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Alternative Serials in the Tamiment Library: Definitions

A guide to finding and using alternative serials collections in the Tamiment Library, a special collection at Bobst Library focusing on Labor and the Left.

"Serials" Defined

"Serials are print or non-print publications issued in parts, usually bearing issue numbers and/or dates. A serial is expected to continue indefinitely. Serials include magazines, newspapers, annuals (such as reports, yearbooks, and directories), journals, memoirs, proceedings, transactions of societies, and monographic series."

Source:  Library of Congress.  US ISSN Center.

"Periodicals" Defined

"Publication[s] whose issues appear at fixed or regular intervals. Periodicals generally are considered to include newspapers, which usually have large, unfastened pages and contents with considerable immediacy; and magazines, or journals, which have smaller pages, are usually fastened or bound, and often have more specialized, less time-dependent contents."

Source:  Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2009. s.v. "periodical," (accessed 4/6/2011).  

Highlights from Tamiment's Serials Collection

Highlights from the library's collections may be viewed on Tamiment's Flickr page.

What Do We Mean by "Alternative" Serials?

There are multiple, overlapping definitions to describe publications considered to be alternative, dissident, counter-culture, or underground.  Following are some of the characteristics they have in common:

  • Non-standard, non-establishment
  • Independently issued 
  • (Usually) with small circulations
  • (Often) short-lived
  • (Often) under-funded, shoe-string operations
  • Promote ideas that have yet to or never will take hold in the mainstream
  • Provide a forum for new social, cultural, and political movements, fringe elements, revolutionary ideas, and progressive views that counter majority opinions
  • Published by political, cultural, social, and religious dissidents

Why Use Alternative Publications in Your Research?

Mainstream publications like the New York Times tend to cover the middle ground with respect to issues, opinions, and ideas in order to appeal to a broad audience.  Mainstream publications are widely available in print and online and they are frequently fully indexed and readily accessible to researchers. 

Alternative publications, on the other hand, operate outside the mainstream and typically reflect nontraditional, nonstandard, avant-garde, or uncommon points of view.  They are also where you will find early coverage of topics and ideas that have not yet taken hold in society.  Abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, the five day work week, Social Security, and AIDS are just some of the topics that were covered in the alternative press before they received attention in the mainstream media. 

Alternative publications are typically less widely available than mainstream publications. They may not be indexed and they may not be available online. So, while it may require more effort to track down and use non-mainstream publications, it can be well worth the effort.  Generally speaking, alternative publications:

  • Give a voice to the oppressed*
  • Operate independently and sometimes in opposition to the government* 
  • Advocate proactively for change*
  • Champion timeless issues, including some that never gain traction in the mainstream*
  • Provide an invaluable record of social and political movements for radical change**
  • Are essential for understanding the radical experience in America***

*Roger Streitmatter, Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 55-57.
**Ellen E. Embardo, “The Alternative Press Collection, University of Connecticut.”  The Library Quarterly, 59 (January 1989): 56-57.
***Joseph R. Conlin, The American Radical Press, 1880-1960 (Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, 1974), 7.