Zine Traitor – a presentation about the potential for a Zine Researchers Code of Ethics

I gave this presentation for the first in the UK Archives PhD Network Seminar Series, alongside excellent work from Alice Doyle and Lucy Brownson, and with thanks to Kirsty Fife for organising/hosting. I wanted to lay out some of my thinking around writing a Zine Researchers Code of Ethics. This is the transcript from the presentation, and you can view the powerpoint at the bottom. And keep your eyes peeled for some open meetings if you’d be interested in collaboratively writing a ZRCoE.

I’m going to using the word zine a lot in the next twenty odd minutes, so whilst I’m not about to deep dive into the more complicated question of ‘what is a zine’ it’s probably going to be useful if we come to a kind of vague shared understanding. This slide is a photo of just some of the zines I have at home right now, with the question ‘what’s a zine’ over the top. Very broadly speaking, a zine is a non-commerical DIY, small-circulation, self-published booklet, pamphlet, magazine. Zines can take all number of interesting shapes and forms, though the form you’re mostly likely familiar with is a stapled A5 booklet, often photocopied.

Zines are, in the words of Stephen Duncombe, who wrote an early book about zines called Notes from the Underground, ‘decidedly amateur’ – zinesters, the creators of zines, often don’t have formal knowledge, or access to the resources, of traditional publishing, and the look and feel of zines, the ‘cut and paste’ aesthetic, is tied to making media with what you have – although this increasingly encompasses word processing or indesign alongside more traditional ways of making with a sharpie, scissors and pritt stick. Zines are widely acknowledged as being made by and within communities marginalised by traditional publishing, media or dominant social discourses. They are made with diverse aims and intentions, and whilst clusters of zines appear around certain subjects, sub-cultures or scenes, there is a wide range of topics.

When I’m talking about zines, I’m talking about these material objects. I’m also talking about their digital equivalents. There is some discussion about whether digital zines are really zines, but I’m including them here – that is, I’m including zinesters who make intentionally digital work rather than what’s produced by the archival process of digitizing an analogue zine. If you’d like a more concrete idea of what a zine is, I’ve included some resources at the end of these slides which includes a digital zine collection, a physical zine library and a zine distro.

Alongside zines as material and digital ‘objects’, when I’m talking about zines I’m also talking about a set of practices, some values-based, some born from necessity, technology and history that zine communities engage in. These include writing, cutting, pasting, reading, sharing, swapping, distributing, collecting, recording, reproducing and destroying. And as I hope to explore, zine practices include things identifiable as research and archival practices.

In September last year I started working on a collaborative PhD project between the University of Kent and the Wellcome Collection. The aim of this project was to look broadly at the zine collection at the Wellcome in the context of the politics, culture and lived experience of health. As a zine maker and zine librarian, as well as someone involved in mental health survivor activism, I am interested in taking an approach to zines that thinks about the spaces they create and occupy – particularly the health zines in the Wellcome. I’m interested in what impact a zine collection can have on or in an institutional library or archive.

This slide shows three pictures. On the left is a picture of the Wellcome Collection in London on a busy main road, it’s a large slightly intimidating looking off-white many window-ed building. Below this is a poster advertising a pop-up zine library at the Wellcome, to launch the collection. And on the left is a time lapse image of this event of the Wellcome zine library, showing a plain conference style room being filled by energetic zine librarians with zines, silver bubble letter balloons that spell pop up zine library, and people.  The Wellcome Collection is a free museum and library in London, which aims to quote ‘encourage new ways of thinking about health and humanity by connecting science, medicine, life and art.’ Its foundation, or inspiration, are the collections assembled by Henry Wellcome in the 19th and 20th centuries and today the library holds 2.5 million items related to the history of biomedicine, medical, surgical and pharmaceutical practices, and alternative and unorthodox medicine.

The Wellcome acquired their first zine in late 2016 and continued from there to collect zines broadly around the theme of health. In 2018, the zines were catalogued and added to the stacks, and you can explore the collection at the moment via the wellcome’s online catalogue. Loesja Vigour and Nicola Cooke, two Wellcome Librarians who worked to develop the collection, identified how the zines filled ‘a gap in the representation of health in official or traditional medical literature’ and zines ‘preserve different perspectives and experience that traditional literature was lacking’.

Today I’m going to be sharing a work very much in progress. I’m going to be talking about how and why we might want to create a zine researchers code of ethics, and asking whether we even want to?

