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Interview: Nell Taylor and Emerson Dameron, Founders of Chicago Underground Library

By Keidra Chaney in Miscellaneous on Apr 5, 2007 4:30PM

cul_pic_4_4_07.jpgProbably due in part to cabin fever as a result of our insanely cold winters, Chicago can be pretty hardcore about its literature. Small-press publishing enthusiasts Nell Taylor and Emerson Dameron decided to channel their love of local lit into a public service by co-founding the Chicago Underground Library last year.

Located in the basement of MoJoe’s Hothouse (2849 W. Belmont), a cozy Northwest-side coffeehouse that has graciously donated the space, CUL is an archive of small-press and independent literary magazines, books, comics, poetry chapbooks — and publications that defy categorization — all published by past and present Chicago authors and publishers. The year-old space is open to the public on Saturday afternoons, and Taylor and Dameron are already planning to expand the project with programming and events, including a reading series featuring “orphan” and anonymous work from their collection, starting in May.

Chicagoist met up with the self-proclaimed “Chicago’s sexiest librarians” at Lincoln Park’s Bourgeois Pig coffeehouse, a fitting literary-themed spot for word nerds to wax poetic about cataloging, the Dewey Decimal System — and Google stalking.

Chicagoist: So this pretty much started out as a group e-mail to a bunch of people….

Nell Taylor: We sent out an e-mail to maybe a dozen people, just a handful of our friends. It outlined the project, it was a pretty simple, silly e-mail, but Gapers Block printed it verbatim. We still get crap to this day for signing it “Chicago’s sexiest librarians.” So yeah, Gapers Block picked it up, then the Reader from there. Chicago Journal did an interview with us, and before we knew it, at this meeting we had 40 people show up at Mercury Café. So that was sort of like a really good vote of confidence to [think] that "OK, maybe this something that is actually necessary."

C: Where did you get the first acquisitions?

Emerson Dameron: Personal collections or donations from friends. I used to put out a magazine, and a lot of my friends put out their own writing, so we have a lot of stuff to draw from. We know some people that have been putting out magazines for about 30 issues, so we just asked them, "Hey can we have all of your back issues?" Usually they had a fire trap’s worth of magazines lying around that they were trying to get rid of. After the first meeting, those people gave us other people to talk to. We still get [unsolicited submissions] at our P.O. box occasionally. It’s just branched out from our friends, basically.

NT: The biggest fire trap was Punk Planet. They actually gave us about six boxes when we were not very far along, and they were completely unsorted, so it was pretty much everything they had been putting away since they first started. It pretty much doubled the collection. We have their entire print run.

ED: We’ve had some pretty large-scale donations, but that was a watershed.

C: Are you guys actually trained as librarians?

NT: I was going to go to library school. It was one of those things where there are only 19 programs in the country, and only one that was doing the kind of work I was interested in, and that was in Brooklyn. I wasn’t really in a position to leave Chicago, so I decided to put that idea on hold and work on this project instead.

ED: Our idea was to just go ahead and be librarians without getting any papers stamped.

NT: The cool thing is we’ve been able to through word-of-mouth … get the librarian community in Chicago, quite a few library students and librarians in Chicago, whether they are academic or public librarians, to work with us as volunteers and help guide us to be a little more professional in what we do.

ED: That’s where the really pedantic in-fighting comes in…

NT: The first two meetings we had, it was like the claws came out, [librarians] just started bashing the Dewey Decimal System left and right. It got ugly.

C: So what do you use to classify and catalog the books you get?

NT: Actually what we use is really driven by our use of the internet, and it’s not exactly a tag-based system, we do everything by keyword because our catalog is accessible online, if you come to the space and look something up by category, you’ll be using our online catalog to search.

Another thing we do, is that … there is never such a thing as an “et al” in our catalog. We list every single contributor [to a publication].

ED: It’s time consuming.

NT: But if you are trying to build something where you are cataloging a community, which is what we are doing, it’s interesting to find out that this one person who just did the typesetting on a magazine, that 10-15 years later they went on to publish this very important book. If you overlook the people that might have just made small contributions, you may lose part of the timeline when you are trying to figure out what went on in this one particular scene.

ED: It also helps if you’re thinking about dating someone, you can look them up and see if they put out some really offensive magazine five years ago….

NT: [laughs] It’s basically just a really complicated way to stalk people.

C: Like Google stalking, but more specific. And the small-press and independent-publishing scene is already pretty small, and tight-knit to begin with.…

ED: And kind of balkanized. There are little factions, with people and their friends who are doing a magazine or a comic, but they don’t know that there is someone two El stops down doing the same thing, so part of what we’re doing is trying to get people to have a bigger picture of what’s going on in that scene.

NT: It’s not by accident, I think, that the MCA called its reading series last year “The Literary Gangs of Chicago.”

ED: It’s been eye-opening for me because there have been people doing things for years, that I didn’t know about at all. It’s given me a bit of perspective.

C: What’s one of the coolest things you’ve acquired?

NT: A bunch of old small Gwendolyn Brooks chapbooks, stuff she self-published in the 80's. It’s just cool, especially for our educational outreach, to show a kid who knows about her from school and thinks, "Well, I’m never going to get to do that." They can look at what she put together and compare it to something big and glossy that they see about her and her work.