Zines as Essential Resources

When asked to teach a workshop on the black bloc tactic to the Direct Action group at Occupy Boston, a seasoned activist looked to Wikipedia for information on the history of this group. Meanwhile, I found a copy of the zine Can’t Stop Kaos! A Brief History of the Black Bloc at Occupy Boston’s Audre Lorde to Howard Zinn (A-Z) Library, and it proved to be very useful. This stuff just doesn’t get put in books.

If it does, it is either published by small radical presses, seldom making its way into public libraries, or is confined to academia, where professors of social movement history compile their research in academic jargon, perhaps not understanding the value these texts might have to people on the ground. In this way, zines serve as teaching tools, archives of past struggles and ways of ensuring continuity in movements such as Occupy.

When I first got involved with zines, I knew very little about them. The only ones I was familiar with were the ones I had made myself. That’s the beauty of zines. An entire subculture revolves around them, yet people unknowingly make them all the time. It is this universality of access to the creative process that drew me into zine librarianship, which attempts to create access to the entire world of zines.
Although I was involved in the Papercut Zine Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from its founding in 2005 until 2010, I never really got into the “zine scene” or paid attention to the well-known zinesters. My interest was the information contained in the zines and providing access to this information to the public.

The idea for Papercut came out of a now-defunct anarchist group called BAAM! or the Boston Anti-Authoritarian Movement. Though there have been transitions in the demographics of Papercut’s patrons throughout its existence, its “political” section — featuring sub-categories such as anti-capitalism, prisons and activist guides — remains one of its greatest strenghts. As an anarchist and an activist, I have found that zines are essential resources in this work. Papercut has been an activist resource for six years, and the same phenomenon is now occurring with the libraries of the Occupy Movement around the world.

Zines are popular within activism because they serve as effective propaganda. They are easy to make, easy to reproduce and can be made on a budget. Because of the speed of the publishing process, zines can be highly relevant and tackle issues while they are occurring. This is pertinent to the Occupy Movement, which didn’t exist cohesively until September, 2011. Thousands of people are occupying their streets and neighbourhoods, discovering they believe in something which they don’t always have the words to describe. Of those involved, there are a smaller number who have previously been involved in organizing, or have a solid concept of various theories and ideologies, whether it is general leftism, socialism or anarchism (on which principles Occupy’s consensus-run General Assemblies are based). People make use of the zine format to educate others on their philosophies and the issues groups have already been working on. My friend James can often be found sitting at a table on “Sacco and Vanzetti Avenue” (a gravel path running through Occupy Boston). He distributes anarchist literature in zine format, and people can’t get enough. They want to find a purpose for their anger and passion.

After Boston’s Mayor and Police Commissioner claimed that the reason police invaded the camp on October 10th, 2011 was that 40 anarchists came from out of town and created chaos, the A-Z Library could not keep a title about anarchism on its shelves. People wanted to know what these two higher-ups were talking about, when they had been interacting with anarchists (i.e. regular people) since day one.
James came to the rescue, donating copies of all of his zines. Zines are a perfect answer to a quickly diminishing supply of books. They can be easily replenished and offer a more palatable bite of propaganda than a thick hardcover.

The reason I love zines the most is the unique information that they contain. Find me a book about conspiracy theories linking Kurt Cobain’s death to his lactose intolerance and I will be impressed. But particularly, it is tracking the historical record of radical movements, their strategies and tactics, that is the essential role zines play in protest movements. Providing access to and knowledge of zines keeps organizers from reinventing the activist wheel. We can learn from this history.

Clara Hendricks is a Children’s Librarian, a member of the Boston Radical Reference Collective and editor of the zine Prison Action News. At the age of 17 she co-founded the Papercut Zine Library, which now boasts one of the largest collections of zines in the U.S. She lives in Watertown, MA with her husband.

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