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Locating Zines with 5CollDH Student Fellow Nora Claire Miller

Nora Claire Miller

Over the next few months, we’re running interviews with 5CollDH Student Fellows to learn more about their projects and research process. We start our series with Nora Claire Miller, a Division II student at Hampshire College. 

What is your 5CollDH project about?

My project, Locating Zines, explores networks of zines (small, self-produced booklets or mini magazines) in the 1990s through digital mapping. The rise of zines in the 1990’s is often associated with the rise of riot grrrl, a musical and social movement rooted in third wave feminism that sought to elevate the voices of women and girls in indie and punk scenes. During this time period, zines became a popular outlet for girls across the United States to share their stories, frustrations, and hopes. My project seeks to contextualize zine networks within/outside of the context of riot grrrl.

I plan to use digital geospatial and network mapping to investigate and document the physical and social travel of zines throughout the United States, focusing particularly on zines written by people underrepresented in or erased from common narratives of riot grrrl and girl zine history. Through digital mapping, I will attempt to locate zines written by people of color and queer people in the context of the zine explosion of the 90s, particularly looking at how these zines and zine writers moved sometimes within, and more often outside of, riot grrrl circles. I will inform my exploration through reading work by Mimi Thi Nguyen and other scholars who both critique riot grrrl culture of the 90s and the historiographic lens through which it is remembered.

How did you get interested in these questions? Were there particular classes you took, professors you worked with, or other projects that inspired your approach?

Over the summer of 2015, I worked on Zine Scenes, a 5CollDH project led by Alana Kumbier and Michele Hardesty of Hampshire College and Leslie Fields of Mount Holyoke College. Zine Scenes seeks to explore 90’s zines networks using digital and archival sources.

During my work for Zine Scenes, I helped to build a database of zines in the Girl Zines Collection at the Smith College Archive. Cataloging metadata about the zines in the collection helped me to ask my own questions about zines. While recording the locations in which zines were written, I became curious about geographical trends in the data, and curious about what I could learn from making maps. I also began to notice zine writers mentioning each other’s zines. How did these connections work? How could they be traced two decades later? My project uses and expands upon the database I built for Zine Scenes to explore these questions.

What tools are you using for your project? Did you have experience working with them before, or are you learning how to use them for the first time? How are the tools you’re using influencing your approach to research?

In the field of digital humanities, I’m definitely more comfortable on the humanities side. This project, however, requires me to develop familiarity with all kinds of tools I’d never used before.

In creating digital cartographic maps, I am mainly using CartoDB, a streamlined tool that feeds location data into different kinds of maps. Since I’m mainly working with a list of zines and zip codes, CartoDB allows me to visualize my data quickly and easily, but it has also pushed me to reconsider what it is I’m mapping—I’ve started creating more time-based maps, and also experimenting with interactivity. CartoDB’s range of tools pushes me to imagine digital mapping as a form of storytelling I couldn’t achieve with just sticking pins in a map.

Digital tools have also helped me to push the parameters of what I consider to be a map. A web-based JavaScript library called d3.js has encouraged me to imagine new types of data maps, and has pushed me to consider how to map (and as such to imagine) a network of zines. In order to use d3, I need to learn JavaScript, which is an exciting (albeit somewhat scary) process.

I’m also playing with ways in which digital formats can be similar to the liner, meandering process of reading and cataloging zines. Network maps I’ve seen in d3, which often provide a user with many options at once for data exploration, have made me curious about limiting the amount that a user can see, trying to make the infinitely possible digital a little bit less infinitely possible. To this end, I’m experimenting with Twine games (simple web games based in text and storytelling) as a way to chart zine networks.

What’s one thing you wished more people knew about doing digital work?

In this work, I’ve come to learn that digital tools are not simply shiny replacements for physical ones. If that were the case, my project could be simply sticking pins into a paper map on my wall. The digital, I am learning, is a whole other terrain, which allows me to explore information and storytelling in ways that don’t make physical sense. I am someone who is used to imagining projects in physical space. This project has pushed me to develop a new, digital imagination, with different rules, different answers, and different questions.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve uncovered in your research so far?

Sometimes more information is not better. When I started this project, I tried to say as much as possible in the maps I was creating. I thought that was the benefit of digital tools—being able to say more things at once. But I began to realize that the maps I was coming out with were basically just replicas of the excel spreadsheet which holds all of my data. Working with tools like Twine, I am realizing that to tell a good story means I have to curate. I want to make the experience of learning about zines a lot like reading a zine. You don’t learn everything at once, or sometimes ever.

What challenges do you anticipate facing as you’re doing this work?

I am the type of person who gets lost in archives very easily. There are so many thousands of zines that I can look at, and so many stories I can tell when I look at them. Taking an overwhelming amount of data and producing a limited amount of analysis is not an easy prospect.

I also am facing ethical issues in my cataloging of zines for this project. Caught between building a database of zines that I can integrate with digital tools and one that respects the language and the contexts of zine writers, I have been engaging with scholarship on queer library science. Interrogating my language and representation of zines, I am moving towards an understanding the process of classification as one that is inherently rooted in contested, discursive, and shifting language structures.

Finally, learning how to work with computers in advanced ways is not easy!


Jeffrey Moro
Follow Jeffrey Moro:

5CollDH Senior Post-Baccalaureate Resident

Jeffrey Moro is Senior Post-Bac with Five College Digital Humanities. He helps wrangle most aspects of the program, particularly the Student Fellowships and Microgrants. He's a PI on the AIRLab and E.LIT / NET.ART, and a close collaborator on The Space of Mexico City. He tweets at @jeffreymoro.