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Countercultural zines come to Harvard

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  September 16, 2013 12:00 PM

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If you came of age in the 1980s and '90s, zines have a mythic status. You've probably heard of them, likely never seen one, and have a vague idea that they occupied a cultural place just to the fringe side of "Clerks." Now, though, zines (pronounced "zeens") have gone institutional: Last spring Harvard University acquired a collection of 20,000 zines and related material. According to an article in the Harvard Gazette earlier this month, the collection is already providing scholars with a new perspective on countercultural expression in the last decades before the Internet took over.

Zines were self-published periodicals that authors (known as zinesters), typically photocopied and distributed to small circles of fewer than 100 readers. They began to take off in the 1970s as a venue for expressing outside-the-mainstream views on topics like politics, art, music, sex, and gender. Zines were also a form of social organization that allowed people with shared, niche passions to find each other.

Zine names were self-consciously marginal, and today they provide a direct window into the verve and attitude of their creators. Highlights from the Harvard collection include prominent Riot Grrrl zines (the umbrella name for the first feminist zines from the early-1990s) like Jigsaw by Tobi Vail and I (Heart) Amy Carter by Tammy Rae Carland. Harvard also acquired a number of important review zines, which catalogued and commented on individual zines and served as a way to introduce these publications to readers beyond the small communities they emerged from. These include the iconic Factsheet Five, Zine Guide, Zine World, and Xerography Debt.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, zinesters moved online, first to bulletin boards and later to blogs and other platforms that were easier to use and better at facilitating social connections, if also less freewheeling and expressive, than DIY periodicals. And now, thousands of zines have found a final home at Harvard. It may seem like a strange fit at the moment, but eventually they’ll settle comfortably into the archives, like so many vibrant forms of expression before them.

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Images courtesy of Harvard University.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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