A Riverwest dining room is an unlikely place for an archive accessed hundreds of times a day and utilized by academic scholars across the world.
But for the last seven years the Queer Zine Archive Project, a cooperative archive based in a home in Riverwest, has been a crucial resource for people interested in researching and preserving zines from the LGBT community.
A zine, shorthand for fanzine, usually refers to a small run often topical self-publication.
The archive started after co-founders Milo Miller and Christopher Wilde moved to Milwaukee in 2003 after they met while organizing Queersplosion, a radical queer gathering in San Francisco, and bonded over their love of zines.
"We had sort of talked about it and talked about it and we finally said, 'hey, let's do it. Let's try and put these online and make them available to folks so they can share the knowledge'," Miller said.
The library now boasts close to 1,200 different publications representing almost 40 years, 17 countries and a dozen different languages. About 400 of them are available in electronic format and can be accessed from anywhere in the world.
Zines have held a specific prominence in queer culture, where the people who made them often found it hard to find their voices represented elsewhere. Even early national gay and lesbian magazines represented only a sliver of the queer community, Wilde said, forcing those on the margins to create their own tangible voices.
"The beauty of queer zines is they represent the people who aren't seen in those publications and don't have access. ... It's about creating your own media at that point when you have a message to get out and something to say that is important and you do it yourself," Wilde said.
Miller reflected on his own early involvement in zines when putting their importance into context.
"I started 'Mutate' because I felt like the loneliest queer punk in Milwaukee. I didn't go out to bars a lot and I wasn't particularly involved in the queer scene here... So that's why I started it," said Miller, "And now having worked on the archive and having collected queer zines for me it's really about a diversity of voice, and zines in general are about a diversity of voice."
Most of the zines in the QZAP archive were circulated in the pre-Internet days through a loose network of zines, punk shows and word of mouth.
"It was its own web in a way," Wilde said.
Having started with their own collection of a couple hundred zines, the collection has grown as people donate their collections and new zine makers send over copies of their work.
"We probably get, on average, about two a week and other sort of random things like that cardboard box on the floor that has about 100 zines and was Fed-Exed to us the other day," Wilde said.
Miller and Wilde cover most of the archive's expenses selling shirts and copies of their queer zine about queer zines, "Meta," and through occasional donations.
It's a labor of love that both say helps acknowledge and preserve important voices.
"It's not often that you get to read about peoples experiences with sexual assault or being queer bashed, and at the same time it's not often in the regular media that you get to see comics someone has drawn about their fantastic day or their really cool hot boyfriend or whatever. It's just not there," Miller said.
The fact that zines can be made and distributed for next to nothing also ensure a venue for ideas that go against the grain, they said.
"There are all of these things that come together to make zines really important and Queer zines are just a part of that but they are the part of it we've connected to," Miller said.