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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.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

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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