On a recent evening, I headed straight to Barnard College after work to interview Jenna Freedman, their zine librarian. In my half-professional, lefty-office attire, I passed effortlessly through the gates of the private women's liberal arts college.
"A radical element could be that anyone could come. You're not asking anyone for ID," Jenna explained, when I asked what "activist librarianship" meant, a term she used. While the campus itself isn't an identity-check-free zone, no one paid attention when I wandered into the stacks and started perusing the pages of decolonizing eats and the yellow peril inserts herself in the library's zine section.
At its heart, such librarianship is about serving "researchers, activists and independent journalists who don't have these kinds of resources." As for Jenna, her activism takes the form of cataloguing radical material and making safe and pop-up spaces.
Librarians have also been credited with "exposing the horrors" of the USA PATRIOT Act. "Some of it is defending challenges to titles, like when people say 'we don't want Harry Potter in our public school library because it's going to turn everyone into a witch and anti-Christian,' or sometimes fighting things in your own institution. In some ways a lot of that is almost mainstream to librarianship. We're first amendment nuts, we're access-to-everything kind of people."
Jenna launched the Barnard zine library in 2003 as a collection of marginalized writing. The "of-color discussion wasn't central at the library at the time," and from the very beginning Jenna wanted the collection to "prominently feature zines by women and women of color" and amplify their voices. She discovered personal zines in the late nineties, and unlike literary zines and chapbooks in the early to mid nineties, their "anarcho-punk DIY ethic and sensibility" spoke to her. "These are not people who want to get published or be famous," she told me. "They are not just self-expression, which is perfectly valid, but I personally find them more compelling because there's politics behind them."
Elaine Yu: How are the politics of zines captured aesthetically?
Jenna Freedman: I guess some of it is its DIY nature but it's also true of science fiction fan zines, samizdat publications from Russia, chapbooks, and whatever comes next. Zines from the nineties, they defied you to read them sometimes because they were messy, hand-written, the margins were messed up, photographs were washed out, so you really had to work to even go there. Or they could be very harsh, like their strong language. But they were also just playful, maybe because at that time there were more zines being made by teenagers than there are right now.
For me the perzine that came out, like girls making zines, were what changed everything — what made them more precious in the valuable and not cutesy sense of the word. In fact, both those things are true. Zines were kind of cutesy, but I think the riot grrrl movement very often was an angry girl wearing bow barrettes. There is that dual roar-meow, so it's a lion and a kitten at the same time. It challenges the mono-idea of girlhood. I'm not really strong on the music part of it, but the few Kathleen Hanna songs I've listened to, she does that with her voice, like the little girl voice, but she also screams, so I feel like that's a real audio-personification of those zines.
Elaine: That reminds me of the Jacobin piece about riot grrrl and how mainstream outlets have sanitized and commodified their histories and politics.
Right now there's this zine distro that has recently started distributing some of its books to Urban Outfitters. It refers to itself as a radical publishing house, and people in the zine community are going nuts about that. I don't think you can still be radical if you're publishing for Urban Outfitters.
Elaine: Would you say popularity could also be a threat to this underground culture?
Jenna: I think popularity could be really dangerous because it tends to drag zines away from the subcultures. The Brooklyn Zine Fest two years ago was monstrously successful. And the one last year — they had a bouncer at the door who they had to keep people out because it was so crowded. I was inside so I had no idea that was happening. I mean zines have never gone away, and if you say there's a resurgence or that zines disappeared, people will be annoyed. But my feeling is there's a definite resurgence. Some of it is material culture and being techno-stressed and overwhelmed. But there isn't always a tension. I've talked to a lot of people who discovered zines because of Sassy, which you can only get in a big-box bookstore for kids who weren't exposed to a lot of things. I do feel like if zines become too mainstream, it's not so much they are in danger, but more people will do them. The thing that I love about zines goes away or gets a little squashed.
While mainstream popularity (à la appropriation by Urban Outfitters) could be blasphemous to the zine ethos, it is a different story to use zines as an alternative medium to build community. Kathleen McIntyre, the editor of a compilation zine on grief and loss called The Worst and member of the feminist collective and distro For the Birds, has been doing that in the past decade. Kathleen wanted to "create something outside of corporate culture" when she was in her early twenties and was just getting into feminism and social justice. That was when she made her first personal zine: "basically a couple of ranting things; things I was thinking and learning about when I was piecing together my politics." She also printed her dad's eulogy in it, which she had written and read at his funeral two years before.
"So even then, I was trying to find a way to talk about [the loss of my father] in addition to my friends and my larger circles. I was getting involved in DIY punk, which is like punk but places a great emphasis on making our own culture and booking our own shows — having shows in basements and parking lots or other public spaces, and not relying on corporations or booking agents or larger concert venues or bars to create cultures for us, but looking for ways to create them ourselves. I found a great audience and supportive people that helped me make that zine. It was the first time that I really felt like I was working on developing a public voice."