Sweaty music venues, photocopiers, riot grrrls — these are the images that likely come to mind when you think of zines. Though the women-fronted punk rock movement of the early ’90s is often thought of as the time when zine culture thrived, the reality is that zines have long been a way for marginalized communities to record their stories, spread information, and organize. From the wood-printed abolitionist pamphlets created by the American Anti-Slavery Society in the 1830s to La Catrina satirical cavalera cartoons made and distributed by José Guadalupe Posada in the 1900s to the handouts the Black Panther Party disseminated in the ’60s, zine culture as we know it today was created by, and built to fit, the political and social needs of communities of color.
That these zines are often handmade with a relatively small self-publication circulation means they provide a great accessible space for anyone to create work on their own terms. It also means they tend to be rare, running the risk of being easily lost to history. But in libraries, colleges, and museums around the world there is a movement to archive and record this vital work, which could change the way we understand and interact with zines as a whole.
When Jenna Freedman was studying for her master’s in library science at the University of South Florida, she had little experience with the wide-ranging scope of the art form, having only experimented with zines a bit in the ’90s. That changed after a chance meeting with famed Latinx zinester Celia C. Pérez, whose work primarily explores the punk scene. “I didn't really find my love for zines until Celia gave me one of hers,” Freedman said. “It was a truly lovely blend of personal and political. It had a little bit of art but it wasn’t artsy.”
That introduction didn’t just spark love; it inspired a career. In 2003, Freedman established the zine library at Manhattan’s Barnard College, where she is still zine librarian. Today, the collection consists of over 10,000 zines and focuses heavily on material created by marginalized communities, with topics as varied as mothers and daughters documenting holidays together to searing political collections about racism in punk rock. Because Freedman’s introduction to zines was through the work of Pérez, it was always imperative to her that the library represent the multitudes of work of women of color: “I think it’s important that we both acknowledge, but also push back on, the narrative of zines and punk culture being completely white.”