Zine Libraries: A Source of Design Inspiration Columns / Creativity

Zine Libraries: A Source of Design Inspiration

Julia Lipscomb
Founded in 2003, the Denver Zine Library holds a collection of more than 15,000 independent and alternative zines. Maintained entirely by volunteers, the collection is open for the public to browse and discover different do-it-yourself techniques.

The first time I walked into the Zine Archive & Publishing Project (ZAPP) in Seattle was overwhelming. Eight bookcases were stacked with zines that, at first glance, appeared to be multicolored papers folded too small for me to read the bindings without taking them out, one by one, from the repurposed cereal boxes they lived in. Labeled by subject, like Art, Comics and DIY, these boxes contained a world of history. Zines are hand-bound, self-made publications usually created by one person or a small group of people who oversee all aspects of the writing, layout and production process. Once published, zines are usually donated to a zine library. At ZAPP, a designer seeking inspiration could choose to read the afternoon away sitting on a comfy blue couch or to sit in front of ZAPP’s vintage manual typewriters and write her own zine.

Established in 1996 as part of the literary nonprofit Richard Hugo House, ZAPP grew from a collection containing a couple of hundred zines in the basement of a Victorian mansion to the 30,000 zines it had amassed by 2016, when the collection was absorbed into the Seattle Public Library (SPL). Without consulting the organizers of ZAPP, the Richard Hugo House, which had retained ownership of the collection, finalized a deal to give the collection to the SPL. This ended ZAPP’s two-year-long effort to fund a new location, and the largest privately run zine library in the country was no longer independent from an institution. 

“The goal had always been to have ZAPP own the collection and operate independently,” says Graham Isaac, ZAPP’s former managing editor. Isaac also notes that the funds that had been raised will
be donated to several related organizations, including Hollow Earth Radio, the Independent Publishing Resource Center and Short Run Seattle. 

However, ZAPP’s collaborative ethos lives on through the designers and printmakers who had visited the space. One of them, Seattle-based artist Jon Horn, had been screen printing music posters when he discovered the screen-printed zines of the French studios Le Cagibi and Le Dernier Cri. He then began molding the medium of posters with the 3-D quality of zines.

“Everything that I do creatively now can be traced to the connections I made [at ZAPP],” says Horn, who had the opportunity to learn screen printing when a former ZAPP manager gave him $25 to take a class. “I approach design, or rather, pick projects in print as opposed to digital almost exclusively. That doesn’t mean I don’t use my computer to achieve results, but I am most excited by limited editions of tactile things. Whether posters, street art, trading cards, books or zines, the process is always informed from the beginning by the medium used. Everything stems from the constraints presented by the medium.”

Selections from zines printed by the French screen-printing collective Le Cagibi. Screen printing is one of many techniques employed by zine designers.

In other pockets of the world, zine libraries attract communities of local artists and designers who gravitate toward the hand-printed, collaborative medium of zines. Most libraries operate in a way that fuses the methodology of both an archive and a library: an archive in the sense of being nonlending and collected to preserve the time and history of the zines and a library in the sense of allowing visitors to browse and touch the zines. This fusion is key in enabling any designer to gather inspiration for a project without constraint. Seattle had ZAPP, and Denver has the Denver Zine Library, New York City has the ABC No Rio Zine Library and Philadelphia has The Soapbox: Community Print Shop & Zine Library. 

The Denver Zine Library (DZL), a nonprofit organization founded in 2003, today has a collection of 20,000 zines. It is run entirely by volunteers and actively curates many programs, from cataloging to workshops to events to outreach, like the Denver Zine Fest and the Denver Independent Comic and Art Expo. The DZL also offers classes, including a more tailored curriculum for classes from universities such as Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design.

“The zine library is an opportunity to get outside of the narrow lens of what zines could be,” says Kelly Shortandqueer, a co-organizer at the DZL. “There’s a lot of fun and interesting ways that our collection has continued to grow based on programming.”

