No Print Matter Left Behind

Monday, November 21, 2011


Last week, Chicago’s (unintentionally) transient Read/Write Library moved into their sixth space in six years. What’s a read/write library? They call themselves a “new model for open, location-specific archiving of independent and small press media. We are always seeking books, magazines, zines, journals, broadsides, newspapers, and art books of all types, genres, and print runs from the Chicago area.” Founder Nell Taylor says they are the nation’s only grass-roots-oriented library to house printed works from an entire city. The New York Times recently called it “Chicago’s largest depository of grass-roots printed materials.” For my part, I think of the Read/Write library as having a collection similar in perspective to the stories Studs Terkel, composed of everyday people’s histories.

Asked to illustrate their difference from conventional libraries, Taylor explained that their collection was uber-inclusive. “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 library’s website backs up this panoramic mission noting that they “accept everything from the area (ever), regardless of perceived quality or importance in order to create a detailed index from which connections among the publications will emerge.”

In other words, when perusing their collection, you might come across pamphlets from the ‘30s alongside defunct-‘90s zines, and Columbia College Chicago student-made zine, Mad Licks. In that same spirit, they hold events and workshops and conduct “obsessive cataloguing” for the ephemera that gets donated to their collection. (Their board and staff, incidentally, is all-volunteer.)

Like many arts and nonprofit organizations, acquiring an adequate space has posed problems. Formerly known as the Chicago Underground Library, the Read/Write Library has operated out of everywhere from a coffee shop to a church. Now, with the help of a Humboldt Park landlord (motivated by both refinancing and goodwill towards the project) the new space, a two-story brick building, is a sunny, exposed-brick spot. 

The New York Times remarked about the project, “Taylor’s ambitions go beyond preserving Chicago’s forgotten small-press works and self-published treatises. By cataloguing how local writers influence one another as well as the places where they publish their works, the Read/Write library aims to reconstruct Chicago’s cultural landscape digitally.” On that note, the library hopes to become a model for a new kind of collection and encourages people in other cities to start their own read/write libraries. For more info, check the site.

Or if you’re in Chicago, drop by and browse at the new space. 914 N. California / Walton Entrance / Chicago, IL 60622. Phone: 773.336.2516.