(disclaimer: this is just a personal reflection, obviously I don’t speak for the whole zine library!)
In April my wife Abi and I left our home in Kirkcaldy for a 6 month bike ride across Europe. We were both excited to go but sad to leave lots of things, including the Edinburgh Zine Library behind. I’ve been getting serious EZL FOMO whenever I look at social media or check in with emails/slack and I thought a good way to channel this would be to write a follow up to my blog for UIZL when EZL was just starting out. I hope some very incomplete reflections a few years down the line will be interesting/helpful for anyone thinking about setting up their own zine library.
EZL has been an incredibly steep learning curve, and continues to be so. When we started, neither of us really knew anything about libraries, and as we started reading, it started to feel like we knew less and less. It felt like an overwhelming amount of information, and we worried about what we’d got ourselves into. It was around the time there was a whole lot of twitter chat about how important professional librarians are (they are) and how a library isn’t a library without a (professional) librarian (not so sure about this). I’m aware this was a response to the devaluing of librarians and the threat posed by turning libraries into multi-functional community spaces (I was at a library in the UK last year, and the ‘librarian’ was actually the coroner which led to some really intense inadvertent eavesdropping), but it did make me reluctant to use the term ‘zine librarian’. I took it off my social media bios, and I wished for another word for what we were doing. Now, I think, I’ve shaken off the imposter syndrome and have realised that ‘zine librarian’ is not the same as ‘librarian’, because zines are not books and you do very different things when you put them in a library.
TLDR: Cataloguing zines was more complicated than we thought, we welcomed having a library experienced and details orientated member, we’re getting our catalogue online, you can have a read about our current(-ish) cataloguing process here: Cataloguing guide 2018
Our first priority was to get zines physically into the library. We therefore came up with a cataloguing system within our capabilities and using the resources we had available to us. As zine makers ourselves, we felt the most important thing was that folks were giving permission to include their zines in the library. We were taking zines out of the context that they were made for, and putting them into a wholly different place, and we fully expected there were people who wouldn’t be happy with that. Libraries are not neutral spaces, buildings are not just the bricks that make them. Therefore the first step in our cataloguing process was creating a submission form. Beyond being a simple ‘I am happy for my zine to go in the library, and I know I can remove it at anytime’ we decided that it would be useful for us if zine makers had the opportunity to provide information relevant to cataloguing including options about the copyright or creative commons license the zine was held under. Although we are located in Edinburgh Central Library, we aren’t a formal part of their collection so we didn’t have to apply standard ‘fair use’ copyright to everything – which suits the cut and paste, and often anti-copyright, culture in zine making. The submissions form has gone through several iterations since then: we have reduced the amount of personal information we ask to be GDPR compliant (understanding the application of GDPR to the library has been a challenge!), we have given the person submitting more of a sense of what categories currently exist in the library, to try and make our use of infinite made-up categories (or subject headings) as efficient as possible.
Before we started the zine library, we didn’t realise there were big standardised lists of subject headings that libraries used in cataloguing. We wanted the flexibility and fluidity of creating our own, but I have grown to appreciate the need for standardisation, at least across the zine library itself. In the early days of getting the catalogue online, I would occasionally see slightly confused slack messages from one of our members who has experience in libraries about why there were two categories for essentially the same subject heading, or why we had used 5 variations of the same content warning. In the online catalogue search function, even things like capital letters become important, and I cannot overstate how much I appreciate the work done to turn our initial guess at how the zine library should be organised into a functioning system. It has maintained a respect for the nature of zines themselves, and respect for the importance of words and which words we use, whilst becoming more coherent and user-friendly.
The development of the online catalogue was a big focus of the second year of the zine library for me, because it is a fundamental step in increasing the physical accessibility of the library. With an online catalogue, we have the potential to split the library between two sites and move zines between them, or use the central library’s current system to send zines over to other libraries in the city which are more accessible. With the library experience of one of our members, we set up a LibraryThing and TinyCat – paid for by money from our workshops.
Before we started using an online cataloguing system, the main location of information about our collection was social media. This was observed by a masters student who wrote a report on the zine library and kindly sent us a copy. It led to a change of direction with our Instagram account – where we started trying to post zines in the collection and their location more frequently, as well as an idea from one of our members to feature individual zines in more detail every Friday. Although our social media use waxes and wanes with the various other competing demands of life, Instagram proved a useful free tool that opened our collection to a wider audience.
The other direction I was interested in developing the cataloguing process was to implicate zinesters further in cataloguing their own zines. As well as better developing the submission form, I started taking my laptop to events we were tabling at to talk folk through the process of submitting, and cataloguing, a zine.
TLDR: Zine workshops are more fun than I thought!
