Three Tips for Keeping Zines Pristine

Reading a zine
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by Andrea Glazer

It’s hard to imagine modern life without our digital communities. Before the days of blogs, Instagram accounts, and podcasts about every subject imaginable, it was harder to find communities for specific topics people loved and wanted to talk about. In the time before the internet’s omnipresence, niche groups had to carve out their own spaces for creativity and fandoms to flourish.

Zines, short for “magazines” or “fanzines,” were one way of facilitating these connections. Self-published and usually circulated by hand, these short publications were crafted and printed by everyday people. Like chapbooks and other forms of “street literature,” zines focused on specific communities and what mattered to them—often entailing underground cultures and a general rejection of the mainstream.

Those who might have once felt alone in their passion for a specific musical genre, public figure, or pretty much any subject imaginable could tap into an otherwise-invisible community and make themselves known. This includes historically marginalized groups, making these decades-old zines the only lasting legacy some of these niche groups have.

As such, zines are an important part of cultural history, but preserving and documenting their reach has proven to be a bit more difficult than other forms of media. Below are some tips for preserving zines to keep them in the best condition.

Protect with Proper Housing

Because zines were self-published and intended for an audience that frequently cared more about the content than the quality of the materials, they were usually printed on consumer-grade paper. While this feature certainly adds to their charm, it can present challenges to preserving them.

Books and widely-distributed paper media are typically printed on paper that—while maybe not archival-grade—is made to withstand wear and tear on top of natural aging and environmental factors. On the other hand, zines printed in a campus library or home office aren’t meant to be kept forever.

Collectors preserving zines today should house them in archival-quality document sleeves and store in an appropriate container where the zines can’t be bent or warped. All housing materials should be acid- and lignin-free. As with any paper collection, store away from environmental factors like sunlight, humidity, extreme temperatures, and harmful pests.

Format, Display, and Handling

The hand-crafted and -circulated nature of zines meant that they didn’t have to fit into the standards of mainstream media like books and magazines. Some zines were composed in a fashion similar to scrapbooks: stickers, flaps, and other 3-D elements all contributing to a work that sometimes looked more like a contemporary art piece than literary contribution. The addition of such ephemera both heightens and hinders display opportunities for these works.

If exhibiting zines in an educational setting, remember to support the spine and any structural parts of the zine. When possible, utilize an access copy for browsing to reduce handling damage to the original. Any loose pages or objects should be carefully removed and stored and catalogued with the associated zine. Keeping the ephemera with the zine preserves the historical context for audiences.

Digitize—With a Grain of Salt

Zines facilitated close connections between readers and creators, passed along by hand and were mostly unknown to anyone not deliberately seeking them out. Digital preservation is the best way to honor these cultural touchstones, but collectors should navigate these waters carefully.

Very much like zines themselves, proper digital preservation allows a collection’s audience to conceptualize the world around them and feel connected to a unique community. But understand that not every zine contributor will be pleased at the fact their past work could potentially be shared with the world at large. Many zine writers published their creations for a deliberately small community, sometimes engaging with topics and alter egos that they wouldn’t want to share with everyone in their day-to-day lives. Collectors should be respectful to the donors of these materials and the communities they represent by cordoning access to sensitive subject matter or redacting author names or any other information if requested.

Zines are philosophically unlike other kinds of print materials, inasmuch as the communities that create them often have a vested interest in preventing a wider degree of access to them.”

– From Lauren DeVoe and Sara Duff, eds., Zines in Libraries: Selecting, Purchasing, and Processing (Chicago: American Library Association, 2022). © 2022 by the American Library Association.

Preserving family histories is important, meaningful work, as are the histories of other groups which often include rich cultural histories of minority groups, countercultures, and social change. Collections only hold as much meaning as their audience allow them, so preserving these items that were created out of a communal enthusiasm can be a special opportunity. 

Ready to explore digitization solutions for your zine collection? Send us an email, or go old school and give us a call. We’re ready to learn and help you navigate the digital world.

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