Intimacy to Institution: Ethically Thinking about Digital Access to Zines

Due to the cancellation of the annual ARLIS/NA conference in St. Louis this year, I decided to transform my panel presentation into a post for the ArLiSNAP blog. Please feel free to chime in on the comments section, too! I originally conceived of this more as dialogue versus a presentation and was hoping to start a conversation with folx. 

Conference Panel: The Institution of Zines: Cataloging, Archiving, and Teaching the Counterculture. Whether through preservation efforts or in aid to class instruction, zines have become a part of library and archive culture. In this panel, presenters will discuss their experiences with zines in the classroom, the library, and the archive, addressing the challenges these unique materials present.

Presentation: “Intimacy to Institution” will discuss the need to think critically about the ethics surrounding the institutionalization and digitization of zines.

The idea for my topic of discussion began with something that happened at work and spurred me to think more critically about the work I was doing. I want to begin by providing some background on this specific situation before discussing the issue more broadly, providing other examples where this issue has caused contention, and finally talking about the importance of an ethics of care in our work as librarians, archivists, and stewards of material. 

In 2017, I curated an exhibit at the University of Michigan Library that focused on a recent collection acquisition of “grrrl zines.” After the physical exhibit ended, this work continued as a digital exhibit in Omeka. In April 2019, the librarian who heads our use of Omeka received an email asking for the removal of one of the digital artifacts in this exhibit. Apparently, the author of the zine was being harassed as a result of the exhibit and no longer went by the name under which the zine was penned. Because of this, the author asked a third party to reach out to the library and ask for the removal of the item. I promptly removed said item from the digital exhibit, but this raised more issues for me that, unfortunately, I had not previously considered. 

I began to think deeper about this and investigate issues with the digitization of ephemeral items of a sensitive or personal nature. In the meantime, I hid my online exhibit by placing it in private/invisible mode. While my intention in creating this exhibit was to celebrate the unique, cultural importance of zines and share them with a wider audience, doing so unintentionally caused harm. This led me to think about the tension between the preservation, digitization, institutionalization, etc. of intimate cultural objects, like zines, and how we can ethically and responsibility honor their creators in our roles as stewards. 

I started to look into this and searched for literature and online discussions about these issues, where they have come up before, and how others had approached it. Digging into the literature on this, I came across an 2018 article by Elizabeth Groenveld on  the digitization of the 80s lesbian sex magazine On Our Backs, entitled Remediating pornography: the ‘On Our Backs Debate.’ 

Groenveld explains that in 2011, a company called Reveal Digital, which works with libraries to digitize special collections materials, secured the rights to digitize On Our Backs and make it available online. On Our Backs is an important artifact of lesbian culture, documenting a specific time nad place, and the preservation of this ephemera is important to the preservation of past histories. However, permission from contributors was not acquired during the digitization process, bringing up considerations of privacy. 

Zines, a highly personal form of do-it-yourself (DIY) publication, are usually created in small batches by nature. The format is well-suited to the dissemination of feelings, informal thoughts, ideas, etc. When zines took hold during riot grrrl, the internet was not as widely used for this purpose, and considerations that zines would exist anywhere other than the analog world were rare. Because of this, physical zines may contain information that authors are no longer happy to share more widely and permanently on the internet.

In her book, The Archival Turn in Feminism, Kate Eichhorn quotes Kathleen Hanna, one of the founding members of Bikini Kill and creator of the zine of the same name, on their reasons for donating  her archives and personal papers to NYU’s Fales Library, despite its more restrictive access policies and intended use by academics and researchers. . 

In Hanna’s words: 

It’s like people who make paper fanzines in 2010 are making a specific choice to reach a smaller audience than maybe a blog could, it’s an artistic decision. One that has to do with having a tactile object that exists in the real world and can be physically passed from person to person. Choosing an archive that has an intended audience and isn’t for everyone is a similar choice to me. Also, since most of the stuff i donated was created before the internet, i would prefer it be viewed physically and in context. If it was open to everyone little bits of it would inevitably end up on the internet, and i don’t really want rough drafts of shit i wrote twenty years ago popping up online ahistorical style.”

