The Barnard Baddie of Libraries
Anatomizing the Zine Library so central to Barnard culture.
By Anna Patchefsky
Barnard’s Zine Library is a Russian doll of niches ranging from laconic musings on fall soups to comprehensive accounts of historical events. In their midst rests a well-loved copy of C.J. Colligan’s 13 Monster Commandments whose first page commands: “Believe in monsters.” What flows from the subsequent black-and-white typeface is a litany of revolutionary inclusive education. Careful to place distance between itself and more popular discourses, the back page stresses that it is in no way related or affiliated with “Lady Gaga,” “Mama Monster,” “The Fame Monster,” or the “Little Monster” community, a necessary disclaimer for anyone alive in 2015.
Tucked behind Milstein’s Circulation desk, the BZL is Barnard’s archival epitome: a treasure trove of eccentric anecdotes and subcultures for the unconventional researcher. It lures the easily distracted (me) away from computer screens and into seemingly endless pages of personhood.
Proposed by Zine Librarian Jenna Freedman in 2003, the BZL is home to over 11,000 zines, one of the most extensive collections in the world. According to its website, the zines are “personal and political publication[s] on activism, anarchism, body image, gender, parenting, queer community, riot grrl, [and] sexual assault”— a definition fitting of the library’s trajectory. Originally intended to provide insight into contemporary feminists’ culture, the curation of the library evolved in tandem with a growing intersectionality to reflect and inform the identities of all Barnard students.
As a medium, zines are conducive to this inclusive endeavor. Intrinsic to their DIY nature, zines can be self-published and cheaply made; those in the BZL cost no more than $5 to produce. Because they are made on the low end of the production scale, authors need not rely on frequently biased institutions to convey their messages, identities, and deepest secrets. Zines surmount traditional barriers of exclusivity, making them capable of reflecting Barnard’s student body. The 2022 NSOP zine written by zine tech Grace Li, BC ’24, represents the plethora of Barnard identity-based anxieties. In it, there’s a roommate’s Spotify list, a “What’s in my class tote?” collage, and a collection of newspaper clippings about intersectional womanhood and trans identities in a traditionally feminine space.
This reflective diversity creates a pool of literary possibilities, making accessible the intricacies of the surrounding world that ordinarily go unheard. Existing on the outskirts of popular media, zines commandeer the limits of subjects from the otherwise taboo to the single-topic obsessions unwelcomed by the mainstream. In “Sex Dreams,” an œuvre of horny late-night musings sits next to a flagrant portrait of longing for an NJB (Nice Jewish Boy). One shelf over, I spy “Come and Get it Big Boy,” an artistic invitation to the various vaginas and the different bodies in charge of them. On the shelf, these recent creations rub shoulders with their predecessors.
Eccentric uses of zines like these grew out of a tradition of science fiction urgency. As the 1990s grew impatient with editorial bureaucracy, their leaflet tradition was adopted by the music-crazed. Created by Sheila Burgel at the beginning of the decade, “Plume” exposes readers to the likes and dislikes of a teenage girl obsessed with New York’s music scene, Audrey Hepburn, and Woody Allen (pre-scandal, of course). With fanmail and an apologetic editor’s note explaining upcoming print delays, “Plume” brims with teenage idiosyncrasies. With a font that mimics handwriting, “Plume” is a wondrously snarky window into amateur journalism and diarism. It's a proto-blog and yet so much more.
As I sit thumbing through the ribbon and staple-bound zines, in waltzes two Dr. Martens–sporting, sundress-wearing, and appropriately tote-doting friends. They photograph the collection, undoubtedly perfecting the art of the photo dump with their .5 shots. “I love it,” one exclaims in an overdramatic library whisper as she drifts over to the body-focused zines. Her Shakespeare & Co tote swings against the stacks, revealing the canvas affiliation of her companion. On her tote is an Atlanta hotel’s insignia, affixed in the same pennant graphic that marks the entrance to the BLZ.
By heeding personal quirks, the BZL exists as a curated literary facsimile to the ethos of a Barnard Baddie; it’s well-dressed and concerned with the physical manifestations of what makes Barnard Barnard. When asked about the relationship between the BZL and the culture of Bold, Beautiful, Barnard, Li remembered being barraged by adjectives to encapsulate the BLZ: “quirky, never before seen, and revolutionary … everything made sense. It’s just so Barnard.”
The BZL is not merely reflective. With a symbiotic relationship between how the collection develops and how it serves the community, the BZL is a two-way mirror. “Zines don’t exist as little paper islands,” Freedman underscores. “They are connected and blossom within a mutually supportive zine community.” The BZL and Barnard are engaged in appreciative mimicry, like when two lovers become so intertwined they begin to look like one another.