Monday, July 06, 2009

Article note: On alternative literature and collecting zines

Citation for the article:

Koh, Rowena. "Alternative Literature in Libraries: the Unseen Zine." Collection Building 27.2 (2008): 48-51.

Read via Emerald.

The first question I had when I started reading the article was what was the effect of the Internet in terms of zines. With blogs and wikis and similar tools, you can very easily put up a zine online. The author does address some of this towards the end of the article, so read on.

The article makes a case for the importance of collecting zines in libraries. This is especially important for public libraries which are local institutions by nature. What I am trying to say is that public libraries reflect their communities. Zines reflect their local communities as well, often in very unique ways, so it is important then for libraries to collect them as much as possible. The problem is that librarians often ignore or overlook these publications. Some of the reasons that librarians do not consider zines are due to the zines' nature: low budgets, low circulation, often controversial nature, and the fact that they are self-published. But, as Koh writes, "the unfiltered voices found in zines are probably the most accurate reflection of societal diversity" (48).

Zines are not easy to collect, and Koh discusses some of the challenges in this regard. For one, you have to look for zines. They are often found in independent book and record stores or other out of the way places. One place mentioned in the article, which I have not seen even in the few big cities I have been or lived, is the infoshop, which is an alternative reading room, a sort of "street library" run by volunteers where zinesters often have access to zines as well as some resources for production. Koh draws on some of the work by C. Dodge regarding zines, and she cites Dodge who says that "librarians who know about infoshops generally agree that their presence indicates some degree of failure on the part of urban libraries" (49). I think we can safely note that zines are mostly an urban phenomenon. Houston or Austin may have some; Tyler does not. The point is that zines often reflect alternative views, arguments, and opinions, and any library that values a diversity of information and opinion needs to make at least some effort in collecting them somehow. "If the role of libraries and librarians is to preserve and disseminate information reflecting as many diverse views as possible, then it is clear that zines have a rightful place in any library's collection" (49).

Challenges to collecting zines include:

  • Selection and acquisition. You are not going to find them in some vendor catalog. There are some formal review sources, but given the very ephemeral nature of zines, many sources can be outdated by the time they are published. As Dodge suggests, it may be better for a library to collect locally, or on a specific subject if trying to be comprehensive proves too difficult (qtd. in 49). Often donations will be the best way to acquire zines.
  • Storage and display. This is due to the various formats and sizes zines have. You need to decide the degree of access, i.e., do you just place them in some archive, or find some other way to let them circulate, facing issues of loss?
  • Cataloguing and access is a big challenge. There are no real good categories or subject headings. LC is somewhat limited since it lumps zines and fanzines under fanzines or distinguishes between zines and works about them. Koh provides a helpful illustration with some examples of how some libraries have catalogued their zines, and the variety is all over. This also includes cases where cataloguers simply misuse headings. "Clearly, classifiers are ill-informed about the world of zines and alternative literature; consistent cataloguing rules do not exist for them either" (50). I find that problematic, but not surprising, that a lot of librarians simply have little to no idea of what alternative literature is or what it entails. Personally, I make an effort to learn and read in the alternative literature to expand my knowledge, but also because I think a librarian needs to draw on as much information and knowledge as possible, plus he or she needs to be exposed to as many different sources and materials as possible. Obviously, you can't read everything, but you should have at least an awareness.
Koh ends by looking at e-zines and the Internet. She does mention that online tools and software like desktop publishing make publishing a zine online a lot easier. However, this does not mean one should be complacent and assume they are all online now. Far from it. A lot of zinesters still prefer to put out their work in print. Even if they have an online presence, they may not put their zine online, but they may put a preview of material, for instance, or do some things online they do not do in print and viceversa. On another positive development, the online world has facilitated the emergence of some selection tools as well. For libraries, they can link to e-zines and zine related sites. Do keep in mind those links do have to be maintained regularly.

Overall, a short little piece worth reading, especially for librarians wanting to learn more on this topic.

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