From University Archive to Prison: An Interview with the DePaul University Zine Archive

Editor’s Note: This is the second interview in the Zine Interview Comics Librarium series by Alenka Figa. Read the first interview, “Our Queer Older Siblings Will Save Us: An Interview with the Queer Zine Archive Project.”

It’s been almost three years since I first interviewed Derek Potts, the Archives Processing Assistant who stewards the DePaul University Zine Archive, and in that time my respect for his work has grown immensely. DePaul has been building up their relationship with the Chicago Zine Fest, offering tours of the archive and, as in 2019, an extra panel leading up to the festival itself. I attended that panel last year, which was hosted at DePaul, moderated by Potts, and featured employees or volunteers from non-profits that, like DePaul, send zines to prisoners. The panelists offered up reasons why zines could be valuable to people incarcerated by a horrific and unjust system. Vicki White, a representative from Chicago Books to Women in Prison, a non-profit that does exactly as its name promises — sends books and zines to incarcerated women — praised zines for including material about recovery, oppression, and disability that are still lacking in mainstream media. LizMarie Palomo of Xicx Zine Collective said zines filled an urgent need for representation. Anthony Rayson, who founded ABC Distro in 1998 and who Potts and I discuss in the following interview, simply said that he started out wanting to make zines with incarcerated folks because “the most talented people seemed to come from prisons.”

While sending zines to prisons doesn’t make up the entirety of the DePaul Zine Archive’s reason for existence, it does illustrate how a University collection can use a medium like zines to cut through barriers that keep marginalized people from accessing resources that can make them feel loved, seen, or even simply bring them joy. Zines are cheap to make, and don’t have to fight through editors and publishers with prejudices to come into being. They can offer hope and radicalizing ideas to university students and community members and incarcerated community members alike, as long as organizations like the DePaul Zine Archive continue to use their power to get zines to people who need and want them.

The bones of the following interview are from my initial visit to the archives and my discussion with Potts from 2017, but has been edited to include up to date information. We chatted about the DePaul collection’s unique beginnings and organizational style and, of course, DePaul’s relationship with Anthony Rayson and how they send zines to prisons.

How is the DePaul Collection organized?

We have nineteen individual zine collections. Altogether, the collections contain more than 6,500 zines. They’re named after people or organizations, and the ones that are named are largely zine collectors. These are their personal collections of zines that they give to us. The 20th collection, the Underground Press Conference, is an outlier because it’s actually about a conference; it isn’t actually zines per se. There’s a couple zines in there.

What is the significance of the Underground Press Conference Collection?

The reason we have zines here in the first place is because of the Underground Press Conference. In 1994, a faculty member who also produced zines and was in zine culture said, hey, there should be an underground press conference! Out of that, not only did the conference itself save materials from the conference and donate them to the university, but then people at the conference were like, hey, we should also probably save zines – literally save zines because they weren’t thought of as things to be saved.

We started getting zines in ’95 from individual collectors. We’re still taking historical collections that people have and still bring to us. We have a midwestern focus.

Does the conference still happen?

No, not that I’m aware of, and certainly not here. The Great Lakes Underground Press Collection is one of the offshoots, if you will, of the Underground Press Conference. It’s organized regionally [Editor’s Note: This collection contains zines from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.] Because we’re taking collections that people already have, they tend to be older. I have stuff in here from the ‘70s, but the real meat of zines is from the early ‘90s.

How do you catalog the zines and make them accessible to the public?

We don’t use the Dewey Decimal system in here; nothing is catalogued. Basically, it’s the same thing we do in our Reading Room. [Editor’s note: Here’s a link to information about DePaul’s Reading Room.] We bring the zines out, and you can obviously look at them. The order in here isn’t as strict as other collections. We store the zines in acid-free folders, and typically they’re organized by title. If there’s multiple things within by a single author or within a series they’ll be together.

That way you don’t have to worry about, like, if a series is numbered inconsistently, or all that fun stuff that comes up with zines?

Exactly. And we don’t have full runs of all these zines, because it’s a personal collection. At the same time, you’ll notice cross-referencing across collections. It makes sense that people in the Chicago area would collect similar things if you’re in zine culture and you collect zines. It makes sense that you might have issue 3 of this, and I have issue 2 of this. You have to look across the collections if you’re looking for specific zines or titles.

Regarding the collection’s focus, when you acquire an individual zine collection, do you worry about where the zines are from, or just if the collector is Midwestern?

No, it depends. That’s a good question. Typically the collectors are all regional, and then their collections reflect that. To your point, I guess if somebody was local and their collection was international, don’t think that would be out of the realm of our archive, because there’s a connection there. What does that say about the zine community in Chicago, that somebody had access to, or went out and found international titles? Especially if that person is actually integral to the scene in Chicago.

I was curious if you’ve seen changes in the collections over time? Do they become more national or international? Do they become higher quality, are there more comics, are there more visual things?

