ideas empower the individual as knowledge producer and consumer, where before they had been invisible. Libraries and archives can benefit from the expertise of the zinesters, and zinesters can find comfort in fostering the preservation of zines in the more stable housing, which libraries and archives can foster. Digitization efforts can also be shared between volunteers and paid staff.
The Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP) is by far the most extensive effort to digitize zines to date. The QZAP digital archive of queer zines is immensely popular, which speaks to the volume of interest in zines, and in print zines being presented and accessible in the visual digital format. However, QZAP is a very small collective, and the zines that they digitized are content specific to the LGBTQIA+ community. Furthermore, the ability to sustain this venture is reliant solely upon the collective members, and those who donate to QZAP. Digitizing zines is not an overly large expense, and it is much easier for libraries and archives to obtain funding for both digitization and long-term preservation (server space, staff to keep it up). Libraries and archives digitizing zines, or providing the server space to those who do, could provide longevity to what is a crucially important project.
Concerns over privacy, permissions, and copyright are not nearly serious enough to collect and preserve zines only in their physical manifestations. Additionally, making zines accessible to a wider audience encourages engagement with print culture, and therefore poses no risk to its historical legacy. Because libraries and archives have already taken seriously the call to digitize ephemera, and as zines are a type of ephemera, there is no reason to believe that zine digitization will be overly problematic. Preserving zines through digitization at libraries and archives fulfills the professional core values of social responsibility, diversity, and equitable access. I advocate collaboration on zine digitization projects between community archivists or zinesters and established libraries and archives. Zines contain powerful first hand narratives, offering perspectives generally made invisible in dominant discourse and mainstream media. Collaborative zine digitization projects provides a powerful opportunity for marginalized voices to find their way into archives and libraries, and thereby, into history and popular discourse.
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Freedman, J. (2014). Zines are not Blogs: A Not Unbiased Analysis. Retrieved from https://zines.barnard.edu/definition
Freedman, J. (2012). xZINECOREx: Union Catalog Update. Retrieved from http://zinelibraries.info/2012/07/28/xzinecorex-union-catalog-update/
Grosvenor, I. (2007). From the ‘Eye of History’ to ‘a Second Gaze’. The Visual Archive and the Marginalized in the History of Education. History of Education, 36(4/5), 607-622.
Jones, B.M. (2004). Hidden Collections, Scholarly Barriers: Creating Access to Unprocessed Special Collections Materials in America’s Research Libraries. RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, 5(2), 88-105.
Panero, J. (2013). The culture of the copy. New Criterion, 31(5), 4-9.
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Rossman, J. J., & Weintraub, J. (2003). Digitization of Book Arts Ephemera in the Arts of the Book Collection, Yale University Library. Art Documentation: Bulletin Of The Art Libraries Society Of North America, 22(2), 16-19.
Queer Zine Archive Project. Fair Use Info. Retrieved from www.qzap.org
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U.S. Copyright Office (2011). Copyright Law of the United States. Retrieved from http://copyright.gov/title17/circ92.pdf
Wakimoto, D.K., Hansen, D.L., Bruce, C. (2013). The Case of LLACE: Challenges, Triumphs, and Lessons of a Community Archives. The American Archivist, 76(2), 438-457.
Woodbrook, R., & Lazzaro, A. (2013). The Bonds of Organization: Zine Archives and the Archival Tradition. Journal of Western Archives, 4(1), 1-17.
Wooten, K. (2009). Why We’re Not Digitizing Zines. Duke University Digital Collections. Retrieved from http://blogs.library.duke.edu/digital-collections/2009/09/21/why-were-not-digitizing-zines/
Excerpt from Femmes Unite #2, showing the cut and paste typical of zines. This excerpt also shows the important personal narratives of those marginalized by the mainstream which zines preserve.
Zine about xZINECOREx Metadata