Skirting the Mainstream is Just More Fun: An Introduction to the Alternative Press Collection

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"Alternative Press is about ... skirting the mainstream ... in any medium." Clint Watson, Chair of Alternative Press Collection. Photo: Sam Milianta

The main Salt Lake City Library is like a diamond in the rough. Its modern design (created by Moshe Safdi), light-colored walls and the prevalence of glass used in the structure make it one of the most distinctive buildings in the city. Although the stunning architecture is obvious, the downtown library hosts a variety of hidden gems within its walls.
 
On the second floor of the building, near the fiction reference desk and the periodical section, a handful of shelves hold approximately 2,500 zines––one of the largest public alternative press collections in the country. Unfortunately, if you weren’t looking for it … it’s unlikely that you’d ever know it was there.

“It’s surprising to see that, even now, after the collection has been going on for so long, and we’ve had so much publicity for it, that a lot of people don’t even know that it exists,” says Moey Nelson, an employee of the library and one of the organizers behind the second annual Alternative Press Festival.

Julie Bartell and Brooke Young, two librarians then working at the old downtown location, started the massive collection in approximately 1997 in the periodicals department. “It was kind of just a side project … it was just kept as kind of a little happy secret,” Nelson says. “It’s definitely due to their innovative vision of what [the collection] could be, that it happened.” Both women are no longer involved with the collection, Bartell has moved on to other ventures and Young currently works as the assistant manager at the Day-Riverside branch.

What started as a small side project has exploded into a collection notorious in zine-making circles.  The current chair of the Alternative Press Collection, Clint Watson, inherited managing the collection approximately two and a half years ago and has added somewhere between 500 and 600 new titles since that time. “Most of what we get just shows up in the mail. I don’t know who these people are. I’ve never talked to them.” Watson says, “Zinesters just mail them to us because everyone knows the Salt Lake City Zine Collection.” The portion of the collection that doesn’t come as unsolicited mailers is collected through a variety of zine distributors like Microcosm and Poop Sheet, networking with other zine librarians and Watson’s involvement reviewing zines for Zine World. The collection is made up of comix, poetry, per-zines, music zines and a variety of other sub-genres. The oldest zines in the collection date back to the early 80s, many of which cover underground punk and hardcore music scenes in cities such as Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. “There was no other way that those bands were being documented.” Nelson says, “Those are still the most interesting to read. They’re historical documents at this point.” 

Unfortunately, the collection hasn’t garnered the same kind of attention from the local community that it has from the national zine-making community. According to Nelson it is astonishing to see how many young people come to the library and are totally unaware that the collection exists. This eagerness to inform and educate people about the collection is why Watson single-handedly started the Alternative Press Festival last summer. “I had just built the website and was cataloging things and one of my coworkers suggested I should have a festival.” Watson says, “I said ‘okay that will be fun,’ and it was way too much work.” Despite the overwhelming amount of work, last year’s turnout was good. According to Watson, 400 people attended the event and all of the artists that were involved wanted to do it again. He is also quick to point out that Nelson was an indispensible asset in organizing the second annual Alternative Press Festival. “Moey came into a meeting and was full of fire,” he says.

This year the Alternative Press Festival organized a work group of library employees that consists of Watson, Nelson, Isabelle Roehrig, Rachel Getts, Courtney Brueckner, Andrew Eoff and Amanda Perry to help with the planning of the festival. Planning started back in January and to date the festival will include over 30 zinemakers, printmakers and bookmakers such as Trent Call, Willy Nevins, Ryan Perkins and Jen Sorensen; live music from La Farsa, Bramble, Lindsey Heath Orchestra, 8335 and many others; films from Salt Lake Film Festival and Silent Film Shorts; and various performance art groups such as Salt Lake Adult Puppet Theater and Spinning Poi dancers.

