First published in Artlink, vol 30 no 2, 2010
Why do we keep things in archives? They are traces of the near and distant past, preserved for future reference. In Archive Fever Derrida argues that we archive our past to enable our present and future. Archival objects and documents give us reference points to define and understand the present, putting them in context and creating a pathway for the future1. So, we understand contemporary media phenomena by comparing them to those in the archive: blogging is likened to Victorian era scrapbooking and YouTube videos are variations on Super-8 home movies.
Archivists are charged with the mission to preserve ‘authentic evidence of … cultural and intellectual activities’ in order to support ‘understandings of … life through the management and retention of its personal … and social memory’2. They curate the memories that consequently inform our futures. But what histories are being kept and where? This article will explore these ideas through zines and zine culture; they can be seen as part of the underground, but are also finding their way into mainstream memory institutions.
zines as underground activity
Zines are (very broadly) publications that are self-published, self-printed and self-distributed, with a small circulation and within specific sub-cultures or groups. They are usually photocopied and often have a do-it-yourself (DIY) or cut-and-paste aesthetic. Zine topics are endless, reflecting the creator’s obsessions and identity.
Unlike mainstream print publications, zines are usually published only to the standards of the zine maker, without regard to formal print standards and hence preservation practices (acid-free paper, archival binding or ink processes). They might be photocopied on office paper, screenprinted, stapled together, sold at outdoor zine fairs, or kept in a backpack for a few months.
Zines are sometimes designed to be be discarded, or destroyed on reading. Take YOU zine, for instance – a weekly, anonymous letter to ‘you’ which you might stumble upon across Australia and the world. Each week the letter is enveloped in some way – most commonly a stapled paper bag, but potentially a VHS video cover, wrapped around a rock, or in a kraft yellow inter-office envelope. In her introduction to YOU: some letters from the first 5 years, Anna Poletti discusses the ‘terrible, irreversible dilemma: the letter or the bag?’ when opening this zine3. Opening the container to get to the letter inside involves a destruction of some sort, and is part of the experience of reading. But once opened the zine is no longer a ‘perfect sample’.
inside the institution
The past that we ‘know’ is the past that has been preserved. Formally preserved by archivists, librarians and curators, who work in formal institutions of memory preservation and making (archives, libraries and museums) and informally preserved through interpersonal networks, storytelling and hearsay. Institutional spaces are regulated by professional guidelines, national and cultural identities and social processes, and entrusted to preserve the memory of people and nations. They are containers of materiality, paying attention to order and preservation. Archivists are trained to select items of potential significance, label and describe them, and house them in a way which is hoped will preserve them for generations to come.
Traditionally archivists have worked with documents, both public and private, from Government legislation to personal letters and diaries. More recently they are grappling with how to archive less tangible documents such as blogs, online newspaper comment sections and text messages. The intangible document is finding its place in the vaults of the archive.
These institutions are also archiving the underground – the National Film and Sound Archive has a program archiving Australia’s experimental music, and the State Library of Victoria has a well established zine collection. More and more, underground activities and ephemera are finding their way into these institutions, and presenting challenges to existing standards, containers and practice.
putting zines in the stacks
The State Library of Victoria has a collection of over 4000 Australian zines in their Rare Printed Collection. The collection spans more than a decade of zine making in Australia, and has grown over time through established acquisition arrangements with Polyester Books (renowned for its progressive attitude to publishing and censorship) and the Sticky Institute, an artist run initiative and zine shop in Melbourne’s CBD. The collection can be seen as representative of parts of Australian underground culture in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, with a caveat that it can never capture everything in the underground.
Currently the collection is mostly maintained by a dedicated volunteer (and zine maker) who is working on cataloguing the collection, ensuring each zine is recorded, preserved (in an archival plastic sleeve) and put in its place in an archival box. The boxes are stored in chronological order in the stacks of the Library, accessible only by appointment, and with no searchable finding aid. The zines are safely locked away for future use; occasionally they are accessed by a researcher, and supervised tours of the collection take place once or twice a year.
zines in diy spaces
There are other, less institutional collections of zines in Australia, working outside of the standardised preservation and archival forms.
