By Kamayani Bali-Mahabal, Womens Feature Service
Among the various institutions that Chicago, known as The Windy City, nurtures is a little known one: An “underground” library! The Chicago Underground Library (CUL) is simple idea. Even better, it is an easily replicable idea. How does it work? Co-founder and present director, Nell Taylor, explains that the attempt is to accept and make available to the community every little scarp and scribble that comes her way.
“We collect university press handouts, handmade artist books, magazines made by sixth graders, poetry chapbooks from big names published in local presses, and even self-published poetry chapbooks that are sold for a dollar on the street. We have in our collection neighbourhood newspapers, internationally-renowned magazines of political commentary and three View Master reels of Chicago’s hotdog stands, neon signs, and motor inns, respectively,” she rattles off.
Taylor, a film and video programme graduate from Columbia College, Chicago, was initially interested in doing film archiving. “I started the library totally by accident in 2006. My boyfriend and I sent an e-mail to some of our friends to see if they wanted to get together at a coffee shop and talk about the possibility of setting up a film archive. That mail went around and we ended up with 40 people at our first meeting. It was a vote of confidence for what we wanted to do,” she says. CUL started off on that hopeful note. For the moment, it focuses only on the print media but plans to add audio and video to its collection in the future.
A unique aspect of the project is that none of its founders take on any formal role – like that of an editor, curator, or cultural arbiter of any kind. They do not want to tell their users what is important or what has been validated. What they want, instead, is for readers to discover the widest possible range of what’s out there and make those decisions on their own as they develop an appreciation for the ideas and opinions of others.
A city may have a public library and a zine library (fairly common in major US cities) but often publications that may be important to the fabric of a city’s culture are neither established enough for a public library nor specific enough for a zine library to subscribe to, and it’s this invaluable material that ends up falling between the cracks. In CUL, one may find stuff that is available in other libraries, but one would also come across variegated material, ranging from neighbourhood newspapers, poetry chapbooks, small literary and political reviews, to art books and magazines from all kinds of subcultures.
“Our catalogue is exhaustive and with dozens of searchable keywords to demonstrate that there are common threads among these publications and, therefore, among the citizens of Chicago themselves,” says Taylor, adding, “The catalogue traces how people have worked together, who influenced whom, where ideas may have first developed, and how they spread from one publication to another through individuals. It uses the lens of an archive to examine the creative, political, and intellectual interdependencies of a city.”
The CUL’s cataloguing system, incidentally, was devised at a meeting of a group of volunteers. It is based on non-hierarchical keywords instead of nested subject headings and is designed to interface with search engines rather than other library databases.
Not just the cataloguing system, volunteers power the operations at CUL, and they come from all age groups and walks of life. Some of CUL’s new volunteers are high school students, others are college professors. A lot of them are new to the city and are looking to make friends. “There will always be volunteers who consistently show up and work hard. They often never say a word, let alone about their lives, and we’re happy to have them around,” says Taylor.
The library was specifically created to encourage a wider awareness of the media produced by people whose work is underrepresented in other collections and to create a catalogue system that demonstrates how their work connects to those conversations from which they might have been excluded. Besides race and gender – that are often central to the library’s concerns – CUL also includes issues of socio-economic class as well as the voices of the youth and the elderly.
Many institutions have a poor record of including these communities and individuals, and so entire topics, perspectives and events central to their cultures are excluded. This longstanding exclusion accounts for much of the development of an alternative press in the first place: The excluded opt out of even attempting to place their work before mainstream audiences in favour of keeping their conversations amongst themselves. Or those they believe are more receptive to their work.
For CUL, large-scale distribution and recognition aren’t priorities as much as being able to really connect with an audience around shared values and issues. Explains Taylor, “The library has to actively reach out to these communities because they won’t seek us out; they’ve already found their own alternative ways to distribute and organise and might not feel the need or even want to open up their media to an outside audience. It’s very important that we take the time to let them know that we really mean it when we say we want to make media inclusive and accessible.”
It’s this inclusive attitude that has led to the CUL amassing close to 2,000 individual publications, including monographs and individual issues of serials. Some are contributions from individuals, many are from publishers who are either contributing their material as they have already been published or those who have ceased publishing and have back issues. For instance, there’s a book of poetry written in the early 1970s by an elderly woman – who didn’t consider herself a poet – that explores the jolting transition that her neighbourhood, on Chicago’s west side, underwent following the 1968 riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Then there are art and literary journals produced by Chicago teenagers in writing workshops or just for themselves. “We also get contributions from people who have been collecting such media for years and they may not have thought it had any value to anyone else, but they couldn’t stand to throw it out. Such people are especially thankful that their collections have somewhere to go,” reveals Taylor.
How can one access this unique information? “We’re open to the public three days a week. We also have free coffee and free wireless Internet, though we don’t have computers that the public can access yet. Tuesday is cataloging day and a group of 6-10 librarians get together to pull data out of the materials and add it to the catalogue. “We also call those days ‘Worklucks’ like potlucks; anyone can bring something of their own to work on in a social setting and use the collection for inspiration. Saturdays and Sundays we get some visitors,” says Taylor.
But running an unusual venture is not without its challenges, especially finding the money to run it. But Taylor is optimistic, “We hope to put a dent in the challenge of funding this year. We’re entirely volunteer-run right now, though we do hope to add paid positions soon so that we really have full time support in staffing the library to ensure proactive outreach, programme-planning, and preservation of materials in the collection.”
The CUL isn’t just a community archive of things past. It is constantly reaching out, connecting with new people and their work, and providing a home for what they do. “We hope that fine-tuning this in Chicago will create a replicable model for others,” says an enthusiastic Taylor.