Zine Life: Lo-fi Culture Persists in the Digital Age

October 20, 2015

Dawn Stahurazines

Librarian Dawn Stahura Shares the Beatley Library Zine Collection

For nearly a century, underground culture has found its voice in zines. These traditionally independent publications emerged as a pervasive subculture in the 1970s rising out of the punk movement. In recent years, scholars have embraced the archival and research value of zines, with many libraries collecting them. This year the LIS world celebrated Library Zine Day on July 21 to raise awareness of the many zine collections developed and preserved at cultural heritage institutions around the globe.

Dawn Stahura, Research Librarian for the Social Sciences (Women’s and Gender Studies, Sociology, Psychology, Behavioral Analysis, Education, and African Studies) and Zine Librarian at Beatley started the Simmons zine collection last August which now boasts over 200 zines on a variety of topics such as gender, feminism, activism, library-related, and queer by those who self-identify as female. This circulating collection will soon be moving into a new space inside the library that will allow it to grow and expand over time.

Stahura started a Zine Group at Simmons, “To the Front,” where she meets with students once a month in the library’s new makerspace to read and create zines. She also works closely with Assistant Professor of Sociology Saher Selod to integrate zines into the classroom, including a final group project to create a zine around a topic related to inequality. These zines join Beatley's circulating collection with the original copies archived in our Archives and Special Collections. InfoLink talks to Stahura about her work with zines, and their role in libraries and society.

Can you explain what actually defines a zine, and the format’s connection to underground culture and activism?

Zines, short for “fanzines” or “magazines,” are published not by commercial publishers, but by people motivated by the desire to express themselves and to connect with others. There is no motivation for fame or wealth, just the desire to say what you want without answering to anybody. While zines come in many formats and sizes, they share basic characteristics:

●     They are self-published, short print runs.

●     They are motivated by self-expression.

●     They cover topics outside mainstream.

●     They are low budget, copy and paste, collage.

●     They have a DIY ethos—anyone can do it! No special equipment or skills necessary.

●     They foster a sense of community and belonging.

●     They are easy to disperse and distribute.

All of these elements combined create a culture ripe for activism; historically zines were used to voice a movement’s cause. Riot GRRRl in the ’90s is a prime example of this.

How did you get into zines?

I have been making zines since I was in elementary school, before I knew what they were. I created my own magazine based on Barbie Magazine and Sesame Street magazine. I produced exactly one issue, all original content (copy and paste) and genuinely believed I could get people to subscribe. Photocopying was expensive in the 1980s; that one lone copy went to my parents.

In the ’90s I mailed away for zines that were advertised in the back of Sassy magazine. In high school I created a zine with two of my friends. We distributed two issues before our principal suspended us for a week. Talk about free speech and censorship!

Though I have produced zines since, in the last three years I found my voice and started selling my zines on Etsy, and I attended zine fests, where zinesters set up a table with their zines and other wares, such as bookmarks, buttons, and drawings. You get to meet other zinesters, zine-readers, and make friends. Zine fests are safe spaces where I always feel welcome and respected. A lot of zinesters—including me—write about difficult, personal themes, so a safe environment is crucial. I often joke that I wish I wrote about kittens, because it would be easier to discuss my work in a comforting way, but the process of writing about tough subjects is what makes zines so powerful and necessary. They are raw and brutally honest.

You started the zine collection at Beatley last August. Can you talk about the collection development process?

The zine library started with a $100 budget, but considering most zines range from $1 to $6 apiece, I was able to start a decent collection. While I collect on a variety of subjects, we limit our collection to zines that are written by those who self-identify as female. Moving forward we anticipate that more members of the Simmons community will donate their zines to the collection by way of class assignments or through the zine group. I collect zines I feel best match the research areas of students and faculty, and those relating to current events. I am currently collecting in areas of Activism, Trans*, Consent, Library & Archives-related, and zines written by people of color, but I am always open to suggestions.

You work closely with Assistant Professor Saher Selod to integrate zines into her course “Inequality: Race, Class, & Gender in Comparative Settings.” You mentioned that zines have “transformed the way Saher teaches and the way students interact with the material.”  Can you tell us more?

I use zines as a tool to teach the importance of primary sources. In research, marginalized groups are often seen through the lens of this unknown “other,” but when we hear the voice of someone who lived and experienced the topic we are studying, we become connected to our research in profound and personal ways. Zines are a powerful and easily accessible way to engage with research on an intimate level. Saher’s students were able to relate to the themes of inequality by allowing zinesters’ creative voices, thoughts, and ideas to be heard.

You launched a Zine Group on campus called “To the Front” where students can meet and create zines. How has the response been to this program? What role do you think maker activities can play in academic library settings?

We have had about twelve zinesters at most meetings, and our numbers are growing. Each time I bring up the zine group in my instructional sessions—I always mention zines as a way to supplement research—we get a new member. There is no set agenda; we meet once a month in the new makerspace area at Beatley, talk about zines, read zines, and create zines. Eventually, I would love for our group to create its own zine.

Maker activities are vital to fostering a sense of community. My vision for the new makerspace would encompass “craftivism” activities, where activism and crafts merge to disseminate ideas which lead to action. Libraries have historically been places where freedoms are protected, so craftivism work is a natural fit. Zines are a great, low-cost way to get your ideas, opinions, and feelings out into the world, and start conversations aimed at influencing societal change.

How do you view the role of zines—paper and glue, low-fi production—in our tech-driven world? Why create a zine when you could easily start up a free blog and email the link? 

Zines foster a community of DIYers who use zines to engage with craftivism, which surged in popularity in recent years. Anyone can make a zine without any technological skills. As long as you have paper and pen, you can make a zine. They take time to create; the zinester has to consider more the words on the paper, and the overall design and layout. Also, size matters. Are you making a mini-zine? If so, then you really need to choose your words carefully because you do not have a lot of room to mess around.

In some ways, zines are more permanent than blogs in their physicality. They do not have to be renewed, nor are they reliant on Internet access and computers. Blogs are immediate. You write a blog post, submit it, and then people can comment on it—anonymously if they wish—often compelling bloggers to comment back. Zines are different. They are time-intensive to create, produce, and disseminate. If readers want to comment on the zine, they would have to actually write to the zinester either via email or snail mail. I think this diminishes the potential for hateful comments because it requires more effort of the respondent.

Last, zines are a finished product versus blogs, which are meant to be on-going and updated frequently. Even each issue of a serial zine is considered a complete work. It is a liberating feeling to put a finished product out into the world without going through a publisher or an editor. 

You also coordinate Therapy Dog visits at Beatley. Is this just an enjoyable activity, or do you feel outreach efforts like this provide students with measurable value? 

It is definitely a super fun activity (and I always have more than enough volunteers to help), and I think these activities are essential to self care. Often we get so immersed into our work, our studies, or research that we neglect to take care of ourselves physically and emotionally, which damages our health. Activities that reduce stress, such as spending time with therapy dogs, allow for some much-needed down time, and provide an opportunity to let our brains relax and engage in something not driven by academic achievements. The library is a natural setting for this type of valuable, enjoyable wellness tool.