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When a Victoria librarian pulled a book off the shelf at the central branch this summer, a mystery began
Librarian Devon Tatton has found odd things tucked into books. Scratch & Win tickets. Cheques. A slice of cheese. “People use just about anything for a bookmark,” she told me recently.
While weeding old travel books from the Greater Victoria Public Library’s central branch collection in August, she discovered something truly unexpected hiding in the 1984 book Handpicked Tours of North America: A Motorist’s Guide to Scenic Routes and Fascinating Places in Canada and the USA.
Pulling the book off the shelf, she hadn’t noticed that it was missing a barcode or that it was lighter than one might have expected for a hardcover of its size. She did, however, notice a couple of zines tumbling to the floor. She remembers thinking, bookmarks—or that someone might have slipped the photocopied booklets of self-published art and writing between the shelved books.
Without pondering their origin further, she placed Handpicked Tours on her cart and wheeled it back to her desk to check it for outdated information. When she finally opened it, she was astonished: a library within the library revealed itself.
Someone had carved a rectangular hole into the book’s pages. The space held a collection of zines that varied in shape, size, colour. Thumbing through them, Tatton also noticed a range of content—political, erotic, humourous. Some zines were hand-written and drawn; others had been typed out.
The inside cover of Handpicked Tours had a handwritten message where a bookplate typically would go. Bearing the ransom-note-like appearance of having been cut up and reassembled, it offered congratulations —“you just found the ‘central branch’ Book and Zine TRADING Library!”— and instructions: “Be sure to leave something if you take something so the library stays well stocked!”
That this zine collection had existed under the librarians’ radar—and who knew for how long?—thrilled Tatton, who felt as if she’d discovered a treasure. She was particularly impressed by how Handpicked Tours, its spine complete with a call number, had blended seamlessly into the library’s own collection and been filed numerically according to the Dewey Decimal System on the shelf. “They did their recon,” she says of whoever placed it there.
Tatton showed the find to her colleagues, who were equally mystified and delighted, and they all agreed: the secret zine-trading library had to be returned to the shelf. How could they deny others the thrill of such a discovery?
Librarians by nature are a curious bunch, and the library within the library—so intentional, so careful in its execution—raised obvious questions. Who put it there and when? How did its creator pull it off? Were there more zine-trading libraries hidden in other libraries or spots around the city? An email address on the inside cover dangled the possibility of answers. But when Tatton sent an inquiry, she got no reply.
The email account, it turned out, hadn’t been checked in years. But perhaps the secret zine library itself contained a breadcrumb leading to its creator?
One of the zines in the collection (“Horoscopes for anybody at anytime”) listed contact information for its creator, Toronto artist Julianne Ess, who goes by the art name Foot-to-Face. When I reached Ess, she was surprised to learn that one of the first zines she made had turned up eight years later in a secret library she’d never heard of in a city she’d never lived in.
“When you're first making a zine, you kind of do wonder where it will end up and whose hands it will fall into,” she said. “And you have to also kind of be comfortable that you probably won't know.”
But knowing her zine, Horoscopes, was in a secret library felt pretty great: “What a beautiful thing!” she told me.
She recalled receiving a message in 2018 from someone in Victoria who told her he’d found her zine at the library. She wonders now if he meant the secret library. As for who created it, she had no idea.
Luckily, Victoria has a healthy collection of independent bookstores—perhaps one of them would have a clue. At Cavity Curiosity Shop, which sells some zines, I spoke with the person behind the counter, who recalled going to the secret library “over a decade ago.” He remembered it fondly as a welcome spot for the free exchange of art. “I was never sure if the library was for it or not,” he said.
At the time he discovered it, he was part of a small collective that had an anonymous zine in search of an outlet. He’d tried to place the zine—“bizarre collages and dark writing”—in stores on Johnson and lower Pandora without much luck. Only one store took it, he said, before he wound up sticking copies into stacks of free newspapers and magazines. He can’t remember how he learned of the secret library’s existence, but when he did, he sought it out. “It wasn’t a place to mass distribute your zine,” he told me. But just knowing about it and trying to locate it was exciting to him, apart from whatever the collection contained.
Alas, like Ess, he had no idea who was behind the secret library.
