COA Thorndike Library collects zines from around the world. Members of the public are invited to check them out.COA Thorndike Library collects zines from around the world. Members of the public are invited to check them out.

A zine (pronounced “zeen,” like a diminutive for “magazine”) is an amateur print periodical aimed at a specific niche audience and distributed through independent methods. In other words, most zines are made by an individual with little to no publishing background, and sent through the mail or traded in person for other zines. Zines are most associated with their heyday in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when they were made in a variety of low-tech ways—markers, typewriters, early home computers—and produced at a local copy shop, fueled only by counter-cultural passion and coffee. And the recently established, small-but-growing zine collection at COA’s Thorndike Library has plenty of holdings that fit this definition. But zines are more varied—and date back further—than those produced in the grunge era, and are proving to have unlikely staying power and significance in the age of digital media.

“So the people who loved punk made their own media: zines in which record and concert reviews, band news and other material could be shared across the country and the world, even if you lived in a town with no punk scene to speak of.”

The history of zines runs parallel to the history of another cultural phenomenon: fandoms. The first zines were made and read by American fans of science fiction in the 1930s. Now, of course, we have the internet and cosplay conventions, but back then, where could you go to fill your desire to endlessly discuss the obscure plot details and romantic relationships of your favorite sci-fi novel and comic characters? Originally called fanzines, mechanical reproduction (the mimeograph, cheap printing presses, etc.) made it possible for lovers of the genre to connect with others who shared their obsession, and the advent of Star Trek in the 1960s gave a whole new urgency for fans to boldly go where others had been wanting to go, too.

Other special-interest communities who could not find themselves or their values represented in magazines or other periodicals also began producing zines—about wrestling, pagan beliefs, libertarianism, and other “fringe” activities and modes of thinking. The countercultural movements of the ’60s also found a way to get their messages out in what were often called “little magazines,” a more literary version of the zine; at the height of the artistic flourishing of International art-technology-philosophy group, publishing house, and film production company Monochrom published this zine in 1998.International art-technology-philosophy group, publishing house, and film production company Monochrom published this zine in 1998.the San Francisco Renaissance—in which all manner of innovative music, artliterature and political “happenings” were being produced—the San Francisco Public Library started what they call “The Little Maga/Zine Collection.” Collecting the work wasn’t always easy, since these publications flew below the radar and would often cease to exist after only one or two issues. But a collection of forty titles that opened to the public in 1967 got reestablished, rearchived and expanded in the late ’80s, just as San Francisco—and other counter-culture hubs all over the country—were becoming new hotbeds of zine production.

What helped make this possible? The advent of cheap photocopying services at independent copy shops. This technological development came about at the same time as the punk movement, in the 1970s, which was another cultural phenomenon for which there was little outlet or understanding in the mainstream media. So the people who loved punk made their own media: zines in which record and concert reviews, band news and other material could be shared across the country and the world, even if you lived in a town with no punk scene to speak of.

As the original punk movement of the 1970s got turned into a talk show punchline, many of the original punk zines died down, but punk never entirely went away. As an aesthetic movement, punk evolved into many sub-groups over the next few decades, and each spawned zines. At the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, new kinds of punk were developing—notably, grunge and hardcore; straightedge, which stood against drug and alcohol use; and, perhaps most significantly, riot grrrl, a short-lived but highly influential feminist movement that empowered young women to form their own bands and start concert venues, record labels, and zines as outlets for their beliefs.

“Zines act as social artifacts that offer valuable perspectives that enrich and inform us personally while providing critical texture and voice to wider issues.”

The upswing in punk youth cultures meant a groundswell of zine titles. By this time, the zine directory Factsheet Five, which had been launched by Mike Gunderloy in the 1980s with a geek focus, had become a bible for all kinds of zine-makers and readers (Gunderloy’s personal archive related to Factsheet Five now occupies 300 cubic feet of space at the New York State Library). And it wasn’t the only directory around: the world of punk zines was opened to you if you picked up a copy of Maximum Rock n’ Roll, and Sarah Dyer’s zine guide Action Girl had a riot grrrl focus. A 2016 article by Chloe Arnold on the history of zines for the encyclopedic website Mental Floss states that, “by 1993, an estimated 40,000 zines were being published in North America alone, many of them devoted to riot grrrl music and politics.”

But the swift growth in the popularity of zines in the ’90s was also their downfall: many zine-producers—who were often young adults on tight budgets and with no permanent address—could not keep up with the demand for their publications, while others shifted their zines into full-fledged subscription periodicals with paid staffs and advertising. Add to this the rise of the internet and the resulting ability for cultural fans to post or connect with others via newsgroups and websites, and it’s easy to see why the zine boom was short-lived.

"Girl Power," a zine written and produced in 1991 by the punk band Bikini Kill in Olympia, Washington."Girl Power," a zine written and produced in 1991 by the punk band Bikini Kill in Olympia, Washington.

