Personal Stories Shared Through Zine (un)Conference

Duke Libraries staff hosts national event for makers of self-published works of art

Amy McDonald, assistant university archivist, looks through some of the zines in Duke's collection. The zines can be read in the Rubenstein Reading Room in Perkins Library. Photo by April Dudash
Amy McDonald, assistant university archivist, looks through some of the zines in Duke's collection. The zines can be read in the Rubenstein Reading Room in Perkins Library. Photo by April Dudash

When Kelly Wooten was 16 years old, she and her best friend wrote poems about boys they had crushes on in high school. They also wrote lists about the latest fads and then took their creations to the copier in her dad’s appliance store, where they made 10 copies of a “zine,” a homemade book, paper or website.

Years later, Wooten, now the research services and collection development librarian with the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture, cannot recall if she distributed her teen zine to friends.

“There was some bad poetry and drawings,” she said. “I almost pulled it out to look at it before the conference, but I didn’t. It’s just teenage embarrassment.”

Still, Wooten’s hobby has served her well as the organizer of Duke’s Zine Librarians (un)Conference, a gathering last week of national librarians and zine enthusiasts who help to preserve the personal booklets and encourage passion about the craft. About 30 people attended the conference in Perkins Library on Friday and Saturday, and some traveled from as far as New York and Texas.

“For most of us, zines are just a little part of the work that we do,” said Kelly McElroy, the undergraduate services librarian at the University of Iowa and a conference participant. “It’s something that we all care a lot about and feel very strongly about, and I think for a lot of us, we’re one of just a handful of people at our institutions who know what zines are, who work with them. So being able to spend a weekend with other people who feel so strongly about them is really powerful.”

Sitting in a circle during the conference Friday, participants discussed a range of topics from Latin American zines to how to start a zine club. The zine art form exploded around 1992, when women such as Sarah Dyer, whose “Action Girl” zine guides are now part of the Sallie Bingham Center, started distributing zines and comics. Zines began to grow in popularity across different demographics.

The Sallie Bingham Center at Duke houses more than 5,000 zines in its collection, boxes upon boxes that contain handwritten stories and drawings on topics that range from coming out to marriage to surviving sexual assault. The zines in the collection were donated or purchased through a distributor.

Wooten continues to publish personal zines, including a “Self Defense for Pregnant Women” guide on how to handle awkward questions from strangers. She wrote the humorous anthology while pregnant.

“Some of the zines are getting better production value just because desktop publishing is easier and better,” Wooten said. “But a lot of them really maintain that gritty, handwritten, cut-and-paste feel intentionally. It’s coming back to the paper, hands-on DIY. Really, it’s still a great venue for people of color and transgender people to be able to write publicly but in an anonymous way about issues and to avoid Internet comments.”

The zines that belong to the Sallie Bingham Center are available for public viewing. Amy McDonald, assistant university archivist, wheeled out a cart in the Rubenstein Reading Room on Friday filled with zine boxes. She handpicked a few photocopied zines and placed them on the table, recalling when she was a Bingham Center intern and helped organize the zine collection.

“They’re the thoughts of ordinary yet extraordinary people who just have something they need to say and have to get it out, and they might be the only person in their tiny little town who feels the way they do,” McDonald said. “It’s just really interesting to see how a movement gets going, how a movement gets formed and kind of gains momentum, and how there ends up being this network across the country that’s tied together through zines.”