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I Publish Myself

Scholars and librarians discuss DIY and dissidence in Russia and the United States.

Participants in the Notes from the Underground panel

Alana Kumbier, Critical Social Inquiry & Digital Pedagogy Librarian at Hampshire CollegeMarch 10, 2015—The Russian word samizdat comes from the combination of sam- or “self” with izdatel’stvo, “published house,” and roughly translates to “I publish myself.”

The word and the practices it describes both emerged in the 1950s in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries, where writers were compelled to self-produce and distribute literature that was forbidden by the state. A recent panel discussion co-sponsored by the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies brought together scholars and librarians to discuss not only samizdat, but also zines, the self-published, countercultural literature of the United States. Although zines may not have arisen in response to government censorship, they are self-published (usually by means of a photocopier) and distributed through underground cultural networks. Zines also often express political positions opposed to the social status quo, frequently focusing on issues of personal and social identity.

Jessie Labov, assistant professor at Ohio State University and a senior fellow at the Davis Center, gave an overview of the development of samizdat and its various forms. She also introduced a related concept, tamizdat, which refers to literature smuggled into the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe from abroad. Together, these terms encompass self-published political statements and criticisms of the government, reprints of English-language academic journals, transcriptions of radio broadcasts from the BBC, and other underground material. Samizdat and tamizdat were subject to political censorship, and those taking part in the illicit activities of producing, consuming, or distributing them could face punishment and persecution. As Labov explained, the circulation of these texts relied on relationships of trust between writers, publishers, smugglers, broadcasters, and readers.

The discussion of self-published literature in the US was initiated by Alana Kumbier, critical social inquiry librarian at Hampshire College. She suggested that zines can reveal when and how certain communities began to change their language and categories. Looking back years from now on zines produced today, for example, could allow for inquiries into changes in gender identities in the US. “We can ask: ‘when did people start putting an asterisk after ‘trans’? Or, ‘when did they use ‘transgender’?”

Honor Moody and Marylène Altieri, both from the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library, explained some of the professional ethics involved in the collection and description of zines.

Moody, cataloger of published material at Schlesinger, noted the limits of traditional cataloging practices when working with zines. Library of Congress subject headings typically used to represent the content of works in library catalogs may be problematic when applied to zines, due to the focus of the works themselves on individual experience and deeply personal issues such as identity, mental health, sexual and emotional abuse, addiction, and body image. “Some LC subject headings may in fact be offensive to zinesters and even explicitly critiqued by zines which talk extensively about identity labels,” she said.

Zines are often written by very young people who may repudiate the work of their earlier selves, according to Moody. Zine makers may not want to be publicly associated with a zine they produced decades ago, by means of a library catalog or an open collection. Similarly, they may no longer identify with a political position or an identity category (a gender, for example) that they accepted or even affirmed at the time of the zine’s production.

“These zines don’t just exist in isolation, but are part of a continuum of women and girls writing and communicating,” complementing the Schlesinger’s strong women’s studies collections, explained Altieri, curator of books and materials. Some of Schlesinger’s strategies for collecting zines have included purchasing from distributors and attending zine readings and zine fests to purchase works directly from makers.

Kumbier emphasized the importance of creating knowledge about zine collections in collaboration with the people who create the works and those who donate them. “It’s about accountability; you have to make sure that what you’re doing with the collection fits with the goals of the donors.”