Plus, by definition, zines are difficult to find and access. Brian Heater, a writer for Boing Boing, which began life as a zine and later morphed into a website, wrote in a 2013 article for the site about how, “to counteract their nebulous, dissolving nature,” some “of the best representations of the medium” have been collected into bound books. “While these don’t have the same thrill as newly printed single issues, it’s impossible to overstate the value of these volumes, which help to preserve a rich culture history that would otherwise vanish with the disappearance of their remaining copies,” Heater states.  

This is why collecting and housing the original, ephemeral objects in libraries—in all their photocopied glory—is so important. And like the San Francisco Public Library, many university libraries have been forward-thinking and started collections. In 2001, the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University acquired the 1500 zine collection from Sarah Dyer at Action Girl. The University of Iowa, which has long held materials related to fandom, acquired the archives of sci-fi collector James “Rusty” Hevelin in 2012, which includes among its 10,000+ holdings some of the earliest examples of zines in existence, and is currently being digitized for safekeeping, as part of a larger “Fan Culture Preservation Project.”

But few of these other university collections originated as student projects. COA’s collection of print zines is the outgrowth of Bourgeois’ senior project, which looked at “the socio-politics of archiving, (sub)cultural production, and alternative media consumption” through the lens of 21st century zines. “Creating a collection wasn’t actually the original focus,” Bourgeois says, “but I became wrapped up in archiving and exploring what librarianship actually means when working with such a specific medium that follows a logic atypical from other forms of publication.”

“COA’s collection of print zines is the outgrowth of Bourgeois’ senior project, which looked at the socio-politics of archiving, (sub)cultural production, and alternative media consumption through the lens of 21st century zines.” 

Bourgeois was aided in her efforts by Jane Hultberg, director of the Thorndike, who was first approached a few years ago by students inquiring about a zine collection. “At the time, it wasn’t a priority for us with the resources we had,” she says. But students kept asking. Hultberg also noticed that students were producing zines of their own and distributing them around campus. So when Bourgeois approached Hultberg with her idea for a senior project, Hultberg saw it as a perfect opportunity, and was astonished with the results. “Jasmine did a fabulous job researching other library zine collections and how they developed and maintained them,” Hultberg says. “She worked with our staff to establish a cataloging system for the zines, suggested ways to display and circulate the collection, and then worked with the library to implement this.  We owe her a debt of gratitude for all she accomplished.”

Bourgeois chose to keep the Thorndike collection broad, because, she says, “it feels inappropriate to put parameters on expression.” However, she notes that the collections policy she drew up “is a living document, so it can always be changed to reflect what the students, librarians, and other community members want out of the zine collection.”

 

By 1993, an estimated 40,000 zines were being published in North America, according to Mental Floss. College of the Atlantic Thorndike Library now has a zine collection honoring the medium.By 1993, an estimated 40,000 zines were being published in North America, according to Mental Floss. College of the Atlantic Thorndike Library now has a zine collection honoring the medium.

Now that Bourgeois has moved on to a post-graduate life of writing about music for a variety of magazines, Catherine Preston-Schreck, the Thorndike’s Work Study Coordinator & Library Assistant, oversees the collection. In a stroke of good fortune, it turns out that Preston-Schreck is herself a zine-maker and reader from when she was a teen back in the ’90s, and continued to make and consume zines as a source of vital community later, during what she calls “the alienating early years of parenthood.” She is passionate about the way zines act as social artifacts that offer “valuable perspectives that enrich and inform us personally while providing critical texture and voice to wider issues,” while also embodying a “tactile history: the hands of the maker, and touch of the readers who held the object before me.”

According to an online resource maintained by Barnard College, COA is currently the only educational institution in Maine collecting zines and making them available. Preston-Schreck is connecting with other collectors and archivists to grow the collection, and to “work towards organizing zine workshops for COA students and with island youth.”

Why zines at COA? Certainly their DIY, interdisciplinary, exploratory nature fit well within the COA philosophy. Preston-Schreck adds, “Zines are acts of courage. They speak hard truths, ask difficult questions, interrogate social norms, and challenge default answers.  Through their physicality, they offer an extended conversation with a wide community, one individual at a time. All of these impulses I see enacted at COA on a daily basis.”

Bourgeois agrees. “Zines are all about engaging with larger dialogues about everything from money to gender to religion to race to bikes to politics to baking,” she says. “The artifact of the zine is a way for people to talk and learn and care about big things in condensed, accessible packages. Plus, they’re sort of like the voice of the underdogs—which feels an awful lot like COA’s ethos to me.” 

About the author: The archives of writer Arielle Greenberg’s early ’90s riot grrl zine William Wants a Doll are housed in the Sallie Bingham collection at Duke University. She is a visiting faculty member at COA, where she has taught a course on 1990s alternative culture.