When I first ran a zine workshop, it seemed absurd that I was standing in front of a bunch of people telling them ‘this is how you make a zine.’ What did I know? Who gave me the authority? Why can I only hear the sound of my voice? How has that kid managed to pick up a zine with a passage about spermicide?
One of the great things about zines is that, really, everyone already knows how to make them. I started to realise that the purpose of zine workshops wasn’t about getting people making zines. Really, I was spending at least 50% of the allotted time working through people’s preconceptions about what they can and can’t create, about what’s worth saying or sharing, about the way’s art or writing should be done. I was dealing with people’s anxieties, and histories with education. I loved the workshops where, after all the stupid fun and games, you felt the room relax and everyone settle into cutting, pasting, scribbling, stamping, and these are some of my fondest memories of the zine library. I also loved the workshops where zines were the medium for the interesting and open ended discussions we’d been having, because zines are a medium that allow you to resist making a definitive statement. They are a space for questions, contradictions, day-dreams, reflections, statements that may be true only on the day you wrote them. I get crazy anxious facilitating workshops, but I also love the process and I’ve found trying to be reflective on my own practice as well as drawing on other people’s really gratifying and has opened up something I never thought I’d be interested in.
TLDR: are consensus-based decision making structures often exclusive? How do we avoid replicating the power imbalances of the world around us?
Another steep learning curve has been about the shape of the organisation. From the outset, I wanted the zine library to be collectively run, without a hierarchy and the library shaped by its members. Equally, as our membership grew, I began to consider the challenge of balancing an organisational structure where everyone has equal say with shaping ways of participating in decision-making in the zine library that allowed for fluctuating levels of time/commitment (disability, illness, jobs, housing, money, stress, none of these are static). As two disabled people, Abi and I never wanted the zine library to grow too quickly, and we also wanted it to be able to shrink rapidly if needed. We patchworked a bunch of ideas and experiences about consensus-based decision making and collectively organising to create the zine library’s current structure: anyone currently involved with the zine library is an active member, anyone who has previously been involved, not formally left, but hasn’t been in touch for 3+ months is an inactive member. Inactive members become active members again if or when they resume contact. All active members can join the steering group, in doing so they make a commitment to attend meetings every 2 – 3 months where decisions about the direction and focus of the library are made. This is so meetings can be organised where we are likely to achieve quorum (the minimum number of people needed to make decisions). Even without being a member of the steering group, all active members can attend these meetings and when they do so, their contribution is of equal weight to that of steering group members. We don’t vote on things. To meet the demands of the constitution of an ‘Unincorporated organisation’ we have the roles of treasurer, chair and secretary and we are still figuring out what that means in practice. We have tried to very actively figure out the shape and structure of the library as a group, be intentional, take things slow, and articulate and reflect on things as they progress.
This can sound contrary to DIY organising, which from the outside can look spontaneous and organic. I’ve found the haphazard nature of DIY organising can hide the ways it replicates power dynamics from the rest of the world, puts the burden of work on the same people over and over and assumes as given, straightforward or easy things that some folks aren’t able to do. I think we have a better chance of creating a community that doesn’t inadvertantly mirror, replicate or is underpinned by the same power dynamics as the society it is (unfortunately) located in by looking critically at how we organise. I understand the notion of ‘praxis’ as like, values in action – how we can make not just the outcome, but the processes part of our activism. This is a bit of a segway, but what I’m saying is – I announced confidently at the first open meeting that the zine library would be collectively run, but I didn’t really know what I meant or how that would work, and I still don’t know how the organisational structure we have will change in time or as we grow or shrink.
I’m also, in a way, glad to have stepped away so definitely for a while as it has allowed responsibilities to be redistributed. Now, decisions are made without us and that feels good, somehow, like we’ve let go both of control and relinquished our ‘seniority’ within the group. When we come back in November, folks are going to have to show us around.
TLDR: Should we apply for funding? What would we do with it if we did?
This is another reason I’m glad we have stepped away for a while, because I think our (my) uncertainty, lack of experience, and anxiety about arts funding shaped the zine library approach, and I am curious as to how the current members will decide to proceed. In the last two years, we haven’t applied for any significant funding. Instead we have applied for small amounts of funding or grants for specific workshops or projects (LEAP sports festival fortnight, Radical Herbalism Network, Forest Quarterly Arts Grant), we have sustained our materials suitcase and attempted to pay for our member’s expenses through workshops with materials budgets (such as with The Welcoming), and we have recently started fully subsiding our free public workshops and other assorted costs (cataloguing materials, LibraryThing etc.) with paid workshops (such as with University of Edinburgh and The V&A Dundee). At the moment we don’t pay any members for their time, and potentially I would like to do that in some way or another, as many folks might want to participate but can’t afford to work for free.
