Our Queer Older Siblings Will Guide Us: An Interview with the Queer Zine Archive Project

QZAP From the Punked Out Files cover via qzap.org

I am sick of articles and think pieces that tell us zines are back. The more I visit zine festivals, talk to zinesters, buy zines, and check out zine libraries, the more I realize that zines never left. Zines, and the people who make them, have grown, found new avenues to reach people, and continued to give voice to marginalized creators, just as they always have. They are also being referenced and studied in academic classrooms, and included in library collections to reach a variety of people.

I love zines. There is something about a handmade mini or a stapled hunk of papers that makes me feel closer to the creator, like they are speaking directly to me. As a librarian, I am always looking for literature that will speak to marginalized peoples’ experiences and interests, and ensure they feel included and supported. Zines allow creators to make those connections in an immediate, exciting, and emotionally charged way. When I was finishing my library degree in December of 2018, I decided to explore the various roles zines play in the library through an independent study. With help from the amazing Kathryn LaBarre, who runs UIUC’s zine library, I interviewed several zine librarians, and began to see how these people have built community and provided crucial resources by preserving and using zines.

This article is the first in a series which will explore how librarians use zines in both public and academic institutions, and how these organizations serve marginalized communities. I am starting with the Queer Zine Archive Project, or QZAP, which is very close to my heart. QZAP’s physical zine collection is located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but their main focus is digitizing queer zines so that they can reach a larger audience. I spoke with Milo Miller, one of QZAP’s founders and a “barefoot librarian” – someone who does the work of a librarian without first acquiring a degree in library science – about how QZAP provides queer and trans people access to resources, history, art and ideas made by queer and trans people themselves.

I’d like to start with this quotation from your mission statement:

“The primary function of QZAP is to provide a free on-line searchable database of the collection with links allowing users to download electronic copies of zines. By providing access to the historical canon of queer zines we hope to make them more accessible to diverse communities and reach wider audiences.”

The existence of a digital, queer-focused archive is an incredible thing, especially since most zine libraries don’t digitize their content. When did you first decide to focus on QZAP’s online component?

From the beginning QZAP has been a digital archive. Chris [Milo’s partner and QZAP co-founder] and I met in 2001 during an organizing meeting for Queeruption. Queeruption was a series of radical queer gatherings that started in 1998, and the third one was in San Francisco, which is where we met. It usually involved camping/squatting/whatever, and the workshops were in warehouse spaces – it was this big, usually 7-10 daylong anarchist queer festival with performances and all sorts of stuff. I was very involved in that community for a long time.

I went to this organizing meeting and I met Chris. He had been a zine-maker, he was friends with Larry Bob who used to put out the zine Holy Tit-Clamps and also Queer Zine Explosion which was kind of like Fact Sheet Five for queer zines. Larry Bob introduced the two of us, and we super hit it off, like a house on fire.

During the course of the organizing meeting questions kept coming up about, well who is this even for, how do we promote this? Then, stuff around accessibility, race and racial identity, politics, AIDS and HIV prevention, STI prevention, public sex, all of these questions and answers and commentary. Chris and I would keep looking at each other across the table or nudging each other and saying, hey, wait, didn’t so-and-so write about this in that zine? How can we share this information? Can we put all these zines online so that people can access them?

When we began in 2003, the idea was to digitize our own collections of zines. We were one of the first digitization projects like this. Google Books wasn’t a thing yet, and Library Thing didn’t exist. The Way Back Machine and Internet Archive was kind of getting started about then. We ended up back in Milwaukee, which is where I grew up. I had a co-worker who was a really good web programmer, and he was straight but he was this really cool punk tech dude. He had run pirate radio stations and he was into zines and indie media stuff. He helped us program the basics of the first version of the website. It was before anything was database driven, before content management systems or even blog platforms to the extent that Blogger and things took off. We thought it was important to try to provide access to the wealth of information in the zines that we had in our personal collections.

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Obligatory table shot from #czf2019

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Why do you specifically refer to a “historical canon of queer zines?”

