In the final part of Lea Cooper’s six-part series about the study of zines in the medical humanities, we move through the Hallway and out onto the Balcony to consider zines, libraries and research.
Most good zine titles involve a pun. This title is a spin on Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House (2019), in which a house is the holder of fragmented memory, the archive of an abusive same-sex relationship. Like all good zine puns, this one draws from the many layers of the book that inspired it.
Zines have an entwined relationship with archives, trauma, memory, narrative, queerness, the domestic, and home. This series of posts takes you on a tour of the Zine House – using its rooms to structure and explore zines around health, illness, disability, neurodivergence and madness. In doing so, I hope to illustrate some of the potential and complexities of zines in the medical humanities. I’m not going to define zines, so if you don’t know what I’m talking about check out Zines 101 on my website.
This series on the Zine House ends by considering two awkward not-quite-rooms: the hallway and the balcony. In these odd spaces I’m going to discuss not just zines themselves, but some aspects of zines in libraries and archives, and zines in research.
Hallways are in-between spaces. They are probably the domestic, everyday space that is most recognisably liminal. Liminality is a core part of my PhD research, a Collaborative Doctoral Award between the University of Kent and Wellcome Collection, looking at the zines in Wellcome Library. A term originally used in anthropology to formulate the in-between period of a social transition (van Gennep 1909, Turner 1967), liminality is often described or understood in spatial terms: doorways, bridges, and hallways, spaces that are thresholds or transitional. Indeed, it was a space that first prompted me to consider zines and zine libraries in terms of liminality. In 2015, Wellcome Collection opened the Reading Room which, as of December 1 2022, its website describes as a ‘hybrid of library and museum’. I have always found the Reading Room a little odd or awkward and, as I prepared my research proposal, it prompted me to consider the spaces (literal and metaphorical) that zine collections create in institutional contexts like Wellcome.
The ’afterlife’ of zines
While there is a long history of zine communities themselves collecting and organising zines and other DIY publications into grassroots archives and libraries, it is only recently that zines have been collected by institutions – starting with the movement of substantial Riot Grrrl materials, including large zine collections, into US university archives (Eichorn 2013). In the UK you can find zines in many different institutional libraries and archives, including Wellcome Collection and the British Library (see the UK and Ireland Zine Librarians group website to find a zine collection near you).
Zine librarianship presents unique challenges and possibilities, and many of these are discussed in the first edition of the collaboratively written Zine Librarians Code of Ethics (ZLCoE). ZLCoE was first drafted at the more-or-less annual Zine Librarian’s UnConference. In a blog reproduced on zinelibraries.info, Eric Goldhagen describes the unconference format as an acknowledgement that the best conversations happen in the hallways of traditional conference settings – these in-between, liminal spaces are valued for their potential to be playful and creative, disrupt social hierarchies, be transdisciplinary, and produce different ways of being or doing.
Liminality is a space of becoming, but rather than a linear transition between one role and the other, lingering in the Hallway allows us to consider those both/and or in-between identities; many zine librarians and zine researchers are also zine makers, and rather than being one or the other, find ways to bridge these roles. Janice Radway (2011) discusses the ‘afterlives’ of zines, and people who make them, and considers their movement into libraries and archives. No longer ‘alive’ in their original networks or communities of distribution and circulation, zines enter some kind of afterlife (or perhaps purgatory) in an institutional library or archive.
So what of this next life? The movement of zines into institutional libraries and archives is an acknowledgement of their value or use for researchers. Wellcome Library is a research library and its zine librarians Nicola Cook and Loesja Vigour who, working alongside Mel Grant, initiated the zine collection, hope that the zines are ‘used in a research context as a primary resource’ (Cook & Vigour 2018, 100). Considering how these zines are used in research brings us through the hallway, up the stairs, and out to the balcony of The Zine House.
