If you have visited the Special Collections reading room in the past few months, you may have noticed that there’s a new exhibition on view, featuring a variety of limited-run pamphlets, booklets, and artistic ephemera—zines!
The exhibition Belonging and Non-Belonging: The History and Future of Zines in Western North Carolina is curated by Miles Lamberson, BCSC’s second artist-in-residence. (Learn more about the Carolina Record Shop Creative Residency here. Now accepting proposals for 2024!)
The exhibition, which opened June 13, 2023, features examples of self-published serials and one-off DIY publications, from grassroots community newsletters to recent zine examples from the Asheville Zine Fest, founded in 2016 by Jessica White and Shawn Scott Smith.
This year, Lamberson is leading the Zine Fest, taking place November 3-5. As the fest approaches, we’re looking back on Lamberson’s residency with this interview.
Belonging and Non-Belonging will continue be on view through early 2024. We hope you visit to explore soon–and maybe create a zine or two to share your own unique perspective.
So, first thing–and I know this is a question that has already caused you a lot of anguish, so I apologize–what is a zine?
This was the first big challenge to this whole project! I’ve been making and collecting zines for over a decade, so starting out I felt like I could tell you what they were quickly and easily, but upon further thought I realized that they’re sort of… anything?
What I mean is that in trying to come up with some boundaries to establish what would be within scope of this project, I kept coming up against this common message of zines being intentionally un-categorize-able. They are meant to exist outside boundaries and borders. They are meant to be extremely accessible and personalizable.
I looked at the broad history of zines. It’s been said that the earliest zine is Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, but they really gained traction with amateur “fanzines” (fan + magazines) through which sci-fi fans in the 1930s and 1940s could share their interests—then spread through counterculture art movements in the 1950s and 1960s—expanded into punk and riot grrrl scenes in the 1980s and 1990s—and have continued to develop and change.
I looked for how zines have been described by others already. These definitions ranged from talking about format (“photocopied and stapled publications filled with fun anecdotes and comics” -Eric Nakamura) to finances (“zines are cheaply made printed forms of expression on any subject” -Mark Todd and Esther Pearl Watson) to intention (“zines spread information to people who are isolated” -Toad, Revolutionary Knitting Circle) to content—or the range of possible content (“A zine is a hand-made magazine or mini-comic about anything you can imagine: favorite bands, movies, subcultures, obsessions, collections, and personal confessions. They contain diary entries, rants, reviews, interviews, poems, photos, essays, and stories. Zines have been around for as long as people have been expressing themselves on paper. You can find ‘em in stores, at comic conventions, online, and at libraries. But, mostly, they are traded with other zinesters and given to friends.” Mark Todd and Esther Pearl Watson)
Some say that zines are serial, some say the opposite. Some say zines cannot have ANY financial motive, some say otherwise. Some say zines MUST be printed on a traditional copy machine (think Xerox), some say otherwise.
My own definition that I landed on is:
“a handmade self-publication created with the goal to share information freely without the pressure or limitations of profit, and to support the ideas, thoughts, and feelings of the writers and readers.”
In contrast to other kinds of self-publishing, I believe that zines imply a community and a common goal to share information and ideas freely and widely, not for financial gain. I understand zines as inherently handmade and DIY, with the primary focus of sharing and community building. Profit comes secondary–if at all–to this main purpose. No one plans or hopes to get rich and famous off of their zines.
The definition I’ve settled on and decided to use for this exhibition is flawed–but there is no way to get it right. Zines are everything and zines are nothing. “Zine” is just a term for a HUGE expanse of publications that have been being produced long before anyone had a name for them.
When BCSC staff started envisioning the Carolina Record Shop in 2020 with Honey Simone and lydia see, we had the goal of using the artist/curator residency model as a way to bring new perspectives to interpreting our collection, and especially to address gaps in terms of whose histories are represented in our collections. Where do you see your work, and zines in general, fitting into this?
For me this connects to the whole question of why people make zines, myself included. Another one of the definitions I came across reads, in part: “Zine creators are often motivated by a desire to share knowledge or experience with people in marginalized or otherwise less-empowered communities.” (Zine Basics, Barnard College Zine Library).
Zines are valuable to our understanding of our region, because they are evidence of autonomous memory making and of local perspectives that are lacking in dominant histories.
In contrast to published material that aims for objectivity, zines are intentionally subjective and very direct, very personal. They show us what it means to live here and what our community truly experiences and feels, with no intermediary between the product and the person who made it, like you would have with editors, publishers, etc.
Because they are created cheaply, with these motives of DIY self-expression and low-barrier information-sharing, they showcase the lives and experiences of the less-empowered members of a community. Those experiences are a strong and true reflection of the community/region as a whole, and to exclude them from our collected histories leads to a gaping hole in the narrative of our region.