We talk about a “historical canon” of queer zines because the question, “What’s the first queer zine?” comes up for us on the regular.  We used to point to Dr Smith (1984) as a precursor to J.D.s (1985), and it was the folks who put out J.D.s who coined the term “Homocore” which quickly became Queercore. Even before then there was Homeboy Beautiful (1978/79.)  There’s also Roberta Gregory’s amazing “Dynamite Damsels” (1976) which was the first self-published lesbian feminist comic books, and “zines” like Somos (1974), which was put out by el Frente de Liberacion Homosexual de la Argentina. We’re unique and our queer stories and lives are hella important, but we’re not creating zines in a vacuum.  We’ve got rad queer older siblings to thank and their work to look back on that helps guide us.

Your mission statement has been pretty consistent over the past fifteen years (happy anniversary, QZAP!), why so little change? Do you think QZAP’s mission will ever change?

It’s entirely possible that the mission WILL change, but not in the foreseeable future.  While our collections are growing in terms of the number of zines and their scope, at the moment we’re still primarily interested in:

a) providing access regardless of the geographic location of the reader

b) preservation of zines and similar/related materials

c) helping folks who use the collection develop a framework for talking or writing about queer zines, queers’ lives and storys and herstories, and

d) always recruiting and encouraging folks to make zines.

Can you give me a quick history describing the evolution of the archive over the years? Obviously the technology has changed (and upgraded) and the physical archive has moved from various spaces to accommodate its size (now over 2500 I believe?!) but were there any particularly interesting changes, or growing pains?

The first version of the website was a real basic html frameset with links to PDF files and hand processed thumbnails, cover scans, whatever. Now, the digital archive itself is running on a piece of software called Collective Access. It’s made for archiving digital objects. It provides a shit ton of metadata in a whole bunch of different schemas depending on what you’re doing with it. The way the system works is it keeps objects separated from the people who create them, and separated from the places. So, Milo Miller is associated with Mutate zine, and you can say, this person is the “creator of” or is the “editor of” or is the “designer of,” depending on what the role is. Because they’re separate, all of the metadata for the zine can be the same. Or, if I change my name, I can just go in and change the name record and that will update across all of the things that it’s associated with. It’s much more robust technology.

From the getgo we’ve always used Linux as the server platform, and all of the software that we’ve used to build the project that is anything remotely front-facing has all been free and open-source.

One of the things that has evolved for us is the way that we approach QZAP. Initially, we were thinking about it in terms of sharing information because of these community organizers and folks who were queer anarchists and queer punks who wanted to connect to each other to share information. It was much more nuts and boltsy; we approached it from what I would call the Act Up perspective. I have a pretty long background as an AIDS activist, and a lot of the early AIDS activism was the whole concept of “drugs into bodies.” We need to get anti-viral drugs into people’s bodies so they can start helping with people. It started with the idea of drugs in the bodies – zines online. We just have to get the zines online to push us to get the information online so that people can access it.

Act Up logo via actupny.org

That’s still important to us, but we’re putting the zines online because it’s queer folk whose stories aren’t being told in other ways. We really think that these stories are important because we think that these people are important.

Having that conversation or realization and making that mental shift has been huge for us. If you pick up OUT or The Advocate or Girlfriends, it shows you a certain type of people. They’re usually white, always pretty, upper middle class, and they tend to be really coastal – San Francisco, LA, Houston, Key West. They tell certain types of stories and there’s lots of advertising for getting your gay wedding ring, or for the Human Rights Campaign or for Olivia cruises. That’s such a small part of our queer existence in the world. With zines, you get all of these other stories. You get: I’m in a relationship that is a same sex or same gendered relationship, but also we’re having a kid. Or, we’re putting out zines and we’re in this small town in West Virginia. I’m a Tejana queer boy in Dallas, Texas, and I’m putting out a zine about cruising in the bathrooms and being brown and being Spanish speaking in fucking Texas – all of these different experiences.

These are all the things that are part of our queer world. These are all the stories that don’t get talked about in other gay papers and other forms of media. That’s super super important, to have this history and to be able to look at these people’s lives and these people’s stories and to read about the joys and the struggles and the everything.

What are the biggest challenges you face in digitizing zines and managing the archive? What kind of research goes into trying to find zine creators?

One of the biggest issues we face is around getting permission to add work to the digital archive.  Because zines are ephemeral and because a large part of our collection pre-dates the internet as we know it, it can be very challenging to track down creators to ask if we can include their old work in the collection.