That’s a good question. So, what is a zine, right? I remember picking up zines in the early ’90s and thinking, oh, this is just homemade, DIY stuff. That’s how bands made flyers for shows; it’s the same thing. I bought a really glossy, beautiful bound book at a zine fest recently. It was at a zine fest, so it’s a zine, I guess? It starts to become a very murky world.

That’s a question I’ve been asking people, because I think different organizational definitions and personal definitions are really interesting. Does DePaul have a definition of what a zine is, an official definition?

It’s the definition as defined by the collectors. Going with the Great Lakes Collection, we brought in people from the zine community to actually help us organize and topically name the collection, and come up with this idea of having the Midwestern scope. If you look in the Finding Aid, they’re broken down kind of by categories like “sociopolitical,” or “personal.” Zine-makers and collectors came in and helped us decide that, so that’s the foundation of how our collections are organized.

If we get a new collection in it follows this, unless the collector had a different system themselves. If it’s in chronological order, in the order they purchased them, or in the order published, we would keep that.

That seems pretty unique. Most of what I’ve seen is trying to adhere to the Library of Congress subject headings.

Particularly back then; I’m guessing it wasn’t as typical of a choice. Now I think there are more conversations about shared authority. I’m a recent library school grad myself and I felt like that came up a lot, this idea of letting communities as much as possible share in the naming process, especially in nontraditional communities. Jenna Freedman [Editor’s note: Freedman runs the Barnard Zine Library] is a great example. She’s in the zine world herself, collecting and making zines.

Who can access the zines?

Anyone from the public can come in during our regular business hours, Monday through Friday, 9-5. Every single one of our zine collections is on site, nothing is off-site, and the only thing people have to do when they come in to our department is fill out a registration form. It’s very basic: contact information, your address, are you a DePaul student, DePaul faculty, are you an “other” student, “other” faculty, etc. I think there’s just an “other” category? So you just self-identify and then there’s written guidelines on there so you can sign off on that, that you understand, don’t steal things and reproduce them or whatever.

We don’t require ID. You don’t have to have an address, you don’t have to have a phone number. Anybody can come in.

How do students and staff interact with the zines? Do you get people in here a lot to use them for classes and things?

Students, staff, and faculty can come in and look at things, but we also use them in instruction sessions. We’ve partnered with some cool, different subject areas; with art classes, English classes, Chicago history, Latino history, and a lot of social justice related things. The art class is actually very interesting; it was a new application of zines. It was a screen-printing class, and their project was screen-printing something for a protest. They wanted to see materials and be inspired. We don’t have a giant screen-printing collection per say, but we do have, sprinkled throughout our collections, different examples of screen printing, and things have been used specifically for protest. Some of the zines themselves have been screen-printed or, at the very list, they give a lot of ideas for inspiration for how simple color and text are used together.

Do you ever do programming outside of interacting with classes, exhibitions or things like that?

Anthony Rayson [Editor’s Note: Rayson runs the South Chicago ABC Zine Distro] donates zines every couple of years and there’s a few where we have duplicates, so we feel comfortable taking a couple of them outside to use as examples.

This particular collection is unique because of the subject matter; ABC is all related to the prison industrial complex, and he offers copies of zines for free to people who write to him. When he donated his collection it was with an agreement that DePaul would do the same thing. So, we receive letters from incarcerated people requesting copies of zines. I manage that, and that’s a different and unique access point.

All of our other zine collections feature hundreds of creators and authors with varying or unknown copyright statements, so we’re unable to reproduce that published work in the same way. I am super interested in expanding the scope and number of our materials that reach inside folks – from zine and other archival collections. Supporting inside classes still seems like the easiest way to do this, but I’m always open to new ideas and methods.

What is the process of sending zines to prisons like?

It’s a fascinating thing and there’s not a lot of standard information. If you go to the federal prison system website there’s a pretty decent breakdown about mail and things like staples and paperclips, or glitter. We have things that are messy. State to state, it’s different. Not every institution identifies exactly what their parameters are and most of them, if not all, have extremely grey or vague language to just cover basically anything the institution might want to do in cause of safety or security. And they change things up.

In general, the materials we send to prisons are not returned or “refused” by the institutions – only about 3% of mailings are returned/refused for perceived “violations” (these tend to come from the same couple of prisons). It’s not for censored material. I’ve never seen anything sent back because it’s like ooh, this is too challenging, but a lot of the subject matter is, frankly.

I was curious if they get black marker-ed out?

Not that I’m aware of. Now, it could be, though, but no one’s ever told me that it’s happened. When I send materials, I also include a letter that details what is enclosed in the package, because I’m curious to know if the things are making it there. It’s like, included is Black Panther’s History, blah blah blah, included is Fuck the CIA, blah blah blah. Did that make it through? Would you write me back and say, “Well, you said you sent me those two titles and I only got one.” That’s what I kept expecting to see, but I’ve not witnessed that. Now Anthony, I’ve talked to him about access and things getting through and he said stuff gets routinely denied.

I don’t know if it’s different coming from our place because I have DePaul. I specifically make sure I have our full address on the label that I put on the package so it’s “DePaul University, Special Collections and Archives. The John T. Richardson Library.” I’m really instilling that this is coming from the university library. I don’t know if it’s treated any differently; I have no proof of that.

