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.