Who is this ‘we’ I am talking about? This slide is the ‘how its started, how its going’ meme. On the left under ‘how it started’ is the first email contact I had with Nicola Cooke, zine librarian at the Wellcome, after she purchased my and my partner’s menstrual health zine from our etsy in late 2016. On the right, under ‘how its going’ is my University of Kent post-grad student profile, where I talk about working with the Wellcome’s zine collection.

 I am interested in a researchers code of ethics not just because, as an academic researcher working with zines I want to behave in a way that is ethical, but because as a zinester with my zines in an institutional collection, I am invested in how they are used.

Zines are increasingly acknowledged and utilized as valuable sources for research into other areas, especially ones where lived experience is either considered important or where it is traditionally absent. The Barnard Zine Library, a significant collection at Barnard College which is in New York, the unceded land of the Lenape, suggests zines can be used to research, amongst other things: the fat acceptance movement, attitudes towards sex work, mental health, young motherhood. One of the purposes of the Wellcome collection is to provide access to zines to researchers interested in questions of health. It seems especially important that when researchers come to zines from diverse disciplines and experiences that there is an accessible record of the conversations, knowledge and learning around zines and research. This has the potential to inform not just zine research, but work with other community archives, records, apparently ‘ephemeral’ documents, especially where this involves working with communities who are underrepresented, or not represented at all, in archives.

Part of the importance of zine collections is that they have the potential to invite different users and uses of the library, and I think its important to assert the scope of the word ‘researcher’ here to include all sorts of research within and outwith traditional academic and institutional settings.

I’m not just a zine maker and researcher, I also set up and help run a zine library in Edinburgh. This slide is a photo of the Edinburgh Zine Library, which is a beige and brown filing cabinet, covered in posters, with wooden letters spray painted gold on top of it that spell ZINES. Its beside a library computer, and next to a shelf of traditionally catalogued books in the Art and Design Library, Edinburgh Central. As a zine librarian I am concerned with how people use our collection – our library is hosted by a public library and we have users there to read, research and also increasingly several requests to use the collection for academic research. As a zine librarian, I feel a responsibility to the zinesters who have trusted us with their zines to make sure that researchers are behaving ethically – and I don’t know exactly what that would look like.

The knowledge and experience that would inform an ethical approach to researching zines, or research with zines, is spread across communities, of zinesters, of researchers and academic researchers, of zine librarians and archivists, of Librarians and Archivists, of activists, of artists, of people working to archive their own histories, and of people already working with materials that share common features with zines such as artists books. Of course the answers to how, and whether we want to, write a ZRCoE are not the same within communities, let alone across these different groups, but I think what is clear is that whatever is done needs to find a way to hold multiple and often ambivalent identities, tensions. I think it’s important to qualify that ‘we’ are anyone with any interest in how zines are used, or not used, in research.

My starting point for thinking about a Zine Researchers Code of Ethics is the Zine Librarians Code of Ethics, which has become a guiding document for many zine libraries and collections. This slide shows the front cover of the ZCoE zine, which is a black and white photo of a cat helping to compile a zine, with the words ZLCoE stamped in white across the top. The Zine Librarian Code of Ethics emerged from the collective and collaborative work of a group of zine librarian’s and archivists primarily located in occupied Turtle Island, also known as the US. A first draft was begun at the 2014 Zine Librarians (un)Conference – a biannual meeting of zine librarians, archivists and adjacents – and this group continued to work on it ‘over time and space’.

In it’s own words: ‘The Zine Librarians Code of Ethics is a tool to be used for acquiring, managing, preserving, and making accessible zines in a library setting, whether the collection is housed in a public, academic, or special library; an archives; or a basement. It is not intended to be prescriptive or the absolute word on the subject.’ It’s guidelines are written to form the basis of discussion and conversation, and to also serve as a record of zine librarian and archivist’s practices. The document covers: acquisition and collection development, access, preservation, use, and organisation. In it’s preamble, shown on this slide, it establishes the shared beliefs that guide and shape the formation of the document. 

These are: that ‘because zines are often produced by members of margianlised communities, we strive to respectfully engage with and represent those communities, librarians/archivists are often part of the communities that make/read zines, the material itself, so beautifully and wonderfully varied, is often weird, ephemeral, magical, dangerous and emotional and because we reject the myth of library/archival ‘neutrality’ therefore, we want to be accountable to our users, our authors, donors and communities.’