Zine making as methodology, as reflective tool, as dissemination
In Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life philosopher Henri Lefebvre describes the balcony as a unique in-between location, ‘simultaneously inside and outside’ (2013, 37), from which he observes the rhythm of the street. Before I consider the use of zines from libraries or archives, I’m going to explore other ways zines meet research: zine making as method, as reflective or reflexive tool, and as dissemination.
Zine making as a creative research method has been used across different disciplines – for example to explore everyday life with disabled girls and young women (Ptolomey 2020), in participatory action research within art museums (French & Curd 2022) and for evaluation within learning programmes (Brown et al. 2021). Participants are facilitated to make zines and researchers make use of the various qualities of zines which we’ve explored through the Zine House. These examples make clear the potential for zines as a creative method in the medical humanities.
The research project ‘Researchers Don’t Cry?!’ led by Mindy Ptolomey, Nughmana Mirza and Lisa Bradley uses zine making as a method to foreground and explore emotion in the research field for Early Career Researchers. This project points to the capacity of zine making as a reflexive and reflective process. Many postgraduate zines offer a space for reflection, a place for in-progress informal dissemination or a personal space to explore experiences of postgraduate life. Kirsty Fife’s Adventures in Academia – which has four issues – charts their time as a PhD researcher and demonstrates how zine-making is a form which can accommodate the often not-straightforward experience of doing a PhD.
Zines have also been used by researchers to disseminate research in ways that are accessible or reach a wider audience than a conventional article, thesis or academic text. In Document It Yourself, a zine about queering archives (Latte 2017) the use of a zine is particularly sympathetic to a research project engaged in exploring those same acts of queer community archiving. Similarly, Cara Carsjens’ Zines and Activism (2020) uses a zine to disseminate their dissertation on the relationships between zines and activism. It is not only zine specific research disseminated through zines – Barnard Zine Library recently ran a workshop called ‘Zine My Research… Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Turn My 10-Page Paper into a Perzine’ – and many so-called ‘acazines’ (those that blend academic work with zines) make use of zines’ potential to bridge personal knowledge and experience, and academic theory.
How might researchers approach library or archive zines?
This blend can be seen clearly in Tamsin Walker’s concertina zine Personal PROCESS/PHD PROCESS (2020). Walker is a PhD student on the Mad Zines project at the University of Central Lancashire, which is engaged in identifying, analysing and co-producing what they term ‘MadZines’. The Mad Zines project is concerned with what zines do and how they are used by zine makers to engage critically with mental health. The project illustrates the ways that zines can inform research practices and offer new ways of doing and documenting research.
In my PhD research I am particularly interested in zines being treated as sources, as narrative or aesthetic forms, and in how researchers might approach zines in the archive or library, both now and in some imagined future. Zines are far from straightforward archival objects and encountering them in libraries and archives also prompts questions about the use of other materials, historic or present, in collections like Wellcome.
I started making perzines in 2016 about my experiences in mental health services. I found these simple eight-page A5 zines offered a visual, non-linear and episodic (or fragmented) form for experiences I was struggling to put into words. With the only record of my experience being medical notes, there was something powerful and reparative about producing my own account on my own terms. My experiences in mental health services were traumatic. If a researcher had come across my zines and chosen to write about them in an academic context, aligned however indirectly with the medical profession, it would have been retraumatising. Zine librarianship is complex because zines are not straightforwardly public, they are not always shared with the expectation of a wider readership or preservation into an afterlife, and this complexity extends to their use in research.
The ethical complexity of zine research
Zines made around health, illness, madness, neurodivergence or disability are not always made with the aim of communicating these experiences to an outside audience. At a recent workshop on Ethics, Accountability and Responsibility for Researchers working with Health Narratives convened by Veronika Schuchter (2022), it was clear that zines were part of a wider conversation across genres like fanfiction, novels, memoirs, film, music composition, visual and performance art and more. I am keen for medical humanities researchers to engage with the potential of zines, to make use of collections like Wellcome Collection, but this must be done in a way that engages with the ethical complexity of zines.