Likewise, Groenveld states the “need for a feminist/queer ethics of digitzation that foregrounds contributor consent.” This was not something I had considered before I created my digital exhibition. In hindsight, I have come to the realization of its importance and wish I would have reached out to creators of the materials to get their consent in making material available online. This approach does create more work for often already overburdened librarians and can be particularly difficult to do with zines. Sometimes zinesters may make work anonymously or work under a pseudonym.And, given the timeliness of these materials, zinesters and their friends, their families, their communities, may currently live radically different lives than during the period in which they published their zine.What I am trying to say is that if creator consent for digitization and permission for widespread accessibility to creator’s materials/zines is unattainable, we should fall back on stewardship practices rooted in feminist ethics, in an ethics of care, where the privacy of content creators is valued and protected as much as the privacy of users. 

There are people who are actively discussing these issues and doing work to establish best practices for zines in libraries and archives. The Zine Librarians interest group has existed since 2007 and anyone can join via a listserv. It is a safe space where discussions of all sorts take place surrounding the topic of zines. The group also has a website which is a great resource for information professionals who may be curious about bringing zines into their collections. One resource on the site is the Zine Librarians Code of Ethics (ZLCoE). I want to share a tiny bit of the Zine Librarians Code of Ethics, though I highly suggest reading through it all on your own. The preamble succinctly sums up the purpose and reasoning for the Code of Ethics and takes a literary cue from the riot grrrl manifesto published in the 1991 Issue 2 of the aforementioned zine Bikini Kill:

We the community of zine librarians and archivists believe that:

Because zines are often produced by members of marginalized communities,

Because we strive to respectfully engage with and represent these communities,

Because librarians/archivists are often part of the communities that make/read zines,

Because the material itself, so beautifully and wonderfully varied, is oten weird, ephemeral, magical, dangerous, and emotional,

Because we reject the myth of library/archival neutrality,

Therefore we want to be accountable to our users, our institutions, our authors, donors, and communities 

When you delve deeper into the Zine Librarians Code of Ethics, there are more nuanced discussions about the careful thought that should occur before jumping into institutional zine collecting. Acquisition methods are investigated, with the variety of methods rated on their ability to provide a best practice for respectfully engaging with zines and zine creators. This ranges from the highly preferred option of purchasing directly from the author or valid zine publisher/distro to the least zinester-friendly method of purchasing from unauthorized third parties (think of book dealers who sell batches of these materials for thousands of dollars). 

Another section of the ZLCoE I want to particularly point to is that “whenever possible, it is important to give creators the right of refusal if they do not want their work to be highly visible.” The method and approaches presented in the ZLCoE are rooted in a feminist ethics of care. Approaching our work philosophy, values, and practices with care is not in conflict with core values of librarianship as they are proposed by organizations and institutional powers like ALA. Care and justice are not mutually exclusive in the wider cultural framework of our world. As Groenveld unequivocally states, and I think all of us agree with “social inequalities exist.” The objective neutrality of the library is a myth. 

I do think this tension between access for patrons and privacy for creators can be partially mediated. As librarians, collectors, stewards, preservers of knowledge, we can assist our users, students, faculty, whoever in accessing these materials as best we can, but they don’t necessarily need to be made as digital objects open to all. Interlibrary loan programs, reaching out to creators directly, purchasing through respected zine distributors, and, things like the Queer Zine Archive Project are just a few ways we can connect interested library users with zines. I am sure there are other possibilities I am missing. This can make access more difficult, but these DIY, small-run zines were challenging to access from the beginning and that was part of the point. Zines are intentionally created outside of, and in reaction against, mainstream media production. Ambition is needed to undertake the arduous journey of discovering these unique, intimate objects and maybe that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

References

Eichhorn, K. (2013). The archival turn in feminism: Outrage in order. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 

Groeneveld, E. (2018). Remediating pornography: the On Our Back digitization debate. Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 32(1), 73-83. DOI: 10.1080/10304312.2018.1404677. 

Zine Librarians Interest Group. (2015). Zine Librarians Code of Ethics. Retrieved from http://zinelibraries.info/2016/05/30/code-of-ethics-1115-web-version/

Other Resources Consulted

Barton, J. & Olson, P. (2019). Cite first, ask questions later? Toward an ethic of zines and zinesters in libraries and research. The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 113(2), 205-216. DOI: 10.1086/703341

Brager, J & Sailor, J. (2011). Archiving the Underground #1 [zine]. 

Pettersen, T. (2008). Comprehending Care: Problems and possibilities in the ethics of care. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.  

Tronto, J. C. (1993). Moral Boundaries: A political argument for an ethic of care. New York: Routledge.

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