Note: This is a guest post by Kelly Wooten, Research Services and Collection Development Librarian of the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture in the Duke University Libraries. Kelly is curator of the Bingham Center Zine Collections.
The Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture has a collection of over 4,000 zines written by women and girls from the early 1990s to the present. So far we have about 2,600 of these issues cataloged in a metadata-only database. At first glance, the zines look like perfect candidates for full-scale digitization. They are frequently used by researchers from around the United States and beyond, have great visual appeal, and often are the only copies to be held in an archives. Digitizing would help preserve zines from heavy use and promote broader access to unique material in a popular collection.
When you take a closer look, digitizing zines becomes a lot more complicated…
Permission– Before posting anything online, the first step is often getting permission from the creator. The authors of zines usually no longer live at the address included in their zine, if they give a name or address at all. Even email isn’t a reliable way to contact people since many zines were created in the pre-internet era, or include old addresses no longer in use.
Copyright– Some zine archives claim that publishing PDF scans of zines online falls under “fair use” for nonprofit educational purposes, and because they usually aren’t hindering anyone’s ability to profit from the publication. To further complicate this question, most zines cut, paste, reprint, borrow, steal, and repurpose images and text from other publications, with or without attribution. According to the Copyright Office: “The distinction between ‘fair use’ and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.”
Privacy– Even though zines are “published” rather than private, like a letter or diary, we have no idea whether 10 copies were made for close friends or 1,000 copies were made and sent far and wide through a zine distributor. They are most often written by young women who never imagined that their deepest secrets and angsty rants would be archived in a research library. One could argue that other digital projects that post diaries and letters of historical significance also violate this right to privacy, but the now-adult women who created these zines are likely to be living, active Internet users whose personal and professional lives could be negatively (or positively) affected by someone else finding their zine online. For example, we have been contacted to remove a last name from our database that was associated with a zine title that the author felt damaged her reputation in her current career—at age 16, she had no idea that the flippant title would ever be available online.
Print culture– This argument for maintaining the print and material nature of zines as opposed to creating digital surrogates is perhaps the weakest of these 4 factors, but it is still a point to consider. Zines are created by hand, crafted with paper, scissors, tape, glue, staples. They were meant to be handed from person to person, physically shared. The experience of handling zines in person, turning each page to reveal intimate secrets, funny comics, and poetry, can’t be duplicated on-line. You would get the content, but miss out on the physical experience, an aspect that is even more important as the medium of communication has shifted to the electronic.
I could write a few more reasons why we are not digitizing our zine collection, just as I could write as many more about why we perhaps should digitize them. Instead I’d rather hear what others have to say on the subject.
12 thoughts on “Why We’re Not Digitizing Zines”
Thank you for saying all that and putting it so well!
I think your fourth point is actually more significant that you suggest. Think in terms of artist and fine press books, which have similar tactile qualities, and cannot to fully appreciated in a digital environment—the art of the book and the serendipity of archival discovery is also physical.
Thanks for the insightful post Kelly. I’m going to put this on my class’ Blackboard site. We will soon be talking about reformatting and zines have already come up a few times in our last two classes.b
This argument needs to be considered on a collection-by-collection basis rather than to suggest that fanzines are too problematic to be scanned. Science fiction fanzines from before WWII or early comic, punk(and other music-related), or football(soccer) zines might actually be good candidates for scanning (and these 4 types probably account for over 95% of all fanzines ever created).
Thanks Beth. I’d like to add that there are zine sites that scan and archive zines without permission, although there are none I would endorse, and that I think it’s fine for a library to choose not to do so.
I do want to challenge the idea that digitized zines would have to be available online to everyone. I think that it would be great if a library could scan zines for on site research, including indexing and abstracting them. From my understanding of copyright law this would not be a legal problem. I also understand this would be a tremendous effort that is devalued because it would not be put on the web for free, and libraries simply don’t have the money to do that.
To personalize this, I founded a zine library in Olympia WA in 1997 and am now a young adult librarian. I have published over 50 zines and despite buying at least three scanners over the years, I have never gotten around to digitizing my own zines or even making copies for the library I started. I lean towards the idea of selling a cheap cd of all my content, indexed and annotated by me at 30, rather than making it available online for free. While this is probably a horrible idea, I’m more comfortable with the idea of people making copies than posting stuff online. It will probably always be that way.
This is a phenomenal piece that has articulated so many of the things that have been in my mind for the past couple of years. Thank you!
Particularly with regards to privacy and the information age, I think this is an extremely important discussion.
I would love to meet someday and talk more.
I am left pondering several questions:
1. In what ways is having a zine available in a library collection for uses in research different than making them available in a digital format on the web? Does the library seek permission? Are there different laws surrounding the distribution and collection of zines within an academic setting, i.e. class or university library?
2. Historical Record. When does it become a matter of preserving an invaluable historical record? Zines have represented for so many women (and men), including myself, an incredible means of self expression, distribution of thought, community building and riotously joyful activism. It is a record that I know I want preserved for future generations. Where would be without the personal letters between Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady-Stanton? How do we balance the needs of the future with the indivdual needs of the now? How does one navigate this tension?
I’m coming back to this (fantastic) posting while writing a paper on copyright in libraries, and I’m struck by the fact that complete non-digitization and posting to the Internet, to be seen and copied by all, are seen as the only options. I would argue that a middle path is available – why not provide digital copies to be used within the Duke Libraries only? I’m thinking of the digital copies as “access” copies, so the original items might be spared some wear and tear…