THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Digital scholarship blog

28 January 2019

BL Labs 2018 Teaching & Learning Award Winner: 'Pocket Miscellanies'

This guest blog is by the 2018 BL Labs Teaching & Learning Award winner, Jonah Coman.

Pocket Miscellanies were born as a response to a cluster of problems posed by digitisation and access to medieval content. Medieval images are rarely seen by non-medievalists and members of the general public outside of meme-based content. Offline and analog, the medievalist has no freely-available tools to educate or illustrate to a non-specialist what their research is about. The digital and physical zines showcase close-reading snippets of the digitised medieval manuscripts held by the British Library, as well as over 70 other institutions.

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Figure 1. Leather binder with the first ten issues of Pocket Miscellanies. Photo © Eleanor May Baker.

Teaching and learning resource

The Pocket Miscellany choice of topics was selected to showcase the diversity of human representation in medieval manuscripts. This project is as political as it is educational. The first ten little volumes (#1 Adam, #2 Eve, #3 Temptation by the Snake, #4 Sex, #5 Sodom, #6 Trans bodies, #7 People of colour, #8 Racism #9 Disability and #10 Mobility aids) set up the political project of this ongoing collection, concentrating on disenfranchised communities, such as people of colour, LGBTQ people and disability in medieval visual culture. To date, there are ten published zines, but the project is expanded to include over 80 topics to be gradually released in the future.

The Pocket Miscellanies are distributed both online and offline as pocket-sized concertina books (usually distributed as collections), so that learners from different communities outwith most obvious user groups (researchers, teachers, educators) gain access to digital content provided by national, regional and university libraries with comprehensive medieval digital content.

Publication DIY: online and offline

From a feminist medievalist position, the format of the zine was the obvious choice for distributable political scholarship. Zines (short from magazines) are DIY radical publications that elide strictures of book publishing. Zine distribution models rely on sharing via social interaction: a zine can be a reminder of a discussion or political statement. Zines democratise knowledge that mainstream works might be afraid to tackle, or might be suppressed by mainstream publication systems concerned with sales rather than radical ideas. The small, folded formats native to zines are also reminiscent to the materiality and physical formats of medieval and early modern books created for English readers, such as the Sarum books of hours and the folding almanac.

The Pocket Miscellanies have two pathways to impact: the digital version has been shared with medievalist and historian teachers and educators via the Issuu publication platform, garnering nearly a thousand unique readers in the months they have been online. The paper copy, of very small size, can and was distributed at conferences (Bodies Ignored in Leeds, Permeable Bodies in London), other public events (Edinburgh Pride, Glasgow and Dundee Zine Fest, Edinburgh book art and comic book conventions) and to non-specialists in casual conversation. Over 3000 paper copies were printed and distributed for free since August. Both of these impact pathways have the advantage of accessibility - they are quick-and-dirty guides for non-specialists to learn about the most common depictions of a specific motif – as well as a history within DIY teaching community.

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Figure 2. Poster and zine display at the BL Labs Symposium, 11 Nov 2018. Photo © Ash.

The online version of the zines links to the digitised source hosted on the library’s own website, and is easily editable/correctable. After the initial publication of the online zines. Due to their digital form, each individual zine is permanently undergoing improvement via the open loop of online feedback and consumption facilitated by Twitter and Issuu. I use crowd-sourced information about the specific themes and amended the content to reflect spearheading scholarship in the field - information that has not been published yet, nor, sometimes, may be published in the future. This way, state-of-the-art research can be integrated in a quick publication and distribution circuit. 

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Figure 3. Screenshot from the Issuu.com/MxComan online library.

The paper copies are easily distributable in offline, analog spaces and provide a physical token of the learning experience. I use an independent publishing method historically widespread in queer communities, the zine, to create an analog version to 'viral content'. Zines are bricolage-fuelled, cheaply-printed, freely distributed and easily discarded methods of teaching and information. Using the independent publishing medium of the zine I created small chapbooks that can be printed at home, mixed and shared, carried in a pocket and left in community spaces and flier racks.

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Figure 4. A bundle of the ten original zines. Photo (c) Ana Hine.

Rip-and-mix: how copyright can the enemy of knowledge

Working with digitised content from tens of libraries across the world has proved frustrating because of the diversity of copyright policies. Modern libraries and research centres have a lot of power as gatekeepers of historical material. Texts and images that would be long out of copyright (virtually anything produced in the middle ages) is protected by many institutions under copy rights, prohibiting (esp. commercial) reproduction. This affects what images researchers choose to present to wider public; most academic publications will never be able to include the amount of colour illustrations that the self-published zine format allows. The collaborative and radical DIY ethics of zine-making allows Pocket Miscellanies to be a disruptive alternative to mainstream publication industry, bringing cutting-edge research in print (and full-colour illustration) right now, at very small costs and an extremely agile pace.

The whole issue of copyright is where zines have been historically and still are so radical. Reproduction rights are different than publication rights; strict reproduction and redistribution rights are essentially violated by any dissemination of an image anywhere else but on its origin website. Attaching a ‘medieval reaction’ image to a tweet or Facebook post, as well as pining it on a Pinterest board, are essentially in violation with the most museums’ and auction houses’ extremely strict CC-BY-NC-ND+ rules. On the other side, 'publication' rights are eschewed by zines since, technically, zines are not publications. Unlike magazines, journals or books, zines do not have ISBNs, cannot count towards REFs etc so are essentially outlaws in terms of publication rights. Unlike mainstream publications, zines are predicated on anarchist, bootleg, rip-and-mix aesthetic.

The Pocket Miscellany zines posed hard choices: do I follow the anarchic, disruptive and historically radical tradition of the zine, and use any digitised image that I can find, disregarding the copyright statements and challenging the hegemonical hold institutions have over historical images via aberrant legalities, or do I create a series of zines only with images obtained by legitimate venues, choosing academic strictures for the advantage of being able to share them far and wide without breaking copyright terms? In the end, the content of the zines, showing collections of the same visual motif in a context of continuity, dictated my choice: having as varied examples of one image as possible was more important than being able to sell these zines in bookshops and gift-shops. At the same time, I chose to only use images that are ok to use in a non-commercial capacity, so none from libraries with ‘non-derivatives’ policies. These choices (half-punk, half-tame) made selling these zines in any form and at any price point impossible, so their production relies on donations

The Pocket Miscellanies are an ongoing project. As I mentioned, I have over 80 topics planned, and half a dozen collaborations in the works. If you would want to share your expertise on a specific topic, please get in touch via Twitter @MxComan; if you want to support the project, as well as get your hands on some paper goodies, you can do so on Patreon. If you are organising a conference and you want to distribute any of the zines related to the conference, or even better, have me deliver an impact, public engagement and zine-making workshop at your conference, get in touch and we can discuss it further.

Watch Jonah receiving the winning award for Teaching and Learning, and talking about Pocket Miscellanies on our YouTube channel (clip runs from 10.32):

Find out more about Digital Scholarship and BL Labs. If you have a project which uses British Library digital content in innovative and interesting ways, consider applying for an award this year! The 2019 BL Labs Symposium will take place on Monday 11 November at the British Library.