Working on projects at the DZL inspired comic artist Bruce Otter to learn more about printing. Otter started making comic strips in 2008 using Bitstrips—an online service that enabled users to create their own comics using customizable characters and preset poses and scenes—which led to his producing the biweekly weird-humor web comic “Brain Teaser Comics” for three years. Otter became a regular artist at the DZL. Recalling how he moved from web comics to comic zines, he says, “Another artist challenged me to do two all-original eight-page minicomics as part of a podcast episode we did on the subject of minicomics. I loved the whole process of drawing, printing, assembling and stapling the finished projects and discovered it was satisfying in a way separate from doing the web comic. I ended up doing a noncomic zine called Notes of the Future, made with art from public domain sources for the Denver Zine Fest.”

In New York, the ABC No Rio Zine Library, a collectively run nonprofit that began with the city’s 1980s punk scene, has a collection of more than 12,000 zines primarily focused on oppositional culture—the rejection of conformity by subcultures. Zines from the international underground punk scene, such as Maximum Rocknroll, Slug and Lettuce, HeartattaCk and Punk Planet, are favorites of ABC No Rio librarian Suckzoo Han, as well as smaller serial zines like Temp Slave! and Doris.

“These zines delivered intimate life experiences in a very direct and undiluted way that was lacking in mainstream literature,” explains Han. “[For] a person who is interested in printing, the zine world was—and still is—an excellent place to witness a variety of printing techniques, most of which seem outdated or labor intensive.”

With the advent of digital media, not only have zines not died out, but also they have taken a very different turn in printed matter toward more sophisticated design and illustration, all while maintaining the DIY spirit that is ingrained in the zine ethos. Adapting the analog resources and skills that are typically utilized to make zines—like cutting and pasting, collaging, using newsprint, and hand-writing and hand-binding—can be freeing for any designer or illustrator.

A page from one of zine designer and podcaster Bruce Otter’s minicomics (left). Otter also created the zine Notes of the Future (center and right) for the Denver Zine Fest, an annual festival by the Denver Zine Library.

“Playing with the more intuitive cut-and-paste techniques that are de rigueur in zine making is freeing for me,” explains Mary Tasillo, an artist and co-organizer of The Soapbox: Community Print Shop & Zine Library. “I tend toward simple structures in zine making, often with handmade elements on the cover and binding, because it frees me from the high expectations I place on myself when making an artist book.”

In March 2011, Tasillo cofounded The Soapbox in West Philadelphia. The nonprofit community studio offers access to shared studio equipment and a reading room with a library of 2,500 zines. Social justice emerges as a favorite theme among many designers in the zine community, and members of The Soapbox often create projects that reflect on racial, gender, environmental and disability justice.

“I think podcasts and zines have a lot in common in that they democratize media,” says Otter, who, in addition to zines, produces a podcast—another medium that has experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years—for the DZL. “[They] give voice to any and every interest under the sun.”

With their expansiveness of topics, zines can be used as a way of breaking things down to get over artist’s block. The independently produced periodicals represent chaos, a diversion from more structured design projects and design “rules” that can cause a major obstruction in workflow. The nature of the zine enables the designer to see the zine’s design in print during the creative process instead of at the end and to create without an editor’s or a director’s approval—a process that is very freeing to the designer.

“For me personally as a zine publisher, having access to different zines has sometimes influenced the ways that I write or format things,” explains Shortandqueer, who publishes the eponymous zine Shortandqueer. “There’s an incredible sharing of styles, ideas and passions, even if the content is different. We used to do zine workshops and say, ‘You can do whatever you want,’ and for most people, that’s way too open-ended. They need more history. For other folks, it’s to be able to say, ‘I can do this’ or ‘This way is interesting, but I think I’m going to do it another way.’ I think the Denver Zine Library really works as a container of creativity and inspiration.”

From West Philadelphia to New York to Denver, these containers beckon, and although the libraries have key differences in how they are run and programmed, clear similarities exist between them: opportunities to collaborate, to network and to volunteer to keep the DIY spirit of zines alive. For any designers seeking to stretch their creative muscles, zine libraries will welcome them with open arms. ca

Julia Lipscomb sells computers by day and writes about art and social justice by night. She started self-publishing zines as a teenager, and her passion for them continues. Lipscomb’s work has appeared in a variety of publications, from The Awl to GOOD magazine. She lives in New York City with her cat, Grace.

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