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Miriam Desharnais

Uli Loskot

By Chris Landers | Posted 4/11/2007

Indie Comics A-Go-Go!

Featuring Mark Burrier, Emily Flake, and Brian Ralph

7 p.m., April 12 at the Cockeysville Library,

Miriam DesHarnais, 28, is a librarian at the Cockeysville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library. As part of her duties, she oversees the library's collection of self-published zines. The collection started in 2005, beginning with a shopping spree at Atomic Books, and has grown to include almost 450 handpicked, recommended, and donated titles. Cockeysville is the only public library in Maryland, and one of about 10 in the country, to include zines as part of their collections. This week cartoonists Brian Ralph, Mark Burrier, and City Paper contributing artist Emily Flake appear at the library, to talk about getting started in small-press publishing.

City Paper: How did the zine collection get started?

Miriam DesHarnais: A librarian named Julie Harrison, who was the assistant branch manager at the Arbutus library, went to a library conference and heard a presentation by the two librarians from the Salt Lake City Public Library zine collection--Julie Bartel and Brook Young. They talked about how they started their collection at their public library and the way that zines are a medium that is low-tech and accessible to everyone--something that everyone could make. There was something about the format of zines, and minicomics specifically, that were reaching audiences that other materials in the library had never been able to reach in exactly the same way. They talked about the different innovative programs they were doing, with homeless customers who were writing about their lives and teenagers who were writing about their lives. She was really moved by their presentation and she came back here and suggested to the administration that we look into creating a pilot project or form a committee to investigate whether it was something we wanted to do. She suggested that I be on the committee because she knew me.

What she didn't know initially was that I've been interested in zines since I was about 12 and been someone who reads a lot of zines and independent comics my whole life. I was very excited to be able to do something where my personal interests overlapped with my professional life so nicely. We initially thought it was going to be a collection for teenagers and we were going to have it at the Reisterstown library. What we ended up realizing after further investigation was that a lot of the zines we were interested in getting were written by, or of most interest to, people in their 20s and 30s. We certainly have readers who are older and readers who are younger, but that's another demographic that public libraries sometimes miss, because people in their 20s and 30s are sometimes unaware that the public library is a very dynamic place these days that has a really broad range of materials that they might not associate with the public library. It was a chance for us to change people's impression of the library and also to draw people into the library who might benefit from using it.

CP: What got you, personally, interested in zines?

MD: When I was about 12 I read Sassy magazine, which was a magazine for teenage girls that was a lot better than its competitors. It had a sort of more personalized, feminist slant to it--it was much hipper than other magazines like it. It had a column in it where they would mention different zines, and I'd never really heard of it before but I've always been into writing and drawing and making my own little booklets, so it was very appealing to me that I could write away in the mail and get these interesting handmade items. I started doing that and I also started hearing about the Riot Grrrl movement, which was a third-wave feminist movement that started around Olympia, Wash. Riot Grrrl was also a zine distro, in addition to being a record label, so they were a catalog for zines. I started getting things that were written by girls who were my age or a little older that addressed things that happen to you when you're in middle school or when you're in high school but don't usually get talked about by mainstream movies. Young-adult literature is a lot richer and more varied now, but it was an interesting addition to what I was reading--to read about girls like me who were dealing with issues at school like sexual harassment or body issues or identity issues. That was what got me interested, and then I had a friend and we wrote a zine called The Dandy Chicken, where we would interview our friends or write profiles of his cats' personalities or print different things that weren't really of interest to anyone but us and hand it out to our friends, and it was fun.

CP: I always wondered about the internet and blogs taking the place of zines. Are there still a lot of people out there publishing zines?

MD: There are. It's actually wonderful that the internet can make ordering zines a lot easier. A lot of people who are into zines are really into getting mail--getting letters and getting actual things in the mail. Since I'm someone who's terrible at mailing things and am a lot more likely to e-mail someone or buy from a catalog online, the internet made zines available to me in a way that they would only have been if I had lived in a bigger city like Baltimore or Chicago that has stores-you know, each big city might have one hip store like Chicago Comics or Quimby's in Chicago or Atomic Books here, there's a store called Million Year Picnic in Boston--with the internet you can look at a web site, there are countless distros, people connect through LiveJournal. It's kind of like a 'Video Killed the Radio Star" thing. People do still listen to the radio, or create their own radio and podcast. I think there's still a lot of interest in it.

CP: What are the most exciting zines to you right now?

MD: I've been reading a lot of comics lately. I really like King-Cat Comics by John Porcellino, which is a really long-running autobiographical comic. I really like Christoph Meyer, who does a zine called 28 Pages Lovingly Bound in Twine, which is bound in twine, and he just came out with the book What I Did on My Summer Vacation, and he handmade 2,016 copies of this book with stamping, photos, stickers-stuck by hand throughout each of the 2,016. I like Hey, 4-Eyes!, which is a celebration of glasses and glasses-wearing people. It includes history and comics. I got this at the Small Press Expo, Guardians of the Kingdom by Tom Gauld. It's about two guards who are guarding a castle, and at some point they forget which side of the wall they're supposed to be guarding. It's the kind of comic that crosses the line into being a lower-priced artist's book. And a couple other folk-tale type books: one called Out of Water by Matthew Bernier and another called Late Freeze, about a couple-a robot and a bear-who are dealing with the way human society is encroaching on their space, by Danica Novgorodoff.

CP: Is there anything else you want to say?

MD: I guess just that if people like the idea of a library having collections that are different and unusual and if they're curious about zines and comics, even if they've never read them before, one thing they can do is to come see us and check them out. As much as I personally am passionate about zines and comics, the goal of the library is to respond to the needs of its users. In order for the collection to grow and succeed and thrive over time, the collection needs to fully find its audience. I think there is an audience for a collection like this in Baltimore. I just want them to come and visit us.

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