The Papercut Zine Library is a free lending library that specializes in independently published media, particularly zines. It opened on May 14, 2005, and operates out of the Democracy Center at 45 Mt. Auburn St. in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Its circulating collection includes over 7,000 titles, in a wide range of topics and formats.
What’s Up Magazine‘s Brandon Irvine published a review recently, and the folks at What’s Up were generous enough to pass along the story for us to re-run. You’ll find Brandon’s report after clicking “Read More…”
When I first visit the Papercut Zine Library, the librarian on duty hasn’t been warned of my arrival, but he’s dressed in a way that seems oddly fitting. David Taber, 29, a volunteer librarian, has on a neon hat, a plaid sport coat, and a pink sweater featuring a cat. It’s an all-inclusive eclecticism that will come to seem representative of the library itself.
First, there is the actual décor; wall space not dedicated to zine shelves is covered in posters for old shows and political events, funny postcards, random bits of art, and a map of Cambridge with “Here Be Dragons” scrawled over Somerville. A chair is draped in a zombie-head print sheet of some sort, and each piece of furniture is from a different set.
The collection is similarly all-embracing, ranging from the technical and direct “Improvised Lock Picks” to the provocatively titled “Kurt Cobain was Lactose Intolerant Conspiracy Zine,” which I’m sadly never able to find.
In “Parenting/Education,” there’s “Baby Bloc—for activists in a family way.” In “Music,” there’s “My First Punk Rock Coloring and Activity Book,” which includes a Mad Lib activity with formulas for creating indie band names (“girl’s name + adverb” or “state + verb”). In “Food/Cooking,” I find a “A Pirate’s Cookbook,” which is sort of only loosely connected to its titular subject matter. Recipes for un-piratelike dishes like barley-mushroom winter borsht are alternated with the words of sea chants and what seem to be every pirate-themed photo, doodle, or piece of clip art that the authors could get a hold of.
“Improvised Lock Picks” is over in the “Do-It-Yourself” section. Despite being a manual, the writer’s passion comes through. “Picking, in the purest sense, involves applying a very small turning force or torque to the plug…” begins one section. In “Travel” I find “breaking open my head #3: the greyhound travel epic,” a diary of a road trip taken in the summer of 2004 by a guy named Brendan. It includes a chart that shows the time of day the weird factor at Denny’s restaurants reaches it zenith.
The library was conceived in late 2004 when Michelle Millette came across some 200 zines that her friend was intending to toss. (Millette, 25, works as a graphic designer but also writes and directs film: “That’s my real life.”) After protesting the Democratic National Convention, she and her friends “were all in such a lurch” because they had nowhere to put the energy that had gone toward protesting. After a few meetings, people got involved, and by May 2005 they were able to actually open the library in the Democracy Center, a converted house in Harvard Square dedicated to community orgs. Moving in, the collection was already above a thousand, and has since grown to over 7,000.
With so much time and energy invested, I am almost afraid to pose the question: What is the future of zines in a world being overtaken by the Internet?
It’s a social space, so you have to get off the Internet and put your pants on.
“The people who are doing zines are putting more time into them,” says Michelle. “It’s become a specialized art. It’s bookmaking.”
David echoes this idea. “It’s its own art form,” he says. “It’s not a zine if it’s on the Internet.” He appreciates that the library has a physical location. “It’s a social space, so you have to get off the Internet and put your pants on.”
Libraries might actually benefit from a networking perspective. With the Internet, “I can find out about a zine library in Croatia now; I don’t have to know the right person,” says Lacey Prpic Hedtke, who studies zines in her master’s degree in library and information science at the College of St. Catherine, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Libraries are growing, she says. She runs a zine library in Minneapolis, and “we’ve got people in Guatemala contacting us asking for extras.”
Clara Hendricks, 21, who has been with the library since the beginning, points out, “Maybe somebody who would have scribbled something on a piece of paper and photocopied 50 copies for their friends may not make a zine anymore, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.”
Michelle also admits that among zines, “there’s writing that’s not bad, but it’s dry. In the blog world, there’s the same issue. It’s like a business major writing a zine…I think people forget about draft writing in zines and blogs, so there’s a lot of stuff that’s meandering.”
It’s easy to see what she’s talking about. “Looks Good, Tastes Bad” (filed in the “Personal” section) has paragraphs obliquely titled things like “sixteen blue,” and often has margin-to-margin text and pictures, making it hard to parse anything. Worse, what I can make out doesn’t seem particularly coherent; one block of text introduces itself as being about nothing and not existing for any particular reason.
Michelle sees a parallel between sifting through weak zines to scanning the free stuff pages on craigslist. “There’s always one post in the myriad couches that’s worthwhile,” she says, and that’s pretty much the same reason she loves zines. Just about any subject matter can be gold in the right hands. “There’s a zine about milk crates. These people spun it into something interesting.” In practice, she says, the sheer volume of zines means people end up looking for stuff that looks polished.
I picked up an issue of one of her favorites, “Beer Frame: The Journal of Inconspicuous Consumption,” a digest of product packaging and marketing that has caught the eye of Paul Lukas, by whom the zine was “mined smelted, milled, and tooled.” He analyzes, among other things, a doll called My Twinn, and he seems to have done actual research and contacted its company’s reps. The writing is canny and fresh and makes me want to read more. “There’s a subtle vibe running through the firm’s literature that seems to be straight out of The Stepford Wives,” he notes in one of several poignant observations.
The music section, of this issue at least, is actually composed of reviews of the individual album packaging, each followed by a short section labeled “Obligatory music-related comment.” The back cover is covered by the “Beer Frame Hit Parade,” a favorites list cutting across every imaginable category, including albums (mostly pre-1970), catalogs, specific festivals and conferences, a rainbow sighting, and a “topless, spontaneous catfight between two very angry strippers at the Music Bar, Manitowoc, Wisconsin.”
Then there’s “You Idiot,” a zine with the smarminess that is reminiscent of “lad” mags like Maxim or Stuff but turns that energy on the establishment with a close reading of anti-drug commercials. The biting sarcasm makes it work: “This set of four commercials treats us to a deep, rich, fact-filled examination of the multi-faceted Drug War through the conversation of two restaurant employees,” the author notes dryly.
If this is the brand of zine that survives, hopefully it has a long life ahead of it.