A lot of times I send our finding aid, and then people will write and say, “Thanks for sending my materials and the finding aid for the Anthony Rayson zine collection, can you send me also…” and I can’t, because they’re treated differently. Anthony’s zines are produced materials that he has signed off on and in many cases they’re anti-copyright materials, period. They actually have “anti-copyright” and “please distribute freely,” written on them. How do you make a decision about every single zine in here and every single zine author?

I have to write back and tell them, that we don’t have the right to reproduce the other materials, but people are interested. Especially certain resources, like we have a few zines in the Rayson collection that would speak to trans folks, but not a ton.

What I end up doing then is reference, basically. I’ll try to put them in touch with groups that might be helpful like maybe Black & Pink. They’re pen pals but they’re also a resource and they try to help people find things. I try to do that too.

How many requests do you get, and how frequently are you sending zines to prisons?

Every day. I probably average at least a request a day. It goes in waves, so one day you won’t get any letters and then one day you’ll get seven. There are a lot of questions of access and what’s fair and what you can do with your time. It’s a very tricky juggling act. I can’t spend all day copying zines and sending them out. That sounds cool, but I can’t do it. I have to limit myself to a certain amount of time I can spend per day on it.

Also, people ask for a lot of zines. People ask for 20 zines. There was kind of a grandfathered policy that we would only produce 30 pages of material. I revised that; if they request too many zines, I’ll write something like, “Enclosed you will find _____, you will not find the other items enclosed because we have a 30 page copy limit per request fulfillment. We will copy and mail the other in shortly, thank you for your patience.” The end! I’ll save your list; I’m not gonna have you sending stamped things back and forth and back and forth when you don’t have money. That doesn’t make sense to me.

I’ve been thinking about library anxiety – the feeling of fear or inadequacy that keeps people from coming to the library, especially academic libraries – and was curious if that’s something you’re able to manage, or consider?

It is a problem. The majority of people that work with our materials and in our reading room are students. It’s not the public coming in, it’s not the zine community at large coming in and checking out zines. There could be a thousand reasons; it could be that we’re the library of a university campus. Maybe even if you saw the [reading] room it’s not a good place to check out zines, it’s got stained glass, it’s quiet. Maybe it’s just that the location isn’t perfect in that regard.

I go to zine events and I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to, DePaul students, former students, are like, I had no idea we had a special collections and archives department in the library! Like really? Part of it is just not always expecting that people can come find you but finding the community, and that’s a large challenge and something I find interesting. I want the zine collections to somehow be useful to the zine community at large. [Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in 2017, and since that time DePaul has become a bigger partner with Chicago Zine Fest and hosts tours of the archives and panels to kick off the Festival.]

Have you ever felt you need to justify the existence of the collection to DePaul?

No, because I think it’s understood that zines as a format are extremely popular and have gained in popularity significantly in the last ten years. It’s really on an upswing and recognized as a format that’s a force to be reckoned with. Especially with collections, we could go back to at least my library school understandings of what libraries and especially special collections collected, and it was all top-down stuff, what rich white old men do. Zines provide a larger variety of individual voices and that’s not hard to advocate for.

All this stuff ties into library mission. What is the mission of the library? You go and you read it and then you go and look at our department mission, and it’s all in service of preserving area history and things that also reach to the margins and try to be on the side of social justice. This university has a social justice foundation and. even if indirectly, a lot of the zines speak to social justice causes. It makes it really easy.

With the Anthony Rayson zines it’s still the same way, because it is focused on prison works and prison voices and it’s really not hard to argue that that’s a completely marginalized group of people that is underrepresented. We also, on campus, have groups like the Inside-Out prison exchange program, which is national thing but we have a chapter here, so we have faculty members that go and teach classes in the state prison. The students from our school will go there as well and have class.

I saw the Quimby gnome on twitter, can you tell me about the gnome?! It looks cute!

Quimby is our contribution to the DePaul Gnome Hunt. Roughly 150 gnomes are created by various DePaul groups and departments and hidden around campus with clues. Students who find them win prizes. We decided our gnome should represent our zine collections, so his “clothes” are a collage of text/images from various zines — and of course, his name is Quimby.

March 1st-7th, 2020, is the National Lawyer Guild’s Week Against Mass Incarceration (WAMI), so now is a great time to support organizations like DePaul that support incarcerated people. If you’re local to Chicago and want to visit the Archive, you can fill out a Researcher Registration Form to plan for a visit, or plan to attend the archive tour and panel discussion will kick off Chicago Zine Fest, which will be May & 16th, 2020. If you’re not local, you could consider donating to an organization like Chicago Books to Women in Prison, or your own local books to prisoners organization. Maybe volunteer, donate, and see if they can send zines! You don’t have to be a student to check out a zine archive, participate and support a rad organization like the DePaul Zine Archive — all are welcome.

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Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa is a queer librarian and intense cat mom. She spends her days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts at @alenkafiga.