Last month, I got a chance to talk with Nell Taylor, founder of the Chicago Underground Library. I was fascinated by the project’s innovative approach to collecting, sharing, and connecting people through locally-produced media. Nell will be responding to comments on this blog and can also be reached here.
A typical Chicago Underground Library (CUL) volunteer meeting starts something like this: New volunteers arrive for orientation at 6:30pm, some a little late because they got lost in the 100-year old parish house where we occupy the lobby of a fringe theater company on the second floor. When we have a critical mass of new people, anywhere from 3-7 a month, I try to explain the project as briefly as possible.
A Community-Based Approach to Collecting and Cataloging
CUL is a replicable model for community archives that accepts every piece of print media from a certain area without making quality or importance judgments, going back as far in history as possible. That means we collect university press, handmade artist books, zines made by sixth graders, poetry chapbooks from big names published in tiny local presses, and self-published poetry chapbooks sold for a dollar on the street. We have neighborhood newspapers, internationally-renowned magazines of political commentary, and three View-Master reels of Chicago hot dog stands, neon signs, and motor inns, respectively.
We catalog items by everyone who contributed—writers, editors, typesetters, photographers, interns—and link those people together in our catalog so that users can trace the connections between contributors as they move from one publication to the next. We’re building new cataloging software that we eventually hope to provide free of charge to jumpstart other collections. When other cities replicate the model, we’ll be able to track the origin and migration of these ideas from city to city through individuals. Our new catalog and website will be up within the next two months.
We’ve been doing this for close to five years and have accumulated over 2,000 publications. We consider anything intended for public consumption to be “published,” so while our collection is very broad, we draw the line at correspondence or personal journals. Geography is fluid, though. Connections between the publications are more important than strict regional boundaries. Someday we want to collect audio and video, too, but we’d need a pretty serious operating budget to do that and at least one full-time employee. Having only been incorporated for a year and receiving just last week an anonymous donation to cover our 501c3 filing, we still have a little way to go before we get there. Our volunteers are the heart and soul and brains and heavy lifters (figuratively and-- when you have boxes of books involved-- literally) of our organization.
Growing a Strong Volunteer Culture
Every year, thousands of new librarians and archivists graduate from MLS programs. That’s a lot of people who possess a rare set of skills like the ability to conceptually organize complex information, build and maintain databases and web applications, and passionately defend and promote universal access to knowledge (including knowledge that’s controversial or that they themselves may not believe in). This combination of technical ability, neutrality, and fierce belief in freedom of expression is undervalued in society and by many existing library systems. We’re not even talking about “radical librarians.” These are the baseline characteristics of most new grads. Many come work with us because they can’t find work in the field or they’re underemployed in library systems where it will literally take years before they’re allowed to apply their skills toward any innovation.
I’ve been repeatedly told that we’re the only library in Chicago that provides volunteers hands-on experience in collection development, cataloging, community outreach and creating public programs, let alone trusting volunteers to take the lead in these areas. While this is partly a matter of need given our relative youth as an organization and present lack of paid positions, we intend to maintain a strong culture of supporting volunteers (not just volunteers supporting us) no matter how much infrastructure we build. Our volunteers use our 90-person public discussion group for sharing job listings, networking events, and other professional development resources in addition to CUL-related topics. Only about half of our volunteers have direct experience in libraries, but all are enthusiastic about experimenting with what a library could be. The more we ask of them, the more committed they are because they have a stake in seeing their initiatives through and bringing up new folks to help them.
Four years ago while meeting on my living room floor, a group of volunteers devised our cataloging system. It’s based on non-hierarchical keywords instead of nested subject headings and it’s designed to interface with search engines rather than other library databases (for now—some of our librarians are working on making it do both). It’s so intuitive that anyone can learn it, and I encourage the new volunteers, whether or not they have a background in library science (I don’t), to come to our Cataloging Socials that meet every Tuesday ‘til 10pm. This week, they’re only cataloging until 9pm because that’s when the sun goes down and all of our lights have mysteriously stopped working. These evenings are also known as “Worklucks” for anyone to drop in and use the library as an open, communal workspace, a free coffeeshop, complete with free coffee and Wi-Fi. Because he has impeccable timing, our cataloging manager (who does have his MLS) might wander in for the regular meeting. Before he walks the new folks through the catalog, though, he’ll probably recount the boxing match he just finished and show off the halfway-melted outline of a future tattoo drawn in ballpoint pen on his arm.
We start each official meeting with introductions. Never mind your work experience, what do you really want to be doing that the library can help you accomplish?
Some of the new volunteers are high school students, others are college professors. A lot of them are new to the city and looking to make friends. Our inexhaustible assistant director, the web services librarian at a local university who is also spearheading the rebuild of our website and online catalog, managing our interns and keeping track of our paperwork and minutes, arrives with her husband, CUL’s podcast manager and an aspiring comedian who we refer to as The Castmaster. Our programming director will arrive at 7pm on the dot from a six-hour rehearsal of a collaborative devised theater piece seven months in development and will leave early to go to an experimental movement workshop. There will always be volunteers who consistently show up, work hard, and never say a word, let alone about their outside lives, and we’re happy to have them, too.
This week, some of the regular catalogers are re-shelving material from this weekend’s Pop Up Library, our temporary reading room that travels around town providing supplemental local perspective for cultural events and classes. This Pop Up Library just returned from a folk music festival. Participating in events that have little to do directly with books helps develop CUL’s audience, but it also increases the visibility and relevance of the materials in our collection by placing the publications themselves in new contexts.
The shelvers tonight come from the ranks of the Chicago Public Library and the Chicago Public Schools’ libraries. One lives a double life as a soul music collector and DJ. An editor of science journals at one of Chicago’s top universities developed our regular writing workshop, an “alternative MFA” that puts an emphasis on the importance of being a good reader, not just a good writer, and is called Pan Dulces because she supplies the workshop with sweets from her neighborhood bakery.
Why This Matters (to the Public, and hopefully, to You)
A public library can grant you access to all kinds of knowledge, but where do you go to add to that knowledge base and stake your claim as an expert? You go online, and that’s why physical culture is at risk. While more and more people are creating their own media thanks to the internet, there’s an unfortunate paradox in media creation in the physical, local world. I hear writers bemoan the fact that no one but other writers come to their readings. They blame it on the general public reading less. But people who don’t go to readings believe that the readings are only for other writers and that they wouldn’t be welcome. From CUL’s perspective, if you’re reading to other writers, that’s not a problem, it’s a community. If that community is too small for comfort, the trick is not to stress about the lack of passive listeners, but to create and recruit more writers. CUL strives to preserve media, but it’s equally important to us that we encourage existing media cultures and create new access points.
In order for physical media to remain relevant, institutions like libraries and museums have to start looking at the inclusive and collaborative community-building models present in digital media culture. Our collection has a home that people can visit, but we’ll also bring it to them and share it on their platforms: their classrooms, performance spaces, galleries. The collection is history, but it’s also inspiration, example, and a guide to what’s out there for people who want to be actively involved. It’s open to reinterpretation, which we encourage through a series called Orphan Works that asks non-writers to create a derivative work based on our assortment of anonymous publications. CUL helps people who are just starting out or who may have assumed their words didn’t count to get a foothold and not only places them in a collection that values their work, but through our catalog instantly locates them within an interconnected map of the city’s history. Fostering new connections is also why we prefer collaborative programming with other arts and education groups as opposed to developing everything internally.
The Underground Library isn’t just a community archive of things past. We are constantly reaching out, connecting with new people and their work, and providing a home for what they do.