The Octapod Association in Newcastle, NSW, is home to a zine collection of potentially the same size and breadth of history as the State Library of Victoria collection. The Octapod collection is uncatalogued, unsorted and stored on open shelves in a common space, with no gatekeeeping or preservation standards. It is estimated there are approximately two to four thousand zines in the collection, donated by members of the zine community mostly during the annual zine fair at Newcastle’s This is Not Art festival.
The collection’s history reflects the nature of its community, of DIY action, passion and burnout. Various projects have been undertaken on the collection over the past twelve years, including an initial zine anthology compilation project, a National Library of Australia significance assessment and a Work for the Dole cataloguing project.
In Brisbane, the Copy & Destroy zine library is housed in a corner of a youth centre in the Valley, watched over only by passers-by and maintained by a dedicated volunteer. There’s a sign that asks you not to steal zines; if you really need to, you can photocopy them. (The sign then gives instructions on how to remove the staples and make double-sided copies for yourself).
a shoebox of their own
In bedrooms, living rooms and garages around the country there are suitcases, shoeboxes and bookshelves full of zines – some numbering into the thousands – mostly unsorted, uncatalogued, ‘unpreserved’. These are ephemeral collections of ephemeral things, where the cultural memory lies in other dimensions of the objects: the trade done to acquire a zine, the letters written back and forth between zinemakers (and the addresses written in address books then crossed out as people moved), the zine fair that got rained out or where you met the love of your life (at the time, at least). Or the zine you read about an ovarian cyst that you lent to a friend when she was diagnosed with one, or the recipe you cooked from a zine your housemate had on their bookshelf.
the archive in print
Zine anthologies highlight the role of other spaces in preserving the cultural memory of this underground community. Recent publications like YOU: some letters from the first 5 years and Strawberry Hills Forever, a collection of zine maker Vanessa Berry’s writing, are archiving zines in another way. They bring together the content and often the aesthetics of the zines, without the materiality of the original objects. Instead they are collected together in one edition, published by independent publishing companies (Breakdown Press and Local Consumption Productions respectively).
it’s all about options
The DIY nature of underground communities and the limitations and freedoms of the spaces expose different and exciting ways to think about archiving culture. Unrestricted by formal standards of preservation, storage and order, there is potential to rethink how we use and collect our histories.
Zines are being archived not only in the vaults of the State Library, but also in community centres, shoeboxes and print publications. In all these archives the zine is transformed, but there still lingers a memory of a time and place for those who were there. And for those who weren’t, there are enough traces in these spaces to build an idea of what memories could be there. And to have a long, lingering read.
to explore the collections yourself
- The Octapod @ TPI House, King St, Newcastle NSW
- Copy & Destroy Zine Library @ Visible Ink, 54 Berwick St, Fortitude Valley Queensland
- Sticky Institute, Degraves Subway, Campbell Arcade, Melbourne Victoria
- The State Library of Victoria (by appointment only), Swanston St, Melbourne Victoria
- Bedrooms and living rooms of friends around the world – ask around and you’ll be sure to find a shoe box or two.
Buy or borrow
- Strawberry Hills Forever Vanessa Berry (2007) Local Consumption Publications
- YOU: some letters from the first 5 years (2007) Breakdown Press
- Intimate Ephemera: Reading Young Lives in Australian Zine Culture Anna Poletti (2008) Melbourne University Press
- Notes from underground : zines and the politics of alternative culture Stephen Duncombe (2008) Microcosm Publishing
- From A to Zine: Building a winning zine collection in your library Julie Bartel, (2004) ALA Editions, Chicago
1. Derrida, J (1998) Archive Fever (trans. Eric Prenowitz) University of Chicago Press: Chicago
2. Australian Society of Archivists guidelines, www.archivists.org.au
3. Poletti, A (2007) ‘Introduction’ in YOU: some letters from the first five years Breakdown Press: Melbourne