An editor’s nightmare, the homespun zine is stereotypically messy, gritty and raw, each creation as unique as its creator. Zines embody the true pure spirit of self-expression, of free press, of freedom of speech. They grant anyone the ability to broadcast their message. The roots of the zine movement track back to the 1930s, and you may be surprised to learn that zines are alive and—dare we say—thriving here in the 21st century.
A zine (derived from “fanzine”) is a magazine, usually produced by amateurs, self-published, and hand-made. They are self-distributed typically free of charge or for very minimal fees just to cover postage; some zine distributors (“distros”) do exist. Fanzines which experience success and evolve into more professional publications are sometimes then called prozines.
Why use the forum of a zine to express something? When that something is outspoken political commentary, or literary experimentation, or revolutionary ideas, or talk about illicit drugs, this rudimentary self-publication may have very well been the only early option for dissemination.
Thanks to the mimeograph duplicating machine available from 1930s to 1960s, self-publication got a whole lot easier. Then came xerography in 1944 and typewriters in 1961. The 1970s brought punk rock counterculture, a deepening of the DIY movement, and the indie music scene, all of which propelled the zine movement. You can find a zine for science fiction, comics, feminism, art & poetry, mod revival, local music scenes, video games, and even sports. No matter the subject, they usually have a cult following, especially amongst the alternative teenaged crowd.
Duke University Library has a respectable growing collection of zines in its Sally Bingham Center, primarily thanks to a pro-female zine collector, Sarah Dyer. Her personal collection chronicles the rise of the girl zine movement through 1,000+ zines, which she donated in 2000. It can be searched through an online database. Since Dyer’s donation, the collection has further grown to over 4,000 zines, most from 1990-2005. For the University of Chicago, collecting zines was a natural extension of their Special Collections interests, as they had already begun collecting poetry chapbooks, which are quite similar to zines.
Any science fiction fan can appreciate the University of Iowa’s efforts to preserve the last century of sci-fi fandom, especially since the first zine is believed to be a sci-fi fanzine, “The Comet.” James “Rusty” Hevelin donated his personal collection of an astonishing 10,000 zines, dating back to the 1930s and 50s, as zines were gaining traction and science fiction experienced its Golden Age.
Today, the traditional paper zine has largely folded to the online zine (e-zine). As zines become collected and digitized, this presents an unpredicted issue. Let’s say Neighbor Joe wrote a very personal zine in his youth, distributed to his underground pen pal scene in the 80s, and it eventually ended up in one of these zine libraries. If Joe wrote about his early experiences with drugs or some other taboo topic, not expecting an unintended crowd to discover his most personal reflections 35 years later, and then it becomes broadcast for the world to see while he is still alive, one can imagine the undesirable implications.
Zine libraries & librarians have a niche fit within society, but their presence is substantial. In 2002, Greg Meins published the first zine about zines, “Zine Librarian Zine.” This marked the first act of zine library documentation and paved the way for the annual Zine Librarian (un)Conference, this year’s held in July in Boston, Massachusetts at the Beatley Library. More zine festivals are held internationally and domestically as well.
In a day and age where self-publishing is as easy as renting a movie, zine culture remains a fascinating literary sub-genre whose history is both vast and culturally relevant, and unexpectedly poignant at times. For some, zines are like birthing a child, a piece of yourself that will carry on your personal legacy and your opinions, at least until it falls apart or gets recycled—but hey, that’s part of their charm.
Have you ever written or read a zine? If so, we’d love to hear about it! Send your stories our way.