Many of the creators in the collection here are making zines in connection with queer and trans issues, leftist and anarchist perspectives, and culture outside of the mainstream.
Zines by Final Straw Radio, Andie Iphis Fox, and DIYabled.
One of my favorite things about what’s displayed out here is the huge range of topics. There’s everything from deeply personal narratives about really challenging issues, to how-tos, to nature guides, to history, to like, cute stories about pets.
So I actually put this into a spreadsheet and charted out how these topics played out! More than a quarter of the 100+ zines donated and purchased for the BCSC Zine Collection are political. The next most common categories are history, followed by nature, then perzines (personal zines).
The political work here is very telling. Asheville is a place that is home to so many, but fronts as simply a tourist town. So many people are disregarded as citizens here and ignored because of the economic and political focus on tourism, but Asheville has a rich history of community organizing and anarchist action: Tranzmission Prison Project, Asheville Prison Books, Asheville Survival Program, South French Broad Free Fridge, AHOPE, Asheville Global Report—just a few examples I can think of off the top of my head.
Asheville folks need to be able to speak their minds about our town, and zines are one low-key forum for sharing political thought and action that wouldn’t likely be represented in traditional published channels. Asheville zinesters (remember, most often the less-empowered members of a community) use zines to express thoughts on lack of housing, the impact of tourism, and other issues they experience as residents here.
One surprise to me, at least in terms of what we have in the collection so far, is a relative scarcity of self-published art books from the area, including comics. Since Asheville has such a large arts scene, this was very shocking to me, but maybe it reflects that more gallery-worthy, tourist-digestible art is what artists need to create to make a living here. And as the collection grows and people continue making zines and donating them, this topic distribution will also change.
Additionally, when I was first starting to collect and categorize zines for the exhibition I noticed a lot of zines about nature—foraging, gardening, fanzines about the mountains—but based on the statistics, these aren’t all that common. It’s interesting to me to realize what I notice the most in a collection compared to what is actually most prevalent. I hope that through this collection, patrons will be able to gather different things than I have, and that different types of content and creation will call out to them more and inspire them in ways that I can’t even imagine.
It’s a partial sampling, but still, the collection is showing us what people in this place care about at a given point in time. Where else at the library can you open up a box and find books about top surgery, mutual aid, disability, the underground music scene, and fanzines dedicated to people’s cats and dogs, all at once?
Zines by Geddi Monroe, Bailey Nickerson, and John Dancy-Jones.
I love that. And I mean, the BCSC mission statement says we specialize in materials that reflect “the social, cultural, and natural history of Asheville, Buncombe County, and Western North Carolina” so all of those topics are 100% valid, even our relationships with our pets. But at first, we were only able to find a few, very few, examples of zines in our library collection. How did you go about researching zines specifically in this region?
I quickly realized I have to depend on locals and their accounts of Asheville at the time to actually find any materials. It was really important to me to have this oral history aspect to the process, and it was powerful, because it brings this collection into the territory of community archives—we are all involved.
Zine research can’t happen from behind a desk in a back room, but has to involve participation, shared stewardship, multiplicity, activism. (See Baker & Cantillon, “Zines as community archive.”)
After about 4 years of living in Asheville and immersing myself in the art scene, the leftist scene, and the queer scene, I’ve amassed a pretty hefty local zine collection myself. My first step was going to that stack of zines and trying to find contact information for those artists and doing some digging about them. Were there other zines they published? Did they have friends also making zines? This started a sort of snowball of research—which mostly happened on Instagram, to be honest! Firestorm also gave us a list of zines that they had in stock from local creators that aided in this hunt. The game was to start anywhere and see where it would lead.
I also turned to some more formal interviews to try and get some info from folks that I knew have been in this zine scene longer than I have.
Jessica White, who is a major mentor to me, is a central figure to the contemporary zine scene in Asheville because in 2016 she and her partner Shawn Scott Smith co-founded the Asheville Zine Fest (which temporarily pivoted to a mail exchange in 2020 and 2021). Her zine-making activity started very organically, in high school. She and a friend made an anti-war comic, speaking out against Desert Storm, and anonymously distributed them through the school lockers. In grad school she helped build up the zine community in Iowa City, then in 2009 she moved to Asheville and did the same here, through the Asheville Zine Fest.
For the past six years the Zine Fest/Exchange has served as this wonderful intersection of the literary scene, art scene, political scene, and craft–all important aspects of local culture. Now the archives of past years’ Zine Fests live at the library. It’s great that there’s this public access side to it, because accessibility was a big reason for starting the zine festival in the first place, so that people wouldn’t have to travel to Richmond or Greensboro to share and discover zine culture.
