Chicago alternative library saves printed material otherwise lost in the shuffle

Collects everyday voices to create unique picture of city

November 9, 2011

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Some Chicagoans are collecting a quirky collection of cookbooks, zines and poems for an unusual library. For starters, it accepts any printed material connected to the Chicago area and it’s not just for readers – it’s meant to get people creating work, too. The Chicago Underground Library has been around for a while, but it’s got a new name, and a new home that opens Friday in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood.

The Read/Write Library could be mistaken for a bookstore. It’s a bright space with turquoise walls and exposed brick. Volunteers unpack art catalogues and zines onto wooden shelves.

Assistant Director Margaret Heller greets another volunteer who’s bringing in the first mail at the new location.

Heller: Oh, I’ve been waiting for this moment.

Taylor: This is like a miraculous thing, to have a mailbox that works and that it’s all our own.

The woman with the mail is the library’s founder and director, Nell Taylor. It’s the first permanent space Taylor and company have had since the library formed in 2006. Before this, they shared space and had to move nearly every year.

Taylor says they picked Humboldt Park because of the neighborhood’s cultural activism.

Taylor: Instead of a library that’s read-only, where you can come and have free access to take anything you want to off the shelves, we’re actually a library that you can write to by actively going and putting your media on our shelves, you’re re-writing the course of what culture in the city is defined as.

The collection includes zines, “A History of Salt,” and poetry a woman in the Austin neighborhood published through her church about trying to stem white flight.

It’s not all great literature.

Taylor: Our point is, it doesn’t matter because there are other values and other qualities to this material, things it can teach you.

Taylor says the library doesn’t set any bar for importance or even quality. They just don’t want to leave anyone out.

Taylor: There’s so much media out there, a lot of archivists and librarians throw up their hands and say, 'You know what, there has to be a gatekeeper there, there has to be someone to make these judgments because we just cannot possibly catalogue and collect everything. It’s just impossible.'

Another part of the Read/Write Library’s identity is how it tracks contributions. Volunteers note everything - not just who creates items, but who edits and typesets them. That way, they can follow threads of influence, and maybe inspire others to create.

Volunteers discover the collection as much as they sort through it. Caitlin Harrington is at a long table, and picks up a zine.

Harrington: This is really neat. It looks like it’s just various women’s opinions on pregnancy.

Harrington says she’ll be studying library science and loves traditional libraries, but she feels they can wall off some people. She thinks the Read/Write Library could compliment more traditional ones:

Harrington: Anyone can contribute what they feel belongs. It helps other people to get in touch with their ideas and maybe explore ideas that they didn’t even know existed or find areas in the community they didn’t know they could be a part of.

Researcher Jessica Speer is a few feet away, and notes many items are things people gave away for free. She says without places like the Read/Write Library, they’d just get lost in the shuffle.

Speer: I think there’s more of the everyday, what an individual person’s experience might be. There’s stuff you’re never going to find in a real library so you’re going to see voices that don’t make it into the mainstream and voices that get lost because there’s these cultural gates.

To make her point, Speer pulls out a black and white flyer:

Speer: Anarchist summer soccer schedule. Who organizes that?
Kalsnes: That’s a really good question.

Speer: Right?
Kalsnes: Right.

Speer:  Somebody’s in charge of that.