Preserving Independent Voices of Zine Makers

Sep 15, 2015

Small science fiction booklets created by amateurs in the 1930s gave birth to the independent publication known as zines or fanzines. The University of Iowa special collections department is storing thousands of rare zines, which are now are in the process of being digitized for the first time.  They are stored in a secure area of the University of Iowa libraries where the ceiling lights have special filters to prevent damage to priceless documents.  Curator Peter Balestrieri prefers to play it one step safer by covering his current workload of dozens of bulletin sized booklets with poster sized cardboard.

As Balestrieri clears the protective archive paper, he picks up a fragile 20 page pamphlet called "Science Fiction Collector." The cover has an illustration of a rocket, planet, and a man in a space suit. "It's from May of 1938," says Balestrieri. "This is the era when for most people science fiction meant space ships, rayguns, uh what I like to call the woman in distress."

Peter Balestrini is a curator for the University of Iowa's Science Fiction and Popular Culture Collection. He is holding one of thousands of zines from the Hevelin Collection at the University archives.
Credit Photo by John Pemble

This is one of 10,000 zines in a collection from the late Rusty Hevelin, an avid collector of pulp books, convention materials, and fanzines for 70 years. The university bought the Hevelin collection in 2012.  Most of these zines contain short stories, reviews, and drawings.

Zines are a platform for non-professionals to express themselves outside of mainstream publications and Balestrieri says it is important to preserve these independent voices for long term study. "Very few scholars have had the time or the opportunity to do research in fanzines," says Balestrieri.  "That's something that we're hoping to be able to turn around and make this really valuable resources accessible to them."

Almost all of the zines in the Hevelin collection were limited to runs of less than 100 copies, which makes them rare and in some cases one of a kind.

Hevelin digital project librarian Laura Hampton photographs one of 10,000 zines from the Hevelin Collection stored at the University of Iowa. The scan will later be transcribed by volunteers so researchers can study digital surrogates of these zines.
Credit Photo by John Pemble

Hevelin digital project librarian Laura Hampton says these booklets have made it this far and they have to preserved now. Hampton is digitizing every page of these zines with a high resolution camera system, but scanning is a small of the process.  "I'm working through them to marry them with a barcode so they'll be trackable," says Hampton.  "And then get the proper metadata associated with them as well, figure out what's going on, who the editor is, where it was created, the volume number, title, issue number, all the things that you do for a normal serial."

Zines are not limited to science fiction.  Some are about underground music or political movements. Photocopiers in the late 20th century made publishing easier, helping grow what is now the most common kind of zine, the perszine, or personal zine.  This is what Deb Anders-Bond from Ames has been making since the 1970s.

Deb Anders-Bond has been making personal zines or perzines since the late 1970s. Her recent series "The Life You Ordered Has Arrived" uses old photographs from magazines where she reinterprets their meaning.
Credit Photo by John Pemble

One recent series is called "The Life You Ordered Has Arrived." It has pictures of mugshots taken from a 50 year old magazine. Anders-Bond imagines what crime these people committed such as the difference between a picture of a white and an African-American man.  

"As I was making the zine, it became obvious to me that his crime was being black," says Anders-Bond.  "And then there's a white man who's dressed very nattily and he's wearing a beanie hat and stuff, and I thought well obviously the charges are dropped for him."

One of the pages from a Deb Anders-Bond zine "The Life You Ordered Has Arrived."
Credit Photo by John Pemble

If you think zines sound like blogs, Peter Balestrini says you're right.  "The introduction of the Internet made people realize that they could push all of this online and that's the next evolution," says Balestrini.  But the Internet isn't stopping the production of new zines.  In Iowa they are distributed at art shows, music concerts, and from vending machines.  

Balestrini wants to continue gathering as many old and new zines as possible so anybody can study them.  "This is history from the bottom up. This is not the lives of famous people and the doings of generals and politicians.  Our main interest is in the overall history of self-publishing."

Balestrini says the 10,000 issues in the Hevelin collection is the University's first attempt to make digital surrogates of zines and expects to be completed in 2018.  Then he hopes the same can be done with every single zine in the collections department, which will involve scanning and transcribing more than one million pages of various sizes, subjects, and eras.

Before Ray Bradbury was a recognized science fiction author, he was an obscure independent writer, editor, and artist for zines like this issue of The Voyage of Neuralgia from 1938. This is one of the zines in the Hevelin collection at the University of Iowa.
Credit Photo by John Pemble