The current round of dissertation-related research is coming to a close. I'm in Iowa right now, and this time last week I was in Nebraska; tomorrow night I'll be in Missouri, but I hope to be home in California within another week. I've written about my research before, but like I said then, it's mostly not very interesting to talk about. I'm still finding the occasional interesting artifact—a 1907 photograph of the women's basketball team at Nebraska State Normal, a 1912 humor and gossip magazine from the University of Iowa (titled "Haw Haw Hawkeye") so slang-ridden as to be actually incomprehensible by this reader, a collection of Christmas cards from the 1880s and 1890s—but mostly it's been very routine work. Sometimes, in off moments, I get to observing the other library users. I get the impression that most people who use university archive collections are people who work for the college or university in question; I've overheard people trying to track down the history of a certain building, people trying to figure out when a particular university holiday was first celebrated, people trying to put together photo displays of theatrical performances.
Here in Iowa City, at the University of Iowa, I ended up at a library table directly opposite a man working with the library's newly-acquired collection of science fiction fanzines. It was kind of distracting. I'm at my table muddling my way through old course catalogs, faculty committee meeting minutes, budget correspondence, and out of the corner of my eye I keep catching sight of magazine covers with paintings of rocketships and that rounded "futuristic" typeface that was in vogue in the sixties and seventies. Over and over again I had the urge to start talking to the man at the other table, to introduce myself and ask about the collection. I didn't, partly because the whole idea was vaguely reminiscent of the creepy guy on the train a couple of years ago who grabbed the book I was reading and said "I like science fiction too! Can I sit with you?" but mostly because I'm secretly a very shy person and generally lacking the emotional fortitude required to talk to strangers. And I think most people hate being interrupted when they're working. Still, I kind of wish I'd asked, if only because then I could have had a closer look at the lovely rocketship-covered magazines.
I've had zines on the brain, to some extent or another, for most of this trip; not science-fiction fanzines, but other zines. The library at the University of Iowa had a lobby display dedicated to zines, glass cases full of those self-produced photocopied periodicals full of music reviews or feminist rants or hand-drawn comics about high school life. Every time I walked through the lobby I'd find myself slowing down to look at them more closely, but that's not what got me thinking about zines in the first place, that was just a happy accident. The connection, for me, was Kansas.
Kansas was the first stop this research trip, flying in through Kansas City International Airport in Missouri but spending the first week of travel in Kansas proper. I spent a good chunk of that wide-open interstate driving trying to trace back my history with zines, but there are still some unexplained gaps, some discontinuities. The early history is easy: in 1986, when I was ten years old, my parents bought me an Apple IIGS. Somewhere in the set of software we bought for it (Tass Times in Tonetown, The Little Computer People Project, Bank Street Writer, etc.) was some kind of newsletter-publishing software. It had some basic desktop-publishing functions and a whole lot of clip art, and I latched on to it and immediately began producing a newspaper for our neighbors. I honestly have no idea what kind of content this newspaper had (did I report on people's gardens?) and it only lasted three or four issues, but I remember the thrill of printing out copies for every house on the street and hand-delivering them to people's mailboxes. The project ultimately failed for a number of reasons: the readership was limited to twelve households and our intrepid girl reporter had the attention span of, well, a ten-year-old.
And here we have the major discontinuity in the story: I cannot for the life of me remember how I first came across Factsheet 5, which changed everything. I've been trying to narrow down the likely sources. It definitely wasn't in the school library, either middle school or high school. I might have picked it up at a bookstore, but I doubt it; the big Barnes and Noble out on Route 17 hadn't opened yet, I don't think, and our local bookstore leaned heavily towards mass-market bestsellers and Christian self-help books, so that almost certainly wasn't it. My best guess at this point, honestly, is that I heard about it through Sassy, but I couldn't say for sure. However I came across it, though, Factsheet 5 was like a little miracle for me, page after page of dense print reviewing what seemed like millions of zines. There were thousands of people out there, I realized, all putting together these magazines, writing about things I didn't know and lives that weren't like mine, and the whole thing was irresistible. I sent away for dozens of zines a month, a small but steady stream of handwritten notes and SASEs pouring out through my mailbox. The return was more like a trickle than a stream; the unfortunate truth about Factsheet 5 was that a lot of the listings were outdated and a lot of those zine requests were never answered. I loved every zine that did get sent to me, though, even the ones that I found kind of boring. I loved that they were out there, that people were doing this.
As a result of this little personal revolution I started producing my own zine. Er, zines. I had four or five, none of them with a print run of more than five or six issues; I'd get bored with the format, or with the name, or just with myself, and I'd swear off the whole enterprise only to start up again three months later. I wasn't particularly good at the whole thing. My layouts were always really amateur, and my content was exactly as self-absorbed as you might expect from a sixteen-year-old suburbanite. I transcribed fights with my boyfriend, I reviewed different Snapple soda label designs, I used cover art drawn by my best friend Jeannie and reprinted snippets of song lyrics that I found to be of deep personal significance. It was, in retrospect, kind of awful. But so much fun! Mostly I did page layout with a typewriter and a glue stick, exploited my status with the high school literary magazine to sneak free time with the photocopier, and on occasion hand-bound the issues with cinnamon dental floss when I couldn't find a stapler. By the time I got around to the final incarnation of my zine, in the latter half of my senior year of high school, I had gone back to my roots (so to speak) and was desktop-publishing the whole thing, which involved a lot less hassle with glue sticks but also a lot less fun. On moving into the dorms my freshman year of college, I presented my new roommates with back issues of my zine as a way of introducing myself, and while I'm not exactly proud of what it says about me, the truth is that their awkward cold stares (in combination with my sudden lack of access to free photocopying) effectively closed the door on the zine-producing chapter of my life.
I left a thread hanging in this story, though—the connection to Kansas. There are two connections, actually, one good and one weird. The weird: somewhere in all the huge mass of things I sent away for, I ended up on the mailing lists for a couple of conspiracy-mad evangelical groups, all based out of Kansas. For years afterwards, I got regular mailings from them, full of borderline-coherent ravings about the connections between the Pope, the Zionists, Universal Product Codes, and the Book of Revelation. The Catholics were united with the bar-code people to bring about the End of Days, apparently, and I had stacks of photocopied flyers exhorting me to repent and praise Jesus and keep a stash of bottled water in my basement just in case the apocalypse took me unprepared even though I Had Been Warned. The good: for several years I had a kind of a pen pal in Kansas whom I met through some zine or another. He was a Kansas State student named Daniel, and he told me funny stories about going on road trips with his girlfriend and convinced me to listen to Trip Shakespeare and the Soup Dragons, and he listened patiently to all of my social dramas and teenage ennui and reassured me that life really did get more interesting after high school. We lost touch after a while; last I heard, Daniel and his wife had a new baby and he was working with a youth ministry on the outskirts of Manhattan (Kansas, not New York), but that was seven or eight years ago. Driving through Kansas earlier this month, I found myself wondering how he's doing. I also found within myself the long-dormant need to do page layout with a glue stick and a photocopier, but I don't expect much to come of that.