Moving on up
The Chicago Underground Library gets an apartment in the sky.
For an institution that has had four locations in as many years, the Chicago Underground Library has laid down some deep roots.
Though started in just 2006, the library has amassed decades of materials, culling from the city’s vaunted zine scene and other impermanent literatures. In fact, the library’s executive director, Nell Taylor, tells us a story about the library serving as a crucial resource. A man, trying to get in touch with a friend of his mother’s after she had passed away, could find no mention of the woman anywhere. But Google found her name in CUL’s archives—the only occurrence on the Web.
“We ended up contacting the editor of the zine, because I knew who he was,” she says. “When you start creating these community webs, you have to be prepared for how people are going to use them. It’s been a really interesting social experiment.”
CUL is hoping to expand that social circle a bit, now that it has moved into a new space in Lakeview, on the second floor of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Friends of the library, storefront company Red Tape Theatre, had already moved into the floor and offered up the lobby space to the library. The room augurs well for the library as it enters a new era of stability. After sprouting in the basement of a coffee shop and bouncing around for a few years, CUL has incorporated, gathered a board of directors and has almost attained 501(c)(3) status, Taylor says.
And in the new space, with a new partner in Red Tape, the library’s launching a new initiative called the Storefront Theater Project, a “collection within a collection,” that will catalog scripts, playbills and handbills from the city’s vibrant fringe-theater scene. The suggestion came during an open house, when someone asked if the library would archive audio and video of shows. That seemed like a tall order, but including the paper detritus from the theater scene made sense.
“How many shows come up and come down in one night or one week in this city?” asks Taylor. “It has the same ephemeral nature of a lot of the zines that we collect.”
Taylor says she’s hoping to collect scripts from some of the larger theaters in town, too, the way the library accumulates materials from the university presses.
The library held its first open house in the new space at the end of January, and Taylor says it was able to accommodate about 50 people comfortably. That’s good news, considering it’ll need the space for Loud Library, the new series beginning at the end of the month, which will feature bands and readings. This month’s show will feature the World Listening Project, a field recording group (so Taylor says this month’s won’t be a Loud Library so much as a “soft and textured” library). And every Tuesday night, as librarians meet to catalog, they’ll host Worklucks, where people can come in and drink coffee and work on whatever projects they have going.
“We want to encourage people to think of this as a living thing,” says Taylor. “It’s not just a repository. It’s a place for people to come and think about how they can create new work out of what’s here or be inspired by what’s here.”
The library’s new space is at 621 W Belmont Ave, and drop-in hours are Tuesday 7–10pm and Saturday and Sunday, 1–5pm. Visit underground-library.org for more information.