Zine makers are not passive. As libraries, archives and researchers collect, engage with, and make use of zines, this shapes zines and zine-making practices – from instructions not to digitise on back covers, to criticism of less-than-best practice by researchers. But this is a two-way street, and zines themselves do not sit passively in libraries and archives: Wellcome zine librarian Loesja Vigour describes how collecting zines “enables us [Wellcome Collection] to challenge our values and practices, [and] mould our outlook and ethics to fit the kind of material we want to hold now and in the future…” (Asia Art Archive 2020).
Though it was Wellcome Collection’s Reading Room that prompted the consideration of liminality which shaped my PhD research, I wrote my research proposal, and much of the following PhD, in various flats and houses. Covid-19, disability and neurodivergence has meant there has never been an easy separation between work and home. The Zine House is more than a metaphor, or a neat framework to hang this piece of writing about zines and the medical humanities off. It is rooms, both real and imagined. It is my house, on the Fife Coast. It is the rooms, flats and houses of other zine makers, the beds we craft from, the kitchen tables we organise around, the sofas we crash on. This series has used rooms to think about some aspects of zines in the medical humanities, but drawers and cupboards remain unopened, rooms can be rearranged, and much is still to be explored.
Where can I find these zines?
Document It Yourself, a zine about queering archives (Latte 2017) is available free to download and as an audiozine on their website. Adventures in Academia (Fife) can be found on Kirsty Fife’s website. Zines from the Mad Zines project can be found on their website.
Read the full In The Zine House series.
Asia Art Archive. 2020. Cata-log-in Zines. Online video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPbHgJyU_Ig&feature=youtu.be. Accessed 30/04/2020.
Brown, Autumn, Mairead Hurley, Sophie Perry and Joseph Roche. 2021. “Zines as Reflective Evaluation Within Interdisciplinary Learning Programmes”. Frontiers in Education, 6:675329.
Carsjens, Cara. 2020. Zines and Activism. Zine.
Cook, Nicola and Loesja Vigour. 2018. “Zines at the Wellcome Library: an interview with Nicola Cook and Loesja Vigour”, ARLIS 43/2, 94-100.
Eichhorn, Kate. 2013. The Archival Turn in Feminism, Outrage in Order. Pennsylvania: Temple University Press.
Fife, Kirsty. 2019. Adventure in Academia #1 – I have no idea what I’m doing. Zine.
Fife, Kirsty. 2022. Adventures in Academia #4 – Brain Fried. Zine.
French, Jade and Emma Curd. 2022. “Zining as artful method: Facilitating zines as participatory action research within art museums”. Action Research, Vol. 20(1), 77-95.
Käkelä, Emmaleena. 2022. “Strategies of denial: women’s experiences of culture of disbelief and discreditation in the treatment of asylum claims on the grounds of female genital cutting (FGC)”. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 48:3, 560-577.
Latte, Junie. 2017. Document It Yourself, a zine about queering archives. Zine.
Lefebvre, Henri. 2013. Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Ptolomey, Amanda. 2020. “It made us all kind of feel like we were on the same level and that if we’re sharing stuff you’re sharing stuff too”: exploring zine-making as a creative feminist research method.’ University of Glasgow Sociology seminar series, 23 April 2020.
Radway, Janice. 2011. “Zines, Half-Lives, and Afterlives: On the Temporalities of Social and Political Change.” PMLA,126.1, 140–150.
Schuchter, Veronika. 2022. Ethics, Accountability and Responsibility for Researchers working with Health Narratives. Workshop, Zoom, 15-16 December 2022.
Turner, Victor. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. New York: Cornell Press.
Van Gennep, Arnold. 1909. Les Rites de Passage. Paris: A. et J. Picard.
Walker, Tamsin. 2020. Personal PROCESS/PHD PROCESS. Zine.
About the author
Lilith (Lea, as in sea) Cooper is a PhD researcher at the University of Kent working on a collaborative project looking at the zines at Wellcome Collection. They balance their PhD research with zine and comics making, zine librarianship at the Edinburgh Zine Library and an arts practice. Find them at www.zinejam.com or on twitter at @lilithjcooper.