03 / The Non-Traditional Voice: Zines in Libraries

Almost any print material independently created and distributed can be classified as a zine. While some zines are published as a type of ‘fan magazine’ others are published as an outlet for scathing criticisms. Zines are the unfiltered voice of the common person.
– Stoddart & Kiser, 2004

This is my zine collection. It was largely inherited from a friend who didn’t have the space for it anymore. It includes zines about libraries, about technology, about activism, feminism, queer people and even zine making itself.


For the uninitiated, zines are a form of alternative press. Coming into prominence during the punk era, they are self-produced, self-published works that frequently have a DIY aesthetic. They are not really the same as small-press works, as they usually the work of an individual or small collective, and do not aim to resemble mass-produced glossy magazines. Countercultural in both theme and appearance, zines are deliberately informal publications. Often hand written with hand-drawn images, they have a pleasingly photocopied aesthetic.

The themes of zines vary as much as any other printed work; zines can be feminist or political, or can about music, poetry or technology – I have even seen one that was adapted from a PhD student’s thesis. As they are often used as a vehicle for radical action, satire, orfullsizerender-2 participatory culture more widely, their ephemeral, transitory nature is already built in to the medium of their creation and distribution. They are meant o read and enjoyed, but are not necessarily designed to last.

Zines are, therefore, not items that fit naturally into the mechanisms of the library, often resistant to attempts to classify, catalogue and archive them. They are most often undated, and frequently change titles. They have erratic publication patterns – some many only appear once, where others have multiple issues. They often pay little regard to copyright laws, with their cut and paste aesthetic frequently interpreted literally. As they appear in limited numbers, it is impossible for a library to collect everything and, because they can be created by anyone without the need from any formalised assistance from publishers or companies, there is no way to venture how complete or representative a collection might be.

There are practical issues too. Zines will not easily sit alongside books on the library fullsizerender-3shelves – they are flimsy and fragile, and their physical form can vary wildly in size Adding barcodes, tags or classification labels will usually cover up artwork or text. Where traditional media is not the appropriate forum, is traditional cataloguing really a way to record them? As it clearly problematic to treat them as either serials or monographs, many collections choose to treat zines as archival resources. However, many see the countercultural ethos of these publications as reason to make library zines loanable. Others disagree with putting zines in libraries at all, as the very act of putting them in a library institutionalises them, which flies in the face of what many zine-makers are attempting to create.

But there is every reason to want to house zines in libraries. They are valuable records of contemporary culture, representing anything from political documents to underground social history. They map movements and offer sources of inspiration, whilst giving voice to a group of authors often underrepresented in many libraries, including people of colour, trans people and individuals without academic qualifications.

Digitising is common solution brought to address the issues around handling and makingfullsizerender-1 available these materials. While this solves the problems of storing and loaning zines (although brushes up against copyright infringement), it is a peculiar thing to take a DIY format item and make it a digital one. Zines are transitory, individual and underground by nature. Digitising, in many ways, negates the intention at the heart of creating small-press zines. These are physical objects that can be passed around and shared in a limited way, unlike blogs and e-zines, and are deliberately not designed to be discoverable in the vast machine of the internet.

I do not think I will digitise my collection – but I understand why libraries choose to. They provide incredible resources for cultural history and creative inspiration that may otherwise be absent from the library shelves and, in turn, lost to history.


Stoddart, R. A., & Kiser, T. (2004). Zines and the Library. Library Resources & Technical Services, 48(3), 191-198