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A New Flavor Of A Community Library

By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 28, 2010 7:20PM

[Photo by Chicago Underground Library]
When we think libraries, we think books wrapped in shiny see-through plastic. Although libraries these days offer quite a bit more, the basic system operates like so: check out a book and read it (or don't). Bring it back and get another one (or don't). Chicago Underground Library, which will be celebrating its grand reopening this Saturday, is based on a bit of a different model. It aims to be a memory jogger, community builder, and self-perpetuating growing organism. So Chicago Underground Library asks its patrons to spend time looking through its collection of local media, then bring something back to help that collection grow. As of now, the library boasts about 2,000 local books, zines, journals, newspapers and magazines. And now that they're in a new location, they're ready for more.

The thinking behind Chicago Underground Library has to do with Chicago's rich history — a history that includes segregation between communities. How will people care enough to breach the cultural and creative barriers between their communities if they feel they have nothing in common? Chicago Underground Library founder Nell Taylor had an idea. Collect a paper trail of independent and small press media produced in Chicago. Invite people to contribute to it. Accept it all, even if it isn’t professional or mainstream or widely known. As long the authors produced or published the work in Chicago, it counts; that's how David Sedaris made it to the collection. He published some work in Whitewalls when he was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago in the '80s. And once the collection starts growing, people will begin to see all that they share. Maybe they remember that out-of-print community newspaper from when they were kids. Maybe they saw those poems hung along Division Street. These shared experiences build relationships.

As a non-profit with volunteer only staff, Chicago Underground Library looks to the community to not only help build the collection, but also to steer the library's expansion in the right direction. This Saturday, the library will hold a community meeting in tandem with its reopening. Taylor says this is an opportunity to understand the relationships people have with the Chicago press. In fact, she prefers those who aren't in Chicago's literary loop. It's yet another isolated community, and Taylor wants the input of writers, artists and publishers outside of it. Bringing outsiders in will bring the Chicago Underground Library closer to its goal. Show people how they are related through any type of written material, and get them to come back for more.

Chicago Underground Library Grand Opening and Community Meeting is Saturday January 30, at 621. W. Belmont, 2nd Floor, 3 p.m.