For public access to information in much of world over the past century, you couldn’t beat a library. Then the internet upended the physical dimension of recorded knowledge. The Borough is My Library zines, created by library workers in the New York City area, harness that accessibility and create a dialogue around the future of such brick-and-mortar institutions amid the swell of digital information.
The four issues of the zine, launched in 2009 at the Desk Set Biblioball and released annually at the literary fête, work both within and outside the expected library institution. This is driven by founder and organizer Alycia Sellie, who has also coordinated the Brooklyn College Library’s zine collection, and in each issue culls together contributions from library workers in alternative settings like the urban intervention project Branch that responded to cuts in hours at the Brooklyn Public Library with a library on the streets, as well as more traditional dwellers of the public library stacks. All the profits from the zines go to Literacy for Incarcerated Teens.
The Xeroxed and stapled pages are accented by library materials like check out cards, bookbinding tape, call numbers, and even screenprints that take up the full cover with the brownstones of Brooklyn turned into a bookshelf or readers on the train. While the focus is definitely on New York City and its boroughs — from organizations like the dedicated ABC No Rio zine library on the Lower East Side to the Reanimation Library in Gowanus with its tomes of archaic and out-dated material — there are plenty of ideas that any library lover or community resource-minded person would find worth exploring. For example, in issue #2 from 2010, which concentrates on interviews with library workers, Toni Samek at the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta notes that “our field is still reluctant to recognize the politics of information work.”
And politics and radicalism and all the issues of copyright and access that come with bringing printed material to the masses are examined in narrative submissions ranging from a feature on the People’s Library at Occupy Wall Street to another on the Interference Archive in Brooklyn, which holds ephemera of radical movements. There are also comments on how the seeds of that radicalism are formed by the nature of library work, such as a comic about “Library School Adventures” on the ethnocentric nature of Melvil Dewey‘s decimal system.
Yet whether it’s zine libraries born of independent initiative, voices from within the institutional field, or programs like Books Through Bars that bring books to prisons, all these evolving areas of library work really show how the simple system of the free exchange of information through physical materials is still important even with so much online.
There are plenty of anecdotes about interactions with library patrons, visitors to street libraries, and even anxiety about the new line of zine library work. A two-page spread presents “what I love about being a zine librarian” — for example:
“Zines create a million different outreach possibilities. They create connections and document things that are happening in the community. They build community in that way.”
This is then contrasted with “things I don’t love about being a zine librarian” — for example:
“Fear of patrons or staff/administrators finding the collection to be ‘edgy,’ ‘cute,’ ‘quirky,’ I don’t want zines to be seen as playing those roles, I want them to be engaged with as they actually are.”
The four issues of The Borough is My Library: A Metropolitan Library Workers Zine are available for purchase online.