I also talked to Lex Turnbull, an artist working in Asheville. They have a focus in printmaking and book art, but approach artmaking as a jack-of-all-trades. They founded the Tallahassee Zine Festival, the WCU Zine Collection, Seether Bookstore, and founded the Zine Residency at local art space, REVOLVE. They got into zines at age 21 as an art student, and by the end of undergrad (in Tallahassee, Florida) they had started Seether Bookstore, a bookstore that sold used books, zines and other printed material to raise money for incarcerated LGBTQ+ people.
Seether doesn’t exist anymore, but it was Lex’s entry to Asheville, because as Seether Bookstore, they first came to Asheville to attend a prison abolition conference. While in town they talked to Tranzmission Prison Project, went to Firestorm and Downtown Books & News–and then moved here for grad school at WCU. So zine culture and the activist culture surrounding it was really their path to this region. Most recently they traveled across the country visiting different regional zine festivals and collecting interviews and perspectives from zinesters and self-publishers. These perspectives were created into a short-run publication called Printed (still) Matters which Lex describes as “telling the why of self-publishing.” That’s on display in the exhibition.
And outside of more formal interviews and my late-night digging, all the creators and collectors who reached out to add their work to the exhibition & collection, and the friends and colleagues who drew attention to more examples, were all vital, too.
My background and network is largely centered around the arts, while Sagan Thacker in the library system identified many of the political zines that are now in the collection. Zine creators like Priya Ray of DIYabled, Geddi Monroe who creates the Shape of the Crowd, artist Grace Crouch, and many others were so generous in sharing their work with us.
This project is a starting point. It just scratches the surface of this really rich zine culture, and there are many, many others out there whose stories would be amazing to hear.
Some things on display kind of straddle the line of zine culture, like grassroots newsletters from activist organizations, schools, and neighborhoods. What made you decide to include some of those things in the show? What are your favorites?
There is a blurry line between zine, newsletter, magazine, chapbook, and book. Thinking of zines in terms of a spectrum of goals and practices can, I think, be more useful than drawing a hard-and-fast line. On top of that, some publications start out very DIY, and eventually grow into more polished series as their creators gain resources to support their work. An example of something like this is the magazine Bust, it began as a bedroom-floor riot grrrl zine, and is now a major magazine hosting frontpage interviews with major celebrities. I would no longer consider Bust a zine, but it’s part of my research and discussion, because the ethos is there (or at least once was).
If I’m collecting under the idea that zines exist to bring people into community, and to share ideas freely, community newsletters fit the bill. Community Connections, for instance, was a landing ground for updates and information relevant to the gay community in Asheville at the time of its release. I’m not sure I would call Community Connections a “zine,” but I call it “zine-ish.” It is DIY, it is there to support free thought and expression, and it brings community together. What’s not to love!
Community Liaison Organization for Support, Education and Reform (CLOSER)/Community Connections issues from October 1987, September 1989, and June 1990. The CLOSER newsletter evolved from a small member newsletter into a full-fledged monthly newspaper that ran until 2002. View more at DigitalNC.
This publication also reflects a history in Asheville that feels very important to me. These newsletters are intimate in the most mundane way, and that type of history represents the same reasons why it feels important to archive zines.
I also really wanted to include a copy from the Asheville Global Report, too. This was a volunteer run, left leaning, political newspaper that was written and distributed for free in Asheville in the early 2000s. During my research, I became mildly obsessed. UNCA has an entire collection in their archive [M2020.01], and so of course I took a trip over there to check them out.
I was actually able to reach out to one of the original editors, Eamon Martin, and conduct a formal interview with him regarding independent publishing culture in Asheville at the time of the Global Report, and see if he knew much of anything about zines coming out around then. That wasn’t really his world, but getting to talk to him about why independent publishing was so important to him and the goals of the Asheville Global Report gave me a really powerful perspective when discussing zines. The opportunity for people to speak their minds and get their community to care about something with their words alone is deeply empowering. The AGR was a newspaper that ran ads, didn’t consider itself a zine, and didn’t have the artsy-fartsy attitude that some zines do, but it had the desire to speak and share freely. It had passion and it had power, and I think that’s what zines are really about.
It seems like so many of the people who are out there making DIY publications are really enthusiastic about their work being in the library, for the public now and for future generations. It’s heartening for those of us who work here in Special Collections to see our people, our communities, recognizing the value of their own stories and wanting to share them.
More than anything, this project taught me that Asheville and Western North Carolina really are full of zinesters. I hope that all these creators will continue to donate their work and preserve their own history and interests through zine preservation projects here in Asheville and elsewhere.
The “research” will never end. We will always be learning more about zines, zine makers, and zine culture, because they will all continue to evolve.
Post by Carissa Pfeiffer, Librarian, Buncombe County Special Collections, interviewing Miles Lamberson, 2023 Carolina Record Shop Creative Resident. This interview has been edited for clarity and length (no, seriously! it could have been longer!)