The ZLCoE is described as a living document and invites interaction. It is clearly a document of significant interest and value to zine librarians and archivists. At the most recent ZineLuC, which took place virtually due to covid, there was a high turn out for the discussion session focused on the ZLCoE, with a need to update it with considerations of questions and conversations around digitisation a central theme. But it has also become something of an institution itself, and you’ll find it appearing in discussions of zine librarianship all over the place. In an interview about the zine collection at the Wellcome, Nic and Loesja, when asked about navigating the ethical and practical challenges of zine acquisition describe how ‘Aside from asking zine librarians for first-hand advice, the Zine Librarians Code of Ethics…has been a reliable source of guidance for us in this area.’

In their article ‘Cite First, Ask Questions Later? Towards an Ethic of Zines and Zinesters in Libraries and Research’ Joshua Barton (an original contributor to the ZLCoE) and Patrick Olsen write the ‘goal of the Code is to promote awareness that assumptions made about the use of traditionally published materials in libraries are not necessarily applicable or desirable in the case of zines’.

Zines are, as the ZLCoE puts it, dangerous, and not (just) in the sense of the threat they pose to the systems they challenge, but potentially to their makers. The ZLCoE addresses the risks posed by access, acknowledging the tension between the librarian’s role to provide access with the risks to the zinester themselves. Taking zines out of the original contexts they were distributed in to make them accessible to a wider audience, playing detective to find author names for cataloguing records, preserving zines to give them an indefinite lifespan way beyond that potentially imagined when they were written, are practices that make sense in the context of librarianship, but could do harm to zinesters who are writing about both deeply personal and political things, especially in the context of the internet where our different lives are increasingly joined up by a single google search. This question of harm obviously speaks to a primary ethical concern of researchers – is what we are doing potentially harmful?

The ZLCoE addresses another area relevant to the concerns of researchers: questions of permission. Permission in ZLCoE is generally related to the reproduction of excerpts or images from or of zines rather than the act of producing research using a zine. In the appendix there is a clear focus on permissions for the proposed use of copyright material. What other permission would we ask for as researchers?

To answer this it feels important to interrogate how zines are seen and used in research. To do this, I’m going to introduce some of the work of Adela C. Licona in establishing ‘Third-Space zines’. In her 2012 book ‘Zines in Third Space: Radical Cooperation and Borderlands Rhetoric’, Licona considers zines as an ideal site to explore and develop understanding of both borderlands rhetorics – those rhetorics of and from Gloria Anzaldua’s borderlands – and the third space sites and subjectivities materialised at those borders. Anzaldua writes of the geographic borderlands of the Mexico/US in which both authors are geographically and culturally situated, but extends this to include the sexual, spiritual and psychological borderlands. Licona too is concerned with the material border, and the political violence enacted there, as well as other borders: ‘discursive, visual, symbolic, material and disciplinary border and boundaries that constrain and produce us and our discourses in the everyday’ (9). Working mostly with the zine collection at the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture, Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library, at Duke University she establishes third-space zines in terms of specific criteria she applies to the zine collection: zines from the 1980s/1990s which are made by feminist/a, anti-racist, of-colour zinesters.

Licona uses the term ‘queery’ for ‘the creative and critical inquiry and class-consciousness performed in many third-space zines advocating for social change’. In exploring how third space zines queer-y consumption and production, Licona describes how they often bridge academic and non-academic knowledges. Jessie Lymn, in her 2013 article about anthology zines as archives themselves, describes a frequently observed feature of zine cultures; zinesters ‘are often the producers, distributors, collectors and consumers – roles in a zine’s production and lifecycle are not discrete’. Zinesters are also often the librarians, archivists and researchers – in institutional and community, personal and activist, academic and non academic, formal and informal, settings. Zines are engaged in their own practices of research and archiving. Zines, despite their similarities, despite the feelings of intimacy and personal narratives, are not diaries. To treat them as ‘personal papers’ risks rendering these practices invisible and speaking over the unique knowledge they produce.  Barton and Olsen identify the ways that zines, in bridging manuscripts and printed books, ‘occupy a rather uneasy place between the public and private’. It is this uneasy, third space that is interesting to me – not a diary, not an academic research paper – but something else.

