Unique session on Zines, Rare Books, and Conservation!

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On November 23, 2012, Prof. Aurora De Armendi brought a class of students from Parsons School of Design to visit the Brooklyn College Library. In keeping with the theme of the class, which was Artists’ Books: Narratives, she wanted to show the students a wide range of materials to inspire their own projects. As were discussing the class, we agreed that her students might also benefit from seeing some selections from the rare books collection in the Brooklyn College Archives and Special Collections, in addition to visiting the Zine Collection. I discussed the possibilities with Marianne LaBatto, Acting College Archivist, and Slava Polishchuck, Conservator, and we ended up doing a very interesting mash-up session, showing bound materials that ran the gamut from high-brow to low brow, from one-of-a-kind diaries to copies of copies.

I started the session with an introduction to the Zine Collection, showing a variety of different types of printing and bindings possible. I showed zines that were photocopied, silkscreened, printed with a risograph duplicator, hand painted, and bound in a variety of ways from stapling and sewing to ingenious folds and flaps. I pointed out the so-called “standard” formats of zines- all based on 8″x 10″ printer paper folded various times- and I showed notable exceptions in the form of both oversized and tiny zines. We discussed the idea that that zines are different from art books in that they are often printed inexpensively in editions and often serialized (issue 1, 2, etc.), and they are different from blogs in that their value lies in providing someone an intimate, small-scale way to share their passions within or between communities, often distributing them by hand or via snail mail. Trading, copying, reworking, and sharing are all aspects of zines which, perhaps, these art students will now incorporate into their own book-making practices.

Then we moved on to an introduction to the Brooklyn College Archives from Marianne LaBatto. She showed students a selection of rare books ranging from the 15th to the 20th century: 16th century bound books, in Spanish with vellum covers, a page from a late medieval incunabulum, a copy of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Sonnets and Lyrical Poems (Special Collections PR5242 .E42x 1894), printed by William Morris at the famous Kelmscott Press (this one struck a chord with these printmaking students for sure), a richly illustrated anatomy book, and even a tiny diary handwritten by adventurer/mountaineer Annie Smith Peck. It generated a fascinating discussion to reflect on the similarities and differences between the zines and these materials- similar attention paid to printing, binding, writing out thoughts by hand, etc. Zines are part of the long trajectory of the “book” in a way that an online blog just can’t be.

After spending some time gingerly examining these books, it was time to meet with Slava Polishchuck, the in-house conservator for the Brooklyn College Archives Conservation Lab (the only one of its kind within CUNY, btw). He showed students around the lab and showed them the housings he makes for rare books (see pictures above)- they look like little boxes but each one is measured and bound specifically for the book it’s intended for. This was interesting in contrast with some of the zines with sleeves and tied bindings I had shown them earlier.

All in all, this was a very successful session and I was so happy to meet all the students and give them a window into the Brooklyn College Library Zine Collection as well as the Archives and Special Collections. The session went by fast, but we tried to give them ample time to browse the collections. I hope they got some ideas for their own artistic practice, and I told them if they make anything resembling a zine, to let me know and we’ll add it to the collection here.

Thanks again to Marianne and Slava, and to Aurora for bringing this great group of students (and for photographing the session- the photos above are all her handiwork). I’m always on the lookout for ways to discuss zines within a wide range of contexts, whether it’s ethnicity and gender studies or art and literature, so please feel free to contact me with questions, comments or suggestions.


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