To this end we absolutely TRY to get permission before uploading digitized zines. If we are unable to obtain it we tend to err on the side of Fair Use for educational purposes, and have a very liberal take-down policy.  If a creator comes across their zines on QZAP and wants them removed we try to have them down with a few hours of being contacted.

Finding zine creators is mostly a day of Google searching. If there’s a name on something, and if it’s a pseudonym where you might know somebody’s real name, we’ll try to match up a real name to a pseudonym just to get information. With people facebooking and linking in and twittering, in some ways you just have to figure out, well, this person seems to be the person who put out this zine. It’s a lot of blind emailing, reaching out and saying, hey, somebody made a donation to QZAP, we have this zine, it’s old, it looks like you’re the person who made it. Can we include it in the digital archive?

Issue 2 of QZAP's anthology zine series based on research done at QZAP.
Issue 2 of QZAP’s anthology zine series based on research done at QZAP.

When we got started, we were not as diligent about getting permission. It didn’t really occur to us that people wouldn’t want their stuff online. After probably the first 6 months to a year, we had folks who were less excited about the project than we were say yeah, we’d actually prefer that you didn’t put it online. At that point we started to be a lot better about trying to reach out and ask for permission.

We’ve had a couple of instances where folks have said, hey, I don’t really want this associated with my name, and depending on what the work is, if it’s really cool, if it’s really important to us, and it seems like a more universal story, we might have a bit of a back and forth saying hey, can we change the crediting so that it’s under a different name? We try to not put last names on. That way, we end up with like ten zines by people named Charlie, but we’ll know this one is by Charlie Welsh, this one is by Charlie Sheen, but it won’t necessarily say that publicly. Now that we have the technology to do this we’ll ask to take down the full scan but keep the cover online. We can keep a catalog record online so that people know we have it, and put a note in the notes field that’s public saying this item is cover-only, and we’ve been asked to not put the full version online.

Most of the time, if somebody asks us to take it down, we just take it down.

How do you publicize and spread the word about the archive?

We Sharpie up lavatory stalls with a graffito that reads “For a good wank check out qzap.org”

Do you actually do this?!

No, but it’s something I would do.

It’s the future of QZAP advertising.

Yeah. No, in terms of getting the word out, we put out postcards, we’ve made stickers – the most famous of which is this skinny little sticker that says “zinesters do it on the photocopier.” They ended up on photocopiers, in zine libraries and in anarchist community spaces all over the world. That was a good way of doing things.

QZAP T-Shirt that reads "Zinesters Do it on the Photocopier."
An old QZAP shirt bearing the aforementioned phrase.

We’ve also put out a couple of QZAP zines. For little bit we were putting out a zine called QZAP Meta, which was the idea that it was a meta zine, a zine about queer zines. Currently we put out From the Punked Out Files of the Queer Zine Archive Project, which is our “research publication.” For the last five summers we’ve been inviting people to come to Milwaukee, to QZAP, to spend a week living in the archive and using it for research or whatever they want to do, and then writing a zine article about it which we then compile and publish.

That’s what’s really special: the community that we have created. That definitely spreads out into the world and has its influences in a lot of ways. The folks who have worked with us over the years as interns have been all over the map, but they’ve gone on to do amazing things.

What are some strange and cool things you’ve acquired for the archive?

We’ve got a couple issues of Savage Love: the Comic Book. Dan Savage branded comic books from the nineties. Nobody knows they exist. We have them, but we haven’t been able to get permission to put them online. They’re so cool and they have good name rec. We have an ephemera collection so we do have a lot of objects. One of the things that we have in the collection that’s really cool is, we actually got it at the Chicago Zine Fest not this past year but a few years ago, I think, there was a black and brown LGBT student from one of the colleges and we got a seed bomb, this little golf ball-sized hunk of clay that has seeds in it. It’s got a tag about getting community and queer community to grow. The idea is that you throw it and it bursts open on a dirt field and it gets rained on and it plants and grows flowers or whatever. We’ve got a lot of punk patches.

You can peruse the incredible QZAP archive to connect with your queer ancestors and community, buy their wonderful swag (including issues of From the Punked Out Files of the Queer Zine Archive Project), and donate to help maintain the archive all at QZAP.org! Make sure to also keep an eye on Comics Academe for future zine library profiles in this series, as we dive deeper into the incredible world of zine librarianship.

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Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka is a queer librarian and intense cat parent. They spends their days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts @alenkafiga.