We’ve talked at various points about whether we should seek funding to try and expand the collection and buy zines. It would be great to be able to pay for zines and put some money back into the zine community. The biggest barrier so far has been our lack of experience – we’re still in the very early stages of understanding and writing a collections development policy: something which, as I understand it, would describe why we purchased some zines and not others. Whilst we are still cataloguing the zines we have got, it hasn’t been a priority. The zine library has purchased zines from makers on one occasion – when we were running a workshop and setting up a mini-zine library with The Welcoming, an organisation that provides a safe, supportive and welcoming space to new arrivals in Edinburgh, we felt the best use of the materials budget was to purchase zines that were in other languages, or that spoke about experiences of im/migration or diaspora and we put a call out on social media to acquire these.
TLDR: What are the implications of a safer spaces policy? How much work can we do to make a space safe when it isn’t? How do we pick our battles? This is a blog post all on its own.
We had a collaboration for an event all set up, and then the venue hosted a transphobic event (this was during the initial GRA consultation backlash) and the management of the venue cried free speech. We pulled out of the collaboration, on the reasoning that if we didn’t feel like there would be a clear response from the venue management to any transphobic behaviour or language during the event we were participating in, then plenty of people wouldn’t feel safe, or be safe, attending. This began a long-ish chain of events, lots of emails, a very helpful discussion with trans alliance scotland, and a continuing weighing up, where we tried to figure out how to enact our safer spaces policy, how to decide what spaces felt ‘safe enough’ and for whom, what calling in rather than calling out meant or looked like, whether we wanted to make a public statement, and, for me, whether as a trans person it was worth the amount it was costing me, in an already hostile and exhausting environment, to engage with the organisation in attempt to resolve it. There wasn’t a clean solution or resolution, I guess in a sense it’s still ongoing? I think maybe this is too big a thing to take apart in a broader review.
TLDR: Was it ethical to start a zine library at all? How has it impacted my zine making practices?
Talking of big questions!
In the first year of the zine library, I didn’t make any zines. I didn’t have time to – any outside of work zine related time went to the library. Coming back to zine making, it does feel different. I think, reflecting on it, that zine librarian-ship has changed how I make zines – some awareness that past a point, my zine’s become ‘public’. It’s made me much less likely to share or distribute my more scrappy and unfinished zines, those zines that are only the first iteration of an idea I will come back to again and again. It’s also taken away some of the anonymity – like now, people can put a name to a face.
I was having a chat with another zinester and archivist recently about zines and zine libraries. I expressed my general discomfort at having my zine in a library, and I realised how hypocritical this sounded as someone who started a zine library. But the question remains, should we be putting zines in public collections, even with the permission of the zine maker? I don’t necessarily have an answer. I used to repeat to myself ‘we are a library, not an archive’ when I worried about not having acid free dockets for zines, or taking zines out to events or workshops, or when I’d nearly spill a cup of coffee on a pile of zines in my living room as I tripped over my flatmates cat. I don’t know if this was a statement or simply wishful thinking. It was meant to express our priorities – people accessing, picking up, reading zines, over preserving the zines for some future we don’t even know is coming. At the same time, we can’t avoid the ways we are an archive, nor look away from what it means to collect and look after things that are ephemeral, located in times, places, persons, communities.
TLDR: Who knows what the future of the zine library looks like? It is terrifying to me that it has a future at all.
I had a sudden panic last night: what if fifteen years from now the zine library is still running? Up until now, I’ve only thought of the library on a year-by-year basis. I, and most of it’s members, live in shitty or not so shitty rented accommodation, we move jobs, move cities, move countries, and so the idea we were establishing something more permanent than we were didn’t occur to me. Should we start long term planning for the zine library? I don’t know if I’m ready to, but maybe that doesn’t matter anymore – it’s not up to me!
Here are a bunch of things that I think would be cool in the future of EZL: becoming a SCIO (a scottish charitable organisation) so we can do a bunch of things (including PVG checking our own members for kids workshops), becoming more accessible (at the moment, level access to the library is a two-step process, and this needs to go down to one) paying folks, buying zines, having satellite collections in libraries across Edinburgh, cycling a portable zine library around the lothians, or the highlands and islands, buying an old library van, kitting it out as a zine library and parking it somewhere remote with a live-in librarian, offering free access to photocopying facilities, expanding to a second-filing cabinet, having an office space so our stuff isn’t stored across member’s flats, sending a member or two to a zine librarian conference, visiting all the other zine libraries around the world, developing our shared understanding of consensus-based decision making, building our membership, building our organisational structure, filling a second filing cabinet.