Interview with Jenna Freedman, Curator of the Barnard Zine Library, Librarian for WGSS & American Studies
Could you give us a sense of what the transition online has been like for you?
I was nervous about how I was going to do zine workshops online, but they ended up going online smoothly. What’s disappointing is that I can’t use as many zines from the Barnard Zine Library. I supplement our collection with zines from the Queer Zine Archive Project. What ends up being really cool about reading zines online is that multiple people can look at the same zine at the same time, which you can’t do with one physical object. That’s been a helpful discovery.
What you mentioned about the zine workshops is part of the second question. It’s interesting to think about the tactility of zine and the experience of looking together and making together and how you mentioned actually the transfer doing this online has been pretty smooth. Could you give some examples of the workshops that you’ve led with different courses at Barnard and perhaps some of the research you’ve worked on with students?
It can be disappointing not to be able to hold the zines; but, on the other hand, I think it’s okay not to be distracted by the preciousness of the artifact. Focusing on the images and text, you may pay more attention to the zine's components. I think there are advantages to both styles of engagement.
The zine library tricked out for two sections of Design Futures: NYC (Architecture)
The first thing we do in workshops is look at zines. As manifestations of DIY cultures, it's good for people to be exposed to the range of styles and makers. I got the inspiration for how I conduct this activity from a 5th grade class. I’m inspired by how high school and elementary school teachers teach because they have to be really creative and to keep things moving to keep the kids’ attention. This 5th grade teacher, Carrie Klein Ed.D., led an exercise called “1-2-3 pass.” 25+ students had made zines and Carrie wanted everyone to see everyone else’s zines. Students started with their own zine, and Carrie counted “one, two, three” signaling students to pass the zine and get the next one. I’ve developed that now to a three-minute pass, so you can get to read through each zine for long enough to get a sense of it, and then you read/skim another zine for three minutes. That way you’re exposed to a variety of zines, so you can see one that tells the story of getting arrested at a protest, one with contributions from incarcerated women, one that’s made by a teenager, one that’s made by a disabled person, and one that was made during lockdown. It helps you to see more of the possibilities of what you can make.
Have you been co-teaching with faculty at Barnard?
This past semester I did First Year Seminar classes with Meredith Benjamin and Cecelia Lie-Spahn. What I do is more like a guest lecturer than co-teaching, though I definitely feel a partnership with the professors. After Cecelia's class ended, I immediately Gchatted her a "!!!" message because the class was so amazing. There was also a graduate class I presented in this spring at Columbia’s Earth Institute. That class was wild because it was really big. I brought in a ton of zines, and we did the 1-2-3 pass thing. At that time, I was giving people thirty-seconds which was not enough. It was the first time I tried 1-2-3 pass, and the reading time for each wasn't wasn't right. Now I know! Fail forward!
Because of isolation, distance, or despair, the grad students weren't super excited about the creative affordances of zines. They seemed to want to just do facts and figures and turn in a thing they knew how to do. Here's one group that eventually found a narrative voice, and made a zine they were proud of.
That's a surprise - I would have assumed (clearly wrongly) that students would feel more inclined to make zines under these circumstances.
A couple of students in Meredith Benjamin’s class wanted their zines to be in the library, which is a satisfying way to close the loop on information and media fluencies. They make the zine and then it becomes part of Barnard, and people beyond the professor get to read it. That forward facing element and the culture of sharing are special aspects of the make-a-zine assignment. I think some faculty are also glad to read an alternative to a 10-page-paper.
Could you talk more about Meredith and Cecelia’s courses and thematically what you were focusing on?
Meredith’s class was Feminism and Politics of Anger and Cecilia’s was Race, Science and Reproductive Justice. One of the zines from Meredith’s class is called Nocturnal Living and it’s about international student Niharika Rao's experience of having to go to school on US East Coast time from Singapore. The other one is Quaranteconomics by Isabelle Hazar. The author logs the things that happen in the coronavirus timeline economically, and at the very end, she says, “Always angry, signed Izzy.” It’s a quirky view into how this first-year student processed her experience, and now it is a document of our time. Isabelle sent me the sweetest note with the zine, "I am very happy that you are the second person ever to touch this zine." That tiny intimacy is powerful in these months of social isolation.
The zines look like they're the same size, but Quarenteconomics is 8.5x11 and Nocturnal Living is ⅛ of that size.
Have you taught a semester long workshop at Barnard about zines and zine-making?
Not yet. I once pitched an alternative literature class to a library school, but that didn’t happen for whatever reason. For the last three years I was too busy completing a masters in digital humanities to consider teaching a semester-long class. Maybe I'll try library schools again in the future. There’s a New School class called Zine Culture that comes up to Barnard for a zine library class. Semester-long zine classes do exist!
That’s great. I could see that as being an amazing semester long course for undergraduates or graduate students.
I’ve been trying to get faculty interested. I feel like there would be a really great first-year seminar on zines, riot grrrl, girlhood, queer creative nonfiction, foodways, narrative medicine, anarcho-punk traditions...I could go on! Our zine collection has a focus on zines by women of color. I’ve had a lot of researchers come and look at Black mothering or Latinx punks and other topics of race and ethnicity. There’s a lot a motivated professor could work with. I'd love to partner with a professor if administrative issues could be worked out.
