Finding Zines in the Archives, and Archives in the Zines

Front and back of Dishwasher, issue number 14Front and back of Dishwasher, issue number 14
By Ann Marie Wilson, Assistant Professor of History, Leiden University College The Hague´╗┐

I first began reading zines—small-circulation, often self-produced publications featuring uncensored, creative views of young women’s lives—as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. An avid fan of indie pop and riot grrrl music, I gravitated toward zines that grew out of these overlapping music scenes, and I harbored a special fondness for feminist editors who subverted the machismo of traditional punk rock. On road trips, I discovered new titles at alternative press stands such as Quimby’s in Chicago and St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York City. But most zines arrived in the mail. Poring over the latest copy of Factsheet 5—a compendium of zine reviews categorized under headers such as “B-movies,” “Food,” “Queer,” and “Personal”—I would mark my selections and then write to the editors, wrapping neatly folded dollar bills in handwritten letters. A few weeks later, my mailbox would fill with small stapled, cut-and-paste publications, usually accompanied by a personal note or a drawing. 

There was something intimate about sending and receiving these little packages in the mail—a kind of feminist, indie-punk gift economy. For me, the peculiar intimacy of zine culture became more important, and more sustaining, after I graduated and moved to San Francisco, where I spent many tedious hours working in front of a computer for a variety of technology companies. Away from the ready-made community of the seminar room and the college campus, zines gave me a connection to other young people who thought seriously about the same issues I did and who were, like me, searching for models of healthy, creative, intellectual adulthood.

Several years later, when I was studying history as a graduate student at Harvard, I received the Schlesinger Library’s freshly redesigned, full-color Fall 2007 newsletter. The issue featured a striking image of a superhero from the Ms. Marvel comic book, along with a cover story about the library’s commitment to documenting popular culture. Reading on, I noted that the Schlesinger collection included a growing number of feminist zines. Inspired to learn that the library was curating materials that I myself had stashed at home, I wrote to my dissertation advisor, Nancy Cott, to ask if the library might be interested in a few additional boxes of materials from the 1990s. Nancy put me in touch with Marylène Altieri, the library’s curator of books and printed materials, and over the next few weeks, we worked to sift through the publications I had collected and to transfer the most interesting ones—more than 300 in all—from my cluttered, musty basement to the safe, climate-controlled confines of the Schlesinger.

Doris, An Anthology of Zines + Other Stuff 1991-2001Doris, An Anthology of Zines + Other Stuff 1991-2001At the time, I didn’t reflect much on how my old boxes of zines and comics might be of value to historians. It simply seemed like a good idea to get them out of my basement. But now that I’m teaching my own courses in historical methodology, I’ve thought more carefully about how this particular archive came into being, and how future scholars might make use of it. Although zines continue to be published today, their explosion in the 1980s and early 1990s can teach us much about the lives of young people at a time before Facebook gave every teenager a platform for self-fashioning and before the Internet transformed “social networking” into a phenomenon to be taken for granted. And while zines’ do-it-yourself aesthetic has occasionally been appropriated by glossy magazines, the cut-and-paste materiality of handmade magazines has been largely lost in the template-driven universe of personal blogs. Offscreen, zines can give us a view of the cultural and artistic repertoires of creative young people armed with scissors and glue sticks.

Zines can also teach us about politics. Many zines of the 1990s capture the sense of isolation felt by well-educated but aimless office workers like my 22-year-old self. Publications like Temp Slave!, Dishwasher, and Working for the Man are rich sources of information about the culture and consequences of temporary, dead-end employment. Grrrl zines, in particular, offer an invaluable source for understanding the emergence of the so-called feminist “third wave.” By showcasing the viewpoints of bold, often countercultural young women (and of young women of color, in particular), the small-run feminist zines of the 1990s reveal political debates and cultural practices that flew under the radar of mainstream journalism—and directly in the face of conventional depictions of women in movies and on television. During those years, debates about race, sexuality, and coalition politics filled the pages of Slant and Hear Us Emerging Sisters, just as they did those of peer-reviewed publications.

These are just a few of the reasons that scholars might be interested in the Schlesinger’s growing collections of zines. I expect that there are others, and I am excited to discover what questions future historians will bring to these materials. As I remind my students (paraphrasing E. H. Carr), historical study involves a continuous process of interaction between the scholar and her facts—and between the (online) present and the (archival) past.

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