Zines: Inspiring assignments and art

By Jon Jeffryes

Zine Collection in display panelOver the past year Arts & Architecture Librarian Deborah Ultan partnered with faculty to incorporate the Libraries’ Marshall Weber Culture Wars Zine Collection into multiple classes — sparking scholarly engagement and creative inspiration.

The collaboration culminated with the exhibition Protest Publishing and Art: From the Copy Machine to the Internet, where highlights from the zine collection were shown with zines and poster art made by students, faculty, and community members.

What are zines?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a zine as “a noncommercial often homemade or online publication usually devoted to specialized and often unconventional subject matter.” Zines also differ from formal magazines and journals because they are produced irregularly. The Libraries’ zine collection covers topics from social movements to electoral politics to environmentalism to music. Their tone varies from humorous to splenetic and includes a variety of formats including collage, reportage, memoir, and comics.

Most of the zines in the Libraries’ collection were collected and donated by the collector and artist Marshall Weber. When the Libraries first acquired and celebrated the acquisition of the zine collection in 2014, Weber read from his manifesto: “My primary motivation for collecting this miasma of paper was to document cultural and political dissent.”

The collection spans from the 1970s to the present day, has more than 600 items, and continues to grow. Titles include The Coup, What is a zine? The revolution will be photocopied (and classified), How to Measure Misunderstood Genius, and Against Geology.

“Zines are a unique way of looking at history because they’re so personal and unmediated,” explains Ultan. “In an aesthetic way, the collection supports curricula and research on semiotics, political economy, social justice, production and reception.”

“They’re self-published and there’s a raw and unedited quality to them,” adds Lindsay Keating, who assisted in curating the “Protest Publishing and Art” exhibit.

That personal and unfiltered access to history resonated with students and faculty. The collection offers students an immersive way to take a deep dive into cultural history. Ultan’s partnership with multiple faculty members resulted in over 300 students visiting the collection over the last year. Likewise, the collection facilitates conversations about library-related issues such as copyright and the ACRL threshold concept, “Authority Is Constructed and Contextual.”

“Zines are actually quite complex visual materials,” explains Elena Hristova, who incorporated the collection into COMM 3645W: How Pictures Persuade. “They require the maker to think clearly about who their audience is and how they want to reach them.”  

Professor Jenny Schmid agrees.

“Zines are a really direct voice, this direct connection between the writer, or the artist, and the reader,” says Schmid, who used the collection in ARTS 3108: Books, Comics and Zines. “The students really responded to that.”

“Because zines are, for the most part, very low tech productions, the students relate to them easily,” adds Ultan.“I think that’s really inspiring and fun for them.”

‘Protest and Publishing Art’ Exhibit

Ultan connected the various class interactions of Hristova, Schmid, and visiting assistant professor, Edie Overturf, into a final exhibit, providing professional benefit to the students’ academic coursework.

“For most students, it’s probably their first exhibit and they got that experience of being part of a public exhibition,” Schmid explains. “Also it’s something on their resume, some professional experience as they go out in the world.”

The show extended the reach of the students’ research and work to the wider community. The impact went beyond local attendees as one student from “How Pictures Persuade” streamed a panel discussion event on Facebook Live.

“Not only did the zines come straight from the community,” Ultan says, “but they’re also inviting community to interact around ideas and around aesthetics.”

“It’s important to engage students as citizens — rather than as consumers — and zines have a rich history of anti-consumerism, political engagement, and community building,” adds Hristova.

The recent collaborations with the zine collection show how information experts like Ultan can also add to creative and visual academic work.

“I love the way the librarians work at the U,” Schmid says. “You don’t have to be a hard core, text-based researcher to find something. You start down a road together and they’re really good at collaborating with you on finding what you need and for someone based in visual culture that has been amazing.”

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