I remembered Tatton mentioning that the public library had hosted an annual zine fair in the courtyard for a couple of years before the pandemic hit. I found a list of exhibitors from the fair's first year—2018—and then started Googling. On one exhibitor’s website, under the Zines tab, I noticed that the drawing style matched that of Missed Connections, a zine in the secret library.
Figuring the spare pen-and-ink faces, with noses that looked like the “greater than” and “less than” symbols, probably wasn’t a coincidence, I wrote to the exhibitor (and Missed Connections creator), Gart Darley, asking if he had any information about the secret library. I got just the response I was looking for. “I know exactly who made and placed that :-),” he told me, before identifying the person behind it as one of his friends.
“I guess I was waiting for you to get a hold of me at some point,” Simon Frankson said, when I reached them by phone. Frankson was happy to hear of the zine library’s discovery. They told me they’d created it in 2015 but had lost track of it a few years later, after moving on to other projects.
Frankson is someone who’s always involved in some kind of project or another—ones that don’t involve “monetary gain or hype,” according to Darley. A writer, podcaster, and activist in their mid-30s, Frankson helps organize Victoria’s anarchist bookfair and recently has been on the frontlines of the Fairy Creek protests as “a sort of participating historian and artist.” They're now working on an album of karaoke tracks consisting of James Bond theme songs, sung by a persona they use for their poetry.
Despite having moved on to other projects, Frankson, like the GVPL librarians, had been living with some unanswered zine-library-related questions: “Just this idea of how long is it going to survive in this space? You know, will the librarians tolerate it? Will they treat it sort of like a legacy object that they just leave there as a kind of a legend or something? Or would it be removed without a second thought as a piece of garbage to be cleansed from the space?”
Frankson believes that the zine-trading library saw most of its action within its first two years and that only around 50 people knew about it in its heyday—“I mean, the community of people who are into this kind of thing is not as big as it could be.”
Bolstering that community was one of Frankson’s goals.
Frankson had lived in Toronto for a couple of years in their late 20s and was struck by its “healthy zine culture.” The city held several zine fairs per year and had its own dedicated zine library. After returning to their hometown of Victoria in 2014, “my goal was to sort of proselytize,” Frankson said.
Though Victoria’s zine culture left much to be desired—there was no zine fair at the time and the community of zine makers was “disconnected”—the city did have a robust DIY art scene. Frankson quickly became part of it: “Some people focused on sculptures. Other people did other things. My thing was always writing and bookbinding, and as far as I’m concerned the intersection of writing and bookbinding is zine making.”
Frankson hatched the plan for the zine-trading library, thinking it would be a way to seed culture, connect zine makers, and build a “centralized infrastructure to support the growth of that community.”
They chose the public library as a host, as it was controlled for temperature and seemed like a good place to hide a book.
As Tatton suspected, Frankson did a fair bit of recon to pull off the reverse heist. They scoped out the stacks in search of the least populated area, hoping to place the fake book containing the zine library among books that were infrequently checked out (and therefore infrequently reshelved by librarians who might notice it). Frankson remembers settling on the Canadian Geography section (but they actually placed it in a different section). “I guess I don’t really know much about the day-to-day practice of librarians,” Frankson told me. “But it just seems like if you were going to covertly insert a book, that was probably one of the locations where it would be left alone.”
Frankson scoured Value Village for just the right book to house the zine library. It had to be big enough to hold a collection of zines and had to have something to do with Canadian geography. It also had to appear to be a dull read (“You know, you’d look at the cover and you’d be like, ‘That is not the book I'm looking for!’”). Frankson thought Handpicked Tours fit the bill and created a call number for it that wasn’t in use but that fell numerically between ones that were.
With an X-Acto knife, Frankson painstakingly carved a rectangle into the pages of the book, leaving an inch or so of margin. They sealed the altered pages with glue and tape, essentially creating a box in which to store zines, with the cover of Handpicked Tours serving as its lid.
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The zine library’s inaugural collection contained just a handful of works, including Darley’s A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Kermit, which Frankson considers a “foundational document” for Victoria’s zine-making community. When I mentioned that it’s not among the zine-trading library’s current collection, Frankson said, “That’s to be expected.”
Frankson saw the zine library as both functional (something people could interact with) and expansive (something that could create enthusiasm and “take people’s appreciation of this medium to a more imaginative space”).
