Libraries, Authority, and Zine Culture

I am afraid of something, and I don’t know why. Because by all accounts, it’s a good thing that’s happening. It’s almost embarrassing that this would make me nervous, because it aligns with everything I want for my career, for society, for the future in general. Alright, sorry about the clickbaity shit–this is about zines and libraries, and all the amazing things that are happening right now with zines and librarianship that are somehow freaking me the fuck out.

Zines are getting a lot more popular in libraries. Independent zine libraries have probably existed since zines themselves, but lately zine collections in academic and public libraries have been a hot thing. The annual American Library Association conference has had a zine pavilion since 2012 where zinesters table and people talk about zines in libraries. My library just won a prestigious library marketing award for our zine fest (“which I worked on”, I say in my best humblebragging tone). And ALA editions just published a textbook earlier this year titled “Zines in Libraries: Selecting, Purchasing, and Processing”, which I think is the first book on zines published by the ALA. So yes, zines have been around in public/academic libraries for a while now (at least since 2004, when Jenna Freedman proposed and developed the Barnard Zine Library). But interest is definitely ramping up.

And for me, this means a few things. For one, becoming a zine librarian is becoming a genuinely viable career path, and knowledge, interest, and experience with zines is hot on a resume. Which is never something I thought would be realistically possible when I was first considering library science, just as being a teen librarian was only just becoming realistically possible when I was a kid. For two, I currently have the distinct pleasure of working on a zine collection at a public library, and I have a strong influence on everything from acquisitions to organization to outreach to… basically everything zine related, and my coworkers think of me and value my input. And for three, I also have the opportunity to make an impact on zines in libraries, and thus on library science in general. I think. As long as I’m not too late.

Because right now I’m feeling a little bit like the zines-in-libraries wagon is picking up speed, and I missed the last call to board and I’m running after it, my legs frantically trying to keep up as I half-run, half-tumble down a steep hill. I have a lot to say, I have a lot of ideas and feelings about zines and librarianship and zines in libraries, and I’m calling out as I’m running and trying to keep my breath. I’m hoping that they’ll be able to hear me, but I’m also wondering if what I have to say is all that important, if it’s really interesting or groundbreaking enough that I need to be on that cart instead of just cheering from the sidelines.

What do you even call that? Impostor syndrome? It’s sort of like that, but all mixed up so it’s projected both outward and inward. Shouldn’t I trust that there are others already on the wagon who are more knowledgeable than I, and that the ultimate destination is more than I could have ever wanted? That sounds a bit like impostor syndrome to me, like I somehow think I don’t deserve to be on that wagon. But at the same time, there’s an element of jealousy and self-importance at play, that I think there’s no way others could contribute what I could, and I have ideas that are superior and could never be replicated or invented by others.

This is playing out in a lot of complicated feelings for me. Like right now, I’m working on a project that I’ve wanted to do for a while, which is writing a single, practical, comprehensive guide about zines in libraries–all the important things you need to know about zine culture, ethics, categorization, metadata, and all the other shit I’ve had Opinions about as my library has developed our zine collection.

And then I see the ALA’s textbook, and I think, “wait, what could I, someone who hasn’t even graduated library school yet, possibly have to say that hasn’t already been covered by these seasoned professionals in this textbook?” And then because that idea is so uncomfortable (and because it obviously interferes with my ability to finish my guide if I’m constantly thinking “why bother”), I decide that the ALA textbook isn’t good enough. That it’s probably written by a bunch of people who have never even made a zine, that it’s probably focused on defending zines as valid when they shouldn’t need to be defended in the first place (that’s a long topic for another post), that it’s taking an academic approach to something that’s fundamentally antithetical to the structure of academia.

And that’s when I have to remind myself that “hey, that’s a lot of assumptions you’re making.” Yes, it is a lot of assumptions. And they’re assumptions grounded in fears. Fears that libraries are trying to impose their own rigid structures on the naturally free and open medium of zines. This part of a big problem, and it’s one that is often unacknowledged in the library world: libraries have a lot more authority than we think they do. If that authority is unexamined, we can just as easily become as oppressive as any other institution.

We’ve seen this authority play out in a negative way plenty of times. Racism and homophobia in the Dewey Decimal system, libraries approving events by TERFs preaching bigotry, the shitshow that is Library of Congress subject headings. Of course, I don’t mean to liken zine collections to this bullshit, only to show that the choices libraries make do reinforce certain values over others, and that the position of authority libraries hold does impact what people consider intellectually valid. And so when we are building zine collections, whether we know it or not, we are exercising intellectual authority.

Of course, we can utilize that intellectual authority for good–and that’s the appeal of a zine collection for many libraries in the first place. We want to use this position to share works written by zinesters who have been marginalized, make information kept out of traditional publishing more accessible, and generally show off how awesome zines are. But there are also ways, as seen above, that our intellectual authority can be abused. I think the central problem is that libraries are not always aware of their position of authority, and if you don’t acknowledge you are perceived as having authority, how are you supposed to make responsible decisions about how to exercise it?

As more and more libraries are establishing zine collections, we need to remember that we’re not just talking about including a new type of material in libraries. We’re talking about establishing the relationship of libraries to the zine community. We’re basically setting the standard for what libraries can do for the zine community, and also ways in which we may be working against them. For example, where does having categories like Feminism and Indigenous leave zines that are about Indigenous Feminism, and how does that reduce zinesters and their work to a single identity (and in particular, giving us the authority to do so)? How does using zines in classrooms undermine the purpose of free expression and authenticity by requiring students to follow our standards for what deserves a good grade? How do our decisions of which zines get purchased and which don’t show what parts of zine culture aren’t valuable (and, again, give us the authority on the matter)? These are fundamental ways in which the standards of the library may be at odds with zine culture. Of course, some of that is going to be by nature–we have a limited budget and amount of space, so we can’t buy every single zine out there to avoid making a decision. But we do have to make sure we are approaching zines in the write way, and recognize that we do have authority, our decisions do have an impact, and we need to use our position to support zines and zinesters, and do our best not to run counter to zine ethos when we can help it.

This ALA textbook is just an example of how the relationship between zines and libraries is starting to look, and it’s a look I don’t like. It feels like librarians trying to learn “about” zines through secondhand academic accounts just enough to get out of it what’s beneficial to their mission, without seeing zines in libraries as a relationship at all. A relationship works when there is understanding and respect. I firmly believe the only way to truly understand zines is to read them, make them, and talk to other zinesters. I guess the reason I’m afraid is that I don’t trust that’s happening, because I’m seeing these academic textbooks and articles that are so detached from zines and zine culture itself. How could we librarians truly understand zines from this view? And if we don’t truly understand zines, how could we possibly make respectful decisions about zines in our collections?

I suppose, if nothing else, this suggests that I do have a valid perspective on zinemaking to share. I’m in the position of being both a librarian and a zinester, and hopefully I can use that authority for good.

Image from English Book-Plates, Ancient and Modern (1893). https://archive.org/details/englishbookplate00castrich