Last week we had the amazing privilege to join Rita Johnson, a librarian at the main branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, for a tour of the Library and an introduction to the zine archive there. The Library offers so many outstanding resources—from the career center to the reference space to stacks overlooking the natural history museum—but the zine collection was the most interesting, albeit most unassuming.
Zines exist on the fringes of the publishing milieu. The ugly step-cousins of magazines, zines are self-produced and self-distributed. Their tradition of undertaking activism without working through a publishing house goes back at least to 1776, when Thomas Paine anonymously published his pamphlet Common Sense. If ever the maxim that big ideas come in small packages applied, it does so with zines.
The polar opposite of a traditionally published book, a zine is not for profit. It is not professionally designed. Anyone can make a zine with a sharpie and printer paper. More than social media, zines provide a concrete way to get a message out. While social media posts enter the public consciousness for a few hours to a few days, as tangible objects, zines are more permanent.
One of most important ways that zines differ from other creative publications is the prioritization of message over author. Most of the zines I looked at did not even list the people who had created them. For example, Deafula no. 4 contains a 39-page rant about employment, unemployment, and disability, which is brutally honest despite (or maybe because of) its lack of attribution.
Another notable absence in most zines is the lack of a copyright page. Rita, the librarian, noted that some people will put a creative commons license on their work, which is much more in the spirit of the zine community. Again, this decision illustrates that zines and their creators are much more concerned with sharing ideas than with owning them.
With the freedom from pecuniary concerns comes a freedom from creative restraints. Zine creators have no editors telling them what they can and can’t do, no “market forces” making a project cost prohibitive. One of the glossier zines I looked at was the Bike PGH! Biking 101 Guide, which looked like a graphic novel on the inside. Another zine was like a huge scrapbook, covered in camouflage fabric on the outside and filled with glitter on the inside.
More than other publications, zines are community oriented. They deal with the immediate concerns of the people who make them. And they address and respond to the most important issues in our lives. Zines are for people, not for profit.