Once it was launched, Frankson posted about it on a Facebook page they’d created for another project—one in which they documented the locations and reviewed the contents of the city’s free outdoor libraries that had been popping up in residential neighbourhoods. Frankson changed the page’s cover photo to an image showing part of the shelf that housed the library. They also revealed the call number. “For some people, it was just nonsense, you know, text on a screen—‘What is Simon talking about?’” Frankson said. “And for some people, it was like, ‘Oh, well, this is one of Simon’s little hijinks, I should go check this out, maybe interact with it.’ And for some people, maybe it really blew their minds and maybe it encouraged them to take their zine-making craft a little bit more seriously—I don’t know, but that would be the goal.”
Frankson told me they also diligently worked the zine library into casual conversations, disclosing its existence in a calculated way.
I asked for an example of how they would do that.
“Somebody might just ask me how I'm doing or what I'm up to,” Frankson explained. “And I would talk about these projects that I'm working on: 'You know, I'm trying to put my poetry together into a collection.’ And that might lead to, ‘Oh, you bind your own books?’ ‘Yeah, you know, I look for these methods of stitching, and I try to replicate them myself. And, in fact, I have this project of distributing and trading zines that I've stashed in the Greater Victoria Public Library.’ And people are like, ‘What?’”
But how would those people actually know where to find the library?
"If you just ramble off the library code, they're not going to remember,” Frankson said. “But they would know that they could go to that Facebook page and find access to it. Or maybe I ended up writing [the call number] down and carrying that with me, I can't quite remember. But people who were interested, they walked away with the information. Or at least they knew how to get the information.”
Not long after slipping the zine library into place, Frankson held a book-binding workshop at the public library. All the participants made zines, and Frankson gave them the option of taking their creations home or leaving them in a pile for others. Some of those left behind joined the zine library’s collection.
Beyond fostering zine culture, Frankson’s library was intended as a small way to mitigate what they saw as a decline in “truly public” spaces in Victoria. At the time, they had been thinking a lot about how urban space was being used. It was, in part, what drove their interest in the free little outdoor libraries. Frankson kept a tally of the amount of square feet those libraries occupied—what Frankson thought of as “decentralized unregulated space where the community comes together and shares.” Frankson hoped the zine-trading library would generate interest in using spaces in unorthodox ways.
After creating the zine library, Frankson would check its collection infrequently, only once every year or so. But when they did, they always noticed new zines—and zines they were unfamiliar with—an indicator that the secret library was being used and reaching people beyond Frankson’s own circle.
But no one ever wrote to the email address associated with the zine library. Frankson told me they stopped checking it in 2016 and eventually lost the password for it.
Over time, Frankson even forgot the zine library’s specific location. They’d look for it among the stacks when they visited the central library branch for other purposes, but locating it would sometimes take a while. “It's kind of hard to find, because there are so many books in the library,” Frankson said, adding, “It’s never been easy for me to find library books, even real ones.”
They said the last time they’d successfully checked the secret library’s collection was in 2019.
The project was so distant now, they couldn’t even remember the email address associated with it. When I mentioned it was firstname.lastname@example.org, there was a murmur of recognition and then Frankson told me the “decent” part of the address stood for “decentralized,” a nod to the decentralized space they’d created.
Frankson also remembered that they’d set up a website for the project and had hoped the secret zine library would inspire the creation of other branches. “The dream was that people would be so down with this project that the momentum would basically unfold the process naturally,” they said. On the project’s website, decentzinelib.com, Frankson had coyly written, “Currently, there is one known location for browsing, lending and borrowing… [I]f you have ‘found’ a discrete zine repository and would like to submit it to the index for listing, please use the subject line: NEW LOCATION.”
As far as Frankson knows, nobody took the bait, but Frankson still considers the project a “milestone accomplishment,” saying its execution was a “pretty close approximation” of what they’d set out to do and “it had the kind of covert energy and it involved the thing that I was obsessed with in that moment.”
That the librarians have decided to leave the zine library in place is immensely satisfying to Frankson. And now, knowing that it will remain on the shelf, Frankson plans to re-engage with it. They just reactivated its website and hacked into the email account associated with it. There wasn’t much in there, but Frankson did find the email from Tatton, which thanked them for the “unexpected and amazing treasure.” Finding the library “made my year!” Tatton wrote. She expressed an interest in knowing more about it and then not only committed to leaving it on the shelf, she offered the promise of new participants: “A couple of us librarians have made zines over the years and will be adding to it as well.”