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A zine conference at Duke celebrates self-expression before blogs 

The Sallie Bingham Center at Duke's collection emphasizes zines by women.

Photo by Mark Zupan / Courtesy of The Sallie Bingham Center

The Sallie Bingham Center at Duke's collection emphasizes zines by women.

Know that old adage about life and lemonade? In the early '90s, life wasn't even giving me lemons—just shit. So I took that advice and made a zine called Poopstick. It was a collection of short stories, poems and other knickknacks (like how to curse in sign language) and it was favorably received.

"It's very possible that the two best things about Poopstick are its name and its crisp, clean format," wrote Rebecca Gold in Dave Eggers' short-lived magazine Might. Warp said it possessed "a common desire to explore the hidden corners of the world with irreverent curiosity."

Years later, during my tenure as a stay-at-home dad, I found myself on the other end at the punk-centric Razorcake, reviewing zines that might go out of print before the reviews hit the streets.

Zines are ephemeral by nature, but the sixth Zine Librarians (un)Conference combats that. Hosted in the South for the first time this year, it comes to Duke University following stints in Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Milwaukee; Iowa City, Iowa; and Pittsburgh.

"Zine librarians from across the country who work in academic, public and independent libraries with zine collections" will make up the bulk of attendees, says Kelly Wooten, Research Services and Collection Development Librarian at the Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture. "But people who have an interest in zines as collectors or creators are welcome to come."

The etymology of the word "zine" comes from fanzines, self-published magazines full of original or appropriated material that documented personal obsessions, run off in low numbers on a photocopier. (That's what we did before blogs.)

Self-publishing is nothing new. One could argue that it dates back to Egyptian papyrus texts or early Biblical scripture. And then there's our own country's innovator, Ben Franklin, whose pamphlet Poor Richard's Almanack—a collection of seasonal forecasts, puzzles and household hints—could be deemed the grandfather of American zines.

But zines' status as an underground cultural phenomenon can be traced back to advances in photocopying technology in the late-'70s, when printing became available to everyone. And they sprang up everywhere, on every topic. You could find them at music venues and record stores, at skateboard ramp jams and head shops. Zines were a way to communicate thoughts and ideas that might be frowned upon by the status quo. And soon, they became a lifestyle.

The Sallie Bingham Center at Duke has a collection of more than 5,000 zines, focusing on zines by women and girls. "We also have queer zines by people of various gender expression and some male-authored zines," Wooten says.

Ironically, it was the internet that gave birth to the (un)Conference. "It came about through discussions over the zine librarians email list," says Wooten. "The (un)Conference format means that there is not a program committee deciding sessions in advance. So participants need to come prepared to share their expertise as well as their questions and information needs."

In other words, it's as much of a hodgepodge as the zines it celebrates: a little bit of this, a little bit of that—a directionless direction, in a sense. While the program is free-form, Wooten expects a lot of interest in cataloging and practical how-to sessions.

"Many of the attendees work on their own in small libraries or without other colleagues who are familiar with zines, so this is a great place to share ideas and problem-solve," she says.

One thing Wooten can guarantee is socializing and networking. "We'll have a zine reading at the Pinhook Fridayafternoon where everyone is welcome to attend and read," she says. "We'll also be checking out the Girls Rock NC Summer Camp Showcase on Saturday at the Cat's Cradle." Wooten runs zine workshops for the Girls Rock NC camps every summer, bringing the zine/music/girl community full circle.

Zines might seem like relics in this day and age of social media immediacy, but there's just something about a handmade zine you don't get from a blog or tweet. "I think that people who write and collect or trade zines still enjoy the offline culture and personal communication inherent in them," Wooten says. "People still use zines to write freely, without risk of Internet comments or worrying about spelling errors and typos. It's a more creative, flexible medium than a WordPress site, with more possibilities for free expression and messiness."

But zines are also informative and educational. "They are particularly valuable for marginalized populations, for example," Wooten says, "for sharing resources about transgender life and experiences, since there is more space for anonymity both for the writer and the reader."

It's hard for me to imagine a world without zines—without uncensored self-expression and raw D.I.Y. creativity. Thank goodness that some people have thought to archive the archivists so that maybe, in some niche, Poopstick is not forgotten.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Notes from the underground"


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