It feels especially important in the context of my research at the Wellcome to consider the notion of permission. Many health zines are made to reclaim, resist, and subvert professional and medical narratives. As someone who makes my own zines about my experiences in mental health services, my zines are a space of resistance, a counter to the thick folders of notes that the NHS holds. What does it mean to write about these zines, to engage with them as first-hand sources, to interpret, analyse, read between the lines. This is where the title of this presentation came from; a feeling or fear of allowing or contributing to the co-option of zines, of selling out. I’m especially curious about how permissions can be better understood through the literature around consent. On this slide are two images of zines about consent, the left is the title page of Cindy Crabb’s Learning Good Consent, which has a black and white ink illustration of two people sitting on a wooden dock and talking, their legs dangling over the water, and on the right is the first page of Meg-John Barker’s zine The Consent Checklist. You can find Cindy Crabbs work lots of places online, and you can find more of Meg-John’s zines and academic work at their website rewriting-the-rules.com.

The ZLCoE acknowledges that ‘access to zines in libraries and archives carries an inherent tension’. Kirsty Fife in their article ‘Not for you? Ethical implications of archiving zines’ considers ‘the ethical implications of archiving zine practice and cultures from marginalized communities’ specifically given the ‘anti-institutional and punk ethos that underpins zine-making practices.’ The ethics of collecting zines into libraries and archives, especially in institutional contexts, is contested and unresolved, and so it seems obvious that the ethics of researching zines held in these spaces isn’t easy to resolve.

At the Edinburgh Zine Library we ask zinesters to consider the copyright they want to apply to their zine in the collection – from the standard copyright through a range of creative commons licenses. Pictured on this slide is that part of our online submission form. This seems a point at which we could also ask about ‘research permissions’, gathering information that might be useful for us a mediators between zinesters and folks using the library and might also  be useful information to share with other libraries. This is a starting point – a thumbs up for ‘write away’, a wavy line for ‘please get in touch’ and a cross for ‘this zine is invisible to you’. Offering zinesters an option to remove their zine from the remit of research brings to the fore tensions between access, academic researchers, and zinesters and really challenges libraries and archives to ask ‘who are the zines in this collection for?’ 

A further pre-existing resource for researchers is the Cite This Zine mini-zine produced by Barnard Zine Library. This slide is the front cover of the mini-zine, with a orange silohette of a bear over the words cite this zine repeated in pink, yellow and orange. Although this more reflects a librarian tool to encourage engagement by researchers with a collection than something driven by researchers, question of citation seem an important jumping off point for considering research ethics when it comes to zines. Although zines are founded on the appropriation, recontexualisation, cut and paste of images, text and ideas, and engage in what Licona identifies as ‘thrifting’ encouraging second-order, unauthorised consumption, zines also engage in practices of citation and referencing.

In engaging in zine practices I think the Zine Librarian Code of Ethics demonstrates the potential to create a space of collaboration and discussion, which can hold multiple ambivalent identities and tensions. In crafting a Zine Researcher Code of Ethics, I think there is the possibilitiy to really align zine research with core values of zine culture and facilitate zine ethics to inform research ethics. Now feels an especially important time to do this as the peak of interest in research into the covid-19 pandemic as its happening has involved an increased attention to collecting quarantine zines, or zines otherwise related to this period, pictured on this slide is the title page of the Divergent Influencers digital quaranzine, and a news article about the ‘quaranzine phenomena’. The value of zines for capturing the impact of the pandemic on groups often marginalized, underrepresented or not represented at all in research has been increasingly noted. It is important now to provide the ethical foundation that other researchers will build on.

So where do we go now? The first step is to bring interested people together. If that’s you please get in touch with me via email at ljc72@kent.ac.uk or join the Zines and GLAM discord – set up during the most recent ZLuC – where there is a researchers channel.

I also make a monthly physical zine newsletter about doing a PhD, pictured on this slide are my first three issues, they are riosprinted pages of various sizes and colours, each with the title ‘The Post’ over the top of an drawing of the Forth railway bridge. If you’re interested in receiving a copy you can sign up to receive through this google form, or just sending me an email. I also have an audio version if that is a more accessible format for you.

I described this at the start at a work very much in progress. I did this to signal not just that I myself am at a very early stage of my PhD and research more generally and I guess also to lower your expectations, but also because I guess what I’m asking is how do we bring together, record and share work that has been started already, in different contexts by different people, and crucially by zine makers and communities themselves.

These are places that I recommend if you want to become more familiar with zines, and this is a working bibliography. 

You can view my presentation here: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1mescTfqWoto9uqDx2LLa7lETfeJ-yEPuiL5EuyA–d0/edit?usp=sharing

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