“[The reason] I wanted to do this a second year was to make it known to the community that the collection exists, but also it’s alternative press … it’s not just a zine collection anymore,” Nelson says. For years the collection was known as “the zine collection,” but a few years ago the name was changed to the “Alternative Press Collection.” The distinction between “zine collection” and “alternative press collection” is an important one for Nelson and Watson. Watson explains that alternative press is more encompassing than the previous title. “I think alternative press is about zines, definitely, but it’s [also] about … skirting the mainstream and trying other routes in any medium,” be it art, filmmaking or even music. The change was made in part because of the amount of non-zine media that the library began receiving. “We have a lot of submissions for music and films and we have just kind of kept them in the back—not knowing exactly what we want to do with it yet.” Nelson says, “It would be great if we could have listening stations, if we could display them to the public, because it is an unheard voice and we are a free establishment, and it is about sharing ideas.”

Although the Alternative Press Collection has yet to add any music, art or films, Watson says that it is something that they are working with the cataloguing department to make happen. Changing the name of the collection wasn’t just about incorporating new media though, it’s also a move meant to strengthen the ties between the local community and the library, which Nelson says is really the whole philosophy behind the library. “It’s not so much about the material, but what we are providing to the public.” She says, “We are providing a link to the community. Representing communities that may not be represented by anyone else and providing that for the community so it’s linking everyone in all these diverse communities. With that being said, zines are less and less popular because of  blogs … so what else can we provide for the community ... What kind of uniqueness can we provide and represent in this collection?”

Watson’s answer to this question, not surprisingly, lies in the local music scene. “I think there is a lot of local music in the main collection downtown that gets overlooked. No one is highlighting it, showing that this is local and cool, and I think those sorts of things, especially local acts, would be better off being highlighted in a separate collection among similar materials like local writing and local art.” He says, “I’ve just got this vision of a collection that’s sort of … not quite tied in with the mainstream.”

Ultimately the decision to expand the collection is to give more unheard voices an opportunity to get their work into the community. “I don’t have any loyalty to zines themselves. It’s more the idea that people are creating things and I want to provide a forum for expression, for them to share this stuff with other people in the city,” Watson says. “Having the library host [the Alternative Press Festival] really legitimizes, in a big way, the stuff that is in the collection … It’s a useful thing to do with your time, energy and creativity, and it’s a useful form of expression.”

“I think the more places that we have to experience our community and share these ideas … the better. We can’t just have it at Urban Lounge, Kilby Court and Craft Lake City. These things don’t happen enough,” Nelson says.

Nelson and Watson both see the Alternative Press Festival as one more place where creative types can get together and bounce ideas off of one another. “If you were to see it from above you’d think it was really disorganized.” Watson says regarding what he hopes the atmosphere of the day will be like. “We want it to be a really loose, comfortable environment for people to get to know each other.”
Nelson adds: “we are hoping that this will serve as an open door, not only for people to submit more material but also to volunteer their hours as well.”

Watson says that the Alternative Press Collection is currently looking for volunteers to help catalog the zines for their website (altpress.slcpl.org). “Cataloging consists of reading the zines, recording a bunch of info, tagging it with descriptors and authoring a brief description.” He says, “It’s highly involved volunteering, but anyone who participates will get all of the benefits of library volunteerism, plus they’ll help contribute to one of the largest catalogs of zines in the world.”  Interested individuals should contact should contact Watson at cwatson@slcpl.org.

The Alternative Press Fest workgroup has a number of additional events planned leading up to the actual Alternative Press Festival. On July 7th, in conjunction with the Salt Lake Film Festival, a film screening will be hosted behind FICE at dusk.

The Alternative Press Festival takes place on July 9th at the Downtown Library from 3pm-9pm in the Urban Room, the auditorium and Library Square Plaza. Live music is scheduled all day and zinemakers, printmakers and bookmakers will all have tables. The event is free, open to the public and everyone is encouraged to bring copies of their zines or books to submit to the collection or trade with others during the day. Vist altpress.slcpl.com for more information about the festival, submitting your work to the collection or just simply familiarizing yourself with some of the hidden treasures that Salt Lake City has to offer.
 

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