ZINE MUNCH #8: Can a blog be a zine? (w/ Jenna Freedman)
On F-Train writer residencies, zine physicality, and the wisdom of the catalog
Part of my goal with ZINE MUNCH is to think through what constitutes a zine, or whether digital publications or spaces (“webzines”) have assumed some of the printed medium’s role in shaping culture. When I talked with Milo Miller of the Queer Zine Archive Project, they encouraged me to look at a post called “Are Zines Blogs?” written by Jenna Freedman, the founder and curator of the Barnard Zine Library.
She seemed like a perfect person to talk to, particularly given her listed interest in “activist librarianship” and the place of zines in the media. On my way to JFK (at the beginning of the summer! I’m catching up on transcripts! Note ‘irregularly published!’) I met her in front of Barnard’s Milstein Center, and she showed me around their collection, starting with a room of zines in circulation and later going to an underground archive with copies of each zine for preservation.
We chat at a table outside the library.
On LiveJournal, slow food, and intentionality in printed work
Lucas Gelfond: What do you think the difference is between a zine and, say, a community-driven online publication?
Jenna Freedman: One thing I think differentiates the kinds of zines I love the most is their vulnerability, they’re not anything that you’d put online. I wasn’t really part of the circa 2000 LiveJournal communities where people really did share deep and personal things, because they trusted the lock. [...] I was at a zine librarians event several years ago and a guy compared zines to the slow food movement. That was powerful to me, it’s just a different kind of nourishment. [...] You can’t just type a zine and it comes out, there’s layout and mailing, and there’s lots of barriers to just letting something rip directly from your psyche.
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LG: Maybe the friction makes it more deliberate or something.
JF: Yeah, there's more deliberation, intention, or more chances to run away. I think I’m also contradicting myself, that there maybe is a greater vulnerability to putting something down on paper that maybe doesn’t have as wide of a reach, but has more lasting impact and is harder to control.
LG: That’s interesting, LiveJournal is an interesting one to explore. I feel like there are some communities that are still [that intimate], but it’s different, especially on platforms where there’s real name policies or [stuff of that nature].
JF: Yeah, and I’m sure there’s people on Tumblr who have these really deep, intense relationships with others.
I don't mean to pit print vs. digital publishing Zine culture ebbs and flows. I don’t really love today’s aesthetic, [for example,] I don’t love Canva-designed zines. I have a student worker who made a zine for a zine-a-thon we hosted. She used a clip-art book and pressed flowers, and just made this gorgeous print zine. She did allow us to digitize it and put it online, but the fact that it was made on paper was so beautiful. I bet you there’s cognitive science for this, that when you’re doing physical layout, that your brain pathways are different. I'm not one of those ‘zine as artifact’ people, but one of my best friends, in her Twitter bio, referenced herself as a ‘book sniffer.’
On the F-Train zine residency
JF: We did a zine residency on the F Train. In  when Amtrak announced its writers residency, if you read the fine print, they wanted to own whatever you wrote. So me and my friend Celia (who I referenced before, the book sniffer) were talking about doing our own residency, and somehow that evolved into doing a subway residency. My coworker at the time Shannon and I invited zine makers to get on the train, sit together, and make zines. At the time, the subways didn’t have internet access, so we found that we were all much more productive, even though we were together. I really want to challenge the word productive, but a lot of zines were made that day.
On institutional archive-building
LG: How do you think your experience building an archive in an institutional context has differed from your friends outside of the academy?
JF: I’m funded. I’ve been able to use that funding effectively, I hope—people always ask ‘is Barnard the biggest zine library’ which I think is the wrong question to ask. I like to say ‘it’s one of the best described libraries.’ I’m a second generation librarian, my dad was in technical services. It’s not like we talked about librarianship when I was, like, seven, but I grew up somehow really focused on the catalog as the center of the library.
When I envisioned the [zine library] I imagined each zine being cataloged at what we call the ‘item’ level as opposed to in an archive where you just describe the whole collection. [...] We’ve been able to put a lot of resources into describing zines. I have student assistants whose job it is to read the zine and write descriptions. There’s a zine library staff, whereas at QZAP they have a collective, which is awesome in different ways. I also like to say that every zine library is the best zine library, we all have our own little gifts to give.
I think the emphasis on cataloging is what’s been helpful. In the zine library community we’ve been talking about building a union catalog for zines since [roughly] 2009, and I went to pursue a masters in digital humanities with the specific thought of using that to build ZineCat [editor’s note: a ‘union catalog’ of zines across multiple libraries].
On mail communities
LG: I feel like I’ve sensed that a lot of the zine community has formed through mail networks—what do you think has changed in, I don’t know, the last 20 years or so?
JF: There’s no substitute for meeting people in person. “Virtual" is a good word for what it describes in this usage.. Mail exchanges deepen those relationships. For example, I Signal chat with Milo almost every day, we have a group text where we talk about our cats and sometimes zines.
JF: (Laughs) exactly. But it helps that I’ve seen Milo before the pandemic once a year for zine librarian conferences, and they’ll [still], you know, mail us a jar of pickles. Going back to an earlier question, I think that [Zines Are Not Blogs] which I wrote in 2007 may have pitted zines and blogs against each other in a way I wouldn’t encourage if I wrote it now, it’s just that they have different purposes. To me, letter writing is therapeutic, it’s generous, it’s generative, it’s meditative.
On the importance of the zine
LG: I’m stealing someone else’s question, but why do you think zines are important?
JF: Zines are important because the creator thinks they are. I know that sounds like a glib or glorifying answer, but, when we were upstairs and I was like ‘look, here’s these zines about reproductive justice,’ and I could make that kind of display for just about anything that happens [note: this interview was recorded shortly after a draft opinion showed that Roe v. Wade would be overturned], although I was just thinking this morning that I don’t feel like a lot of folks have written about gun violence.
Going back to the zines that I printed up upstairs, there’s this one called “What is this thing called? ME,” ME standing for menstrual extraction [note: a technique for early abortion without medical assistance], which I hadn’t heard of until I read that zine. Menstrual extraction is possibly going to become very important, and it’s something that peers can help each other do to end a pregnancy.
We were talking about community before, and I feel like zines are written for a peer readership. I didn’t make this connection until right now, but mainstream publishing, academic publishing, they’re all written for peer communities, but those peerages are small, or are hard clubs to join. Zines also say things in really accessible ways, they’re little bites.
[Zines] are important because they’re extending the historical record to include people that don’t have access to it. What is it, "history is not just written by the victors," it’s also written by the rich people, the educated people, the people who say what is in vogue at the moment. Zines say a lot of things that aren’t in vogue, or that you couldn’t get published [anywhere else].
Jenna’s Twitter bio reads ‘USPS Board of Governors wannabe’ but I missed the last word and thought she was actually a member. Regardless, the ZINE MUNCH editorial ‘staff’ heartily endorses Jenna for the position when it next opens up.
Have a bit more free time right now, so I’m typing up a bunch of interviews I recorded a little while ago. You’ll hear from me pretty soon again! Until the next!