Collecting Zines by Lucy Uprichard
When you are trying to transition your personal collection into a library donation, it’s hard not to feel a little possessive. I moved across the Atlantic over a year ago, leaving all but a few favourites from my suitcase-sized zine collection in the care of other people, my reluctance to abandon them overcome by an inflexible luggage limit. I passed them over with the intention of helping start a zine library in Liverpool, a project which is still in need of a permanent physical space, and despite rebuilding my own zine stash back up to a respectable quantity, I often find myself missing what was left behind. Although many of those zines were already stored on my computer as PDF files, there’s a history to a collection that can’t be replaced by simply reprinting the same materials. The content may be the same, but zines are objects of context, each one representing a niche world of authors and readers and the DIY culture that surrounds their anachronistic chosen artform. Every part of a zine is deliberate and personal, constructed in bedrooms, duplicated on public photocopiers and distributed at community events, an intrinsically impermanent piece of media that has the unshakeable sentimentality of a collector’s item.
The creation of the zine was a direct response to a scarcity of media that spoke to people’s desires and interests, beginnings that are generally associated with alternative music scenes, although the use of DIY print media to spread ideas outside the mainstream has its roots in political and social movements across history . The identity of the first zinesters depends on your interpretation of what constitutes a zine, but the growing availability and low cost of photocopying services coupled with a blossoming DIY culture led to a definitive boom in popularity for punk fanzines in the seventies. A few decades later, the riot grrrl movement brought another wave of enthusiasm for zines as a form of political and personal communication, radically honest ‘perzines’ (personal zines on topics relating to identity) meshing easily with the third-wave “personal is political” ideology. While the age of the internet removed the immediate need for zines as a means to connect, they have outlived the practicality of the form, remaining an aesthetic cornerstone of alternative cultures right up to the present day.
A quality of zines that remains true across their diverse origin stories is that they are first and foremost objects of organization. Prior to the web’s engulfing presence, zines played a genuine networking role for subcultures and small political movements, allowing them to spread ideas in a way that was physically and ideologically accessible. For many persecuted groups, including people of colour and the LGBTQ+ community , the production and distribution of zines has historically been an act of resistance in itself; an opportunity to renegotiate their positions as makers and consumers of media and claim cultural ownership. Even zines that aren’t grounded in a specific political context are steeped in social history and avid zine collectors may easily find themselves in possession of the last residing remnants of a particular scene. At a Liverpool car boot sale, I picked up a copy of a nineties cyberpunk zine on technology called Arc  that I have been unable to research online or in other zine libraries; while it might not be a groundbreaking contribution to literature, owning a relic of a subculture long gone is irresistible from a collector’s point of view. The cutting, sticking, scanning, printing and binding that goes into a zine tethers it to its maker, giving each one a direct tangible history that is not shared by many other forms of media. Whether they are assembled and distributed by their creators or on their behalf by other zinesters, there is an indelible archeological trail to a zine that runs directly from reader to author that feels undeniably personal. Although the zinesters themselves may move on in life, no longer speaking from the same social context, zines themselves become artefacts, encompassing Susan Sontag’s praise of photographs over film – a moment condensed to “an object, lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store” .
Aside from their status as cultural snapshots, zines are also informational objects, containing a wealth of theories and data on topics rarely covered in the public realm, and so it is unsurprising that they have been herded up into loose reference libraries all over the world. Occupying a haphazard array of formal institutions, coffee shop backrooms, social history museums, community centres, and other nooks and crannies, zines have been stored and archived in whatever was available, attracting an array of in-the-know zinesters for cultural pilgrimages and to engage with their community. One well-known collection in the north, Salford Zine Library, is a small room filled with wooden shelves leading off from a Christian basement art cafe , while 56a, a London-based zine library and distro, shares its space with a food co-op and a bike shop . These kind of hidden away, multipurpose spaces can be found in all corners of the globe , and while some zine librarians have a professional background in cataloguing work or look after zines as part of a broader collection, many are just amateur zinesters-turned-archivists looking to make zines publicly accessible and preserve the documents of a movement. As with my own situation, these DIY archivists may have been drawn to starting a library once their own personal collection was reaching a quantity worth sharing; rather than having formal qualifications in information studies or other such fields, their credentials are simply a love of zines as objects and a desire to carve out corners for them to exist.
Accessibility is really the foundation of zine production and consumption – anybody can make the step from reader to author, or collector to zine librarian, zines themselves being objects that are purposefully designed to be easy to make and distribute. Almost everyone doing the groundwork to ensure zine culture thrives, whether by maintaining libraries, running zine fairs or producing their own content, is effectively a volunteer, unpaid for their services and keeping the scene alive through sheer interest and a dogged loyalty to a seemingly obsolete medium. It is perhaps only natural that zines should have a resurgence in popularity now that formal arts education has become increasingly expensive and out-of-reach for many people; zines remain a last surviving form of accessible cultural production that can be shared and celebrated in physical spaces as well as online. As education prices soar, arts funding diminishes, libraries close and print media struggles, zines remain a creative domain where anyone, no matter their level of experience and knowledge, can participate.