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The Chicago Underground Library

621 W. Belmont, 2nd Fl

Its name is at odds with its elevation, occupying as it does a second-floor room in St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Lakeview, and this fact has probably been fodder for jokes since the Chicago Underground Library moved to its current location about a month ago. But though it now has windows overlooking the street below, the library is still adjusting to the above-ground life -- when I visited the volunteer staff apologized for the church-basement air the lumpy, mismatched furniture gave off and promised that improvements were in the offing. It's no Mansueto, it has no state-of-the-art robotic appendages to probe its unseen depths, but since that gaping pit of scholarship is at least a year off, let's focus on this rather less literal take on the underground library motif.


The Chicago Underground Library occupies an admittedly different niche than the Mansueto, or the University of Chicago Library system in general. Its underground is cultural rather than spatial, and its collection of self-published pamphlets and zines far outstrips the Reg's. The two may differ in focus, but the Chicago Underground Library is an equally serious venture, dedicated to preserving the written record of Chicago -- all written records of Chicago, however inconsequential, ephemeral, or tangential they may seem in light of the established narrative. To this end, the library accepts anything published in the city, from university press monographs to DIY mimeographs. A once-over of the shelves picks out such titles as "My Pre-Trial Detention", a nearly complete run of Lumpen Magazine, Tie-Dyes & Color Lines: Life in the Calumet Region during the 1970s and Maritime Chicago: An Illustrated History.

The library began four years ago with a bang. Over baklava I talked to Nell, one of the founding members of the project, and this is the way she explains it. She had the idea, talked to her boyfriend, they decided they'd get some friends together to discuss it, one friend mentioned the meet-up on the website Gapers Block, The Reader picked up the announcement from Gapers Block, and by the time the time the friends met at the café, whether Nell's idea would be realized was no longer in question -- that question had been answered in the affirmative by the appearance of forty plus new faces and the reams of material they had brought to contribute.

Since that fateful day, the Chicago Underground Library has continued to be met with unsolicited donations, people who had been hording books or magazines from years back and didn't know what to do with them, or people who wanted to open their personal collection to a wider public. Things that when stacked under a bed seemed to have aged beyond their relevance in the context of the CUL now show a picture of a city with many voices and many stories to tell. It's unfortunate that the voices currently shout over each other with little coordination, as they are shelved in a more-or-less haphazard fashion, but that should change when the new cataloging system is unveiled this month. The library also hopes to acquire flat-file storage and other curatorial tools needed to take care of older documents, audio-visual material and storage capacity, and of course new furniture.

The arched windows and chandeliers that come with being in a church annex already bring a library feeling to the CUL's new home. Nell wants to select furniture that will bring a unified and warm feeling to the space, just the kind of place you'd like to curl up with a good book. They're making sure not to go all-out library though -- lest the anarchist punk pamphlets turn over in their shelves -- and to signify their distinctness, the CUL recently inaugurated its Loud Library event, because in this library you don't have to whisper. Among the performers to take the stage -- and these guys seem really cool, I wish I had been there to hear them - was a group called Chicago Phonography, presenting unprocessed recordings of soundscapes from Chicago's neighborhoods. The group hopes that in listening to their work you'll think about the city in a different way, which is exactly what the Chicago Underground Library is attempting with their work.

Nell hopes to get the library registered as an official historical archives by the city, which would allow one volunteer, a schoolteacher, to bring her students here to do research for the annual Chicago History Fair. Already the library has seen students and scholars come by to do research, though that's not its only use, she points out. The CUL is a great place for newcomers to Chicago to get acquainted with the city, or -- and she says she gets a few of these every year -- graduates from the University of Chicago who say they've lived in the city for four years but have never before had to leave Hyde Park.

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