The elderly man had been to Milwaukee Public Library (MPL) often, but never attended any of its programs. That changed the day he came in while the library was hosting the Milwaukee Zine Festival (MZF), where he encountered a local artist who had brought several typewriters to help attendees create their own zines.
“He was really excited about them,” says Kristina Gomez, MPL events and programming librarian. “I was really happy to see that he participated.”
Though usually small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, zines pack a punch as an empowering form of personal and community expression. Small and self-published, zines are handmade publications filled with original or repurposed content and photocopied for easy, fast distribution. Libraries, which have collected zines for years, are starting to do more than just stack them on the shelves; they’re now partnering with local organizations to throw zine festivals.
“More public libraries are stepping up to host zine events,” says librarian Violet Fox, Dewey Decimal Classification editor at OCLC. She is co-organizer of the Zine Pavilion, an exhibit that regularly showcases zines at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference, as well as the Twin Cities Zine Fest in Minneapolis, which has been hosted by Hennepin (Minn.) County Library for two years. “I think that hosting zine events really drives home the idea that libraries are a place for creation and collaboration,” Fox says.
New voices at the library
Chattanooga Zine Fest (CZF), hosted by Chattanooga (Tenn.) Public Library (CPL), is in its sixth year. Jaclyn Anderson, CPL head librarian, says that having the zine fest in the library is not just a way to welcome zine creators; it’s a way to educate others, too.
She recalls the time that Priya Ray—founder of DIYabled, a grassroots group that advocates for inclusive, accessible DIY makerspaces—spoke at CZF about her own zine, which details her experiences as a wheelchair user with limited mobility.
As Anderson recalls, Ray mentioned that part of her platform is to educate people about the experience of having a disability. For Anderson, the lesson was that through zine festivals, “you get to see other people’s stories and points of view.”
Emma Hernández, program manager of the Latino Collection and Resource Center at San Antonio Public Library, points out that her library serves a largely Latinx population (64%, per US Census Bureau estimates from 2018).
Hosting the San Anto Zine Fest (SAZF), which welcomed more than 1,000 attendees in 2018 (its second year), helps the library highlight “the multitudes that exist within the Latinx community,” she says. “Zines are tools to uplift voices who may not be part of the hegemonic Latinx narrative: queer Latinxs, trans Latinxs, Afro Latinxs, Central Americans, undocumented Latinxs, and more. [SAZF gives us] the opportunity to create community with people who are yearning to have their perspectives heard.”
Zine creators and public libraries share a goal, says Gomez: to foster welcoming environments. “It’s really important to be inclusive to everyone,” she says. That’s why MPL has coproduced the annual MZF since 2016, first in partnership with the Queer Zine Archive Project, then with local shared workspace and literary center The Bindery. (Founded in 2008, MZF was held at locations including University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and a local bar/bowling alley before moving to the library.)
MPL also values creativity, Gomez says, which makes the zine festival a natural fit. “As a library, we want to make sure we’re supporting artists and what they’re creating, finding opportunities to showcase what they’ve made, and finding opportunities for connections to happen,” she says.
Partnering with allies
Alliances between libraries and zine organizations can spring up from anywhere. In Chattanooga, CPL’s in-house Zine Library was established in 2014 through a collaboration with the fine art department of University of Tennessee–Chattanooga. That partnership arose from a chance conversation between two university colleagues (a public relations coordinator and an art professor).
“They both had an interest in zines and really wanted to see zines brought to a larger format here,” says CPL’s Anderson. “They also knew that we had some very prominent zinesters who live here, and the rest is history.”
In Milwaukee, meanwhile, the public library’s downtown location and extensive resources mean broad community engagement for the zine festival it hosts.
“[It] really checked all these boxes for the experiences [MZF] wanted festival attendees to have,” Gomez says.
As for libraries, they reap plenty of benefits from hosting zine festivals, too. “Zine fests can bring in that demographic that we don’t always see at the public library,” such as millennials and those who are starting families, Hernández says.
Anderson adds: “It’s really a celebration of the library and how it supports self-published books, which can be a lost form. They say, ‘Your story is important. You are valid. Your city has a voice. Embrace the community that’s here.’”