Mimi Nguyen's 1997 zine Evolution of a Race Riot transformed punk and zine culture for people of color. Mimi is now a Gender, Women's, and Sexuality Studies and Asian-American Studies professor at the University of Illinois. Zine cover from Hampshire College's zine collection.
Are you working on your own zines right now?
I am! For the Barnard Zine Library, I started a collection of COVID-19 zines and I’m inviting people to mail me their zines or send them to me and I’ll print them. I’ve made my own, which is called Unprecedented. I’ve cataloged over 100 zines so far made by women and non-binary people under quarantine. A portion of them are from within the Barnard community, but a lot are external. I have student assistants searching through Instagram and other social media for the #quarazines hashtag. I can buy the zines or trade with creators for my own zine. Financial arrangements outside of capitalism are significant facets of zine culture, and a lot of people prefer a trade to money.
What are the most common themes you’ve been seeing in zines recently and also what you’re seeing artistically in these quarantine zines?
Anti-Asian racism is a major theme. One example is The President's
Coronavi Chinavirus Guidelines for America. The author, a Vietnamese-American who did not include their name, collages headlines and social media posts documenting bigoted attacks and statements from Donald Trump. Other significant themes include loneliness and food. I've purchased more than a dozen zines by Biance Mabute-Louie, @beyonkz on Instagram. She writes about Black lives, how the virus spreads among migrant workers, being a first-generation Ph.D. student, the gifts and woes of teaching online, grief, socially distant friendship, and other topics. There are also DIY zines--people teaching each other how to do urban farming, how to make a Passover Seder meal for one person, how to make masks, and how to navigate stress.
Are there other themes that you’re seeing?
I love when there are repeated themes because you get a bigger picture of what people are thinking about. People talk about food, about what they’re cooking. There are a lot of zines just about the struggles of the pandemic. There’s one about moving during quarantine. There are zines on mutual aid, including one from Austria in German, Quaranzine : Solidarische Gratzlzeitung in Zeiten von Corona. One of the zines about face masks is by someone in Hong Kong, where they were already wearing face masks, for political reasons.
So people send you zines in the mail or email them to you?
I can print zines in black and white via PDF, but I prefer to get them in the mail. For one thing, I don’t have a great printer at home and also, I like to preserve the original formatting and there’s an intimacy about the hand-to-hand sharing of zines that is important to preserve. I keep all of the notes and stickers that come with the zines, and they get added to a correspondence file in the archives. There’s a zine library in Austin that’s collecting online zines which is great, but the strengths of the Barnard Zine Library is our print collection and our in-depth cataloging. That's not to say that there aren't 1,001 innovative digital projects that can be done with our zines.
Are there some other really interesting projects you’re working that you’d like to share or are some “pleasant surprises” of the transitional period that you would like to discuss?
I feel like this is a little bit of a depressing benefit. I had a zine workshop in May, and it was well-attended. Students, alums, and I had a nice time together. Previously, library workshops have not been as much of a draw. I think when you’re not competing with New York City, jobs, clubs, friends, other activities, people are more likely to participate.
One of the nice things I discovered is the joy of co-teaching. I most often teach alone, but Miriam Neptune mentioned that Vanessa Till BC '13, had helped her with a workshop she was leading and why didn’t I see if Vanessa wanted to help. Vanessa is a former zine club leader, so I know she knows how to make zines. We worked together and it was really so much nicer. I think it’s really good to have two voices, especially in the Zoom environment. I bet you’ve heard this a million times about how at first it’s so hard not to feel like you’re getting great feedback from people when you’re just looking at their little Brady Bunch square. At least having another instructor, you get to play off of each other and you don’t have to be talking all the time or constantly eliciting feedback. That was a take away from me: work with someone else whenever you can.
I’m teaching a Pre-College Program class and I've asked my student assistant, Ren Huang to teach with me because it’s more fun that way, more accessible, and students relate well to someone closer to their age.
An annual zine librarians conference, to be held in Montreal in August was canceled, and instead a group of us are organizing an international, online conference with participation from people in times from (at least) the west coast of the US to Melbourne, Australia. It's thrilling to organize with people from Chile, the UK, and Australia, as well as the US and Canada. I seriously could not be more excited about that, though I prefer meeting with my zine librarian posse in person when I can.
Could you discuss what types of research projects you're working on now and for the future and add anything else you would like readers to know about your work during this period?
I’ve got two CFPs that I’m keeping an eye on for writing about the COVID-19 collection. It’s a little early, and I’m also so damn busy. I don’t know if you’ve had the same experience, but I think a lot of administrators are working more now than ever. Like the rest of the librarians, archivist, and library operations team, I'm also on a one day/week furlough.
There’s a new scholarly journal out of France called Zines that I’m on the editorial board for, and for which I have an essay due. There are folks doing oral histories and the media center is trying to support documentary filmmaking of the quarantine experience. I’d like to put something together with other people that are doing this kind of real-time collecting.