Interview with underground librarians Nell Taylor and Emerson Dameron
By Randy Richardson
To the city's small presses and independent publishers, the Chicago Underground Library is a project that is, well, long overdue.
But it's a safe bet that they'll foregive a late fee for Nell Taylor and Emerson Dameron, CUL's founders.
That's because Taylor and Dameron have provided what many of them have been seeking for a long time: a home for their literary works.
The CUL is hardly what you expect when you think of a library. To start with, its physical collection is housed in the basement of a coffee shop (MoJoe's Hot House at 2849 W. Belmont). Like most libraries, there's a searchable online catalogue . Unlike most libraries, some of the literary works in that collection will soon be digitized so that they can be read online.
Just don't go there looking for the works of Stephen King or John Grisham. You won't find any of their books there. Same goes for just about any best-selling author, for that matter. If that's what you're seeking, you can go to your local public library.
What you will find are literary works that you probably will have a hard time finding anywhere else. What other library in Chicago, for example, would accept photocopied one-sheet poems by homeless men with one name?
The CUL's aim is to create an archive of self- and small press-published works in Chicago. Since launching earlier this year, its collection including fiction, critical journals, zines, poetry, comics, political pamphlets, and art books, has already grown to about 800.
Now check out what the CUL founders have to say about their ambitious project. No library card needed.
CWA : Please tell our readers a little about yourselves. Just who are Nell Tayler and Emerson Dameron?
Nell : I work in fine arts admin for a living; I draw strange little things and look at buildings in my spare time. I’ve variously considered careers in film criticism, illustration, historic preservation, library science, community activism, graphic design, playwriting, installation art, junk store management, experimental fiction, and when questioned at the age of four, I told my parents I wanted to be a basket of laundry. I’d be happy doing just about anything.
Emerson : I grew up in Nebo, NC. I graduated from the University of Georgia with a worthless degree in journalism. I’ve been teased about my interest in fireworks.
CWA : Are you writers and, if so, what kind of writing do you do? Can we find any of your works in the public libraries?
Emerson : I’ve dabbled in it. While I was in college, I started writing for an alt-weekly, which quickly spoiled me for honest labor. I’ve contributed to a number of magazines and websites, most of them fairly subterranean. I put out several issues of a zine called Wherewithal. I’m not often happy with my stuff, and I’ve tried to quit several times, but I keep coming back to it. If you’ve seen anything I wrote, it was probably in Newcity Chicago, which sometimes publishes my impressionistic journalism.
Nell : I write and illustrate comics sporadically. I’m prolificacy-challenged, and despite going to school to be a screenwriter and finishing in film criticism, I no longer write screenplays or film theory. I would like to write and create more, and I hope that this project will help similarly stuck people get out of their ruts and back on the road to production.
CWA : Are you native Chicagoans?
Nell : I split my childhood between Humboldt Park and the Western suburb of Oak Park, and returned to my native near west side as soon as I possibly could.
Emerson : I’m from Western North Carolina. I moved to Chicago in 2003 so I could take advantage of its glorious mass transit system.
CWA : Tell us about the Chicago Underground Library. It sounds all dark and mysterious. What is it, and how did it come about?
Nell : I started forming the idea for the Chicago Underground Library (you can call us CUL) three years ago. The idea was to have a location-specific library which would help bring the diverse publishing community of Chicago together to share ideas, solutions, and find commonalities despite their genre, circulation, or production quality differences. The intent was for it to also function as a resource center, where new work could be inspired as much as the archived work appreciated.
So I started telling people about it, and people were like, “Yeah, that’s a good idea. You should do it.” And I was all like, “Yeah, but I can’t do it myself.” And they were like, “Oh. That’s too bad. I have to go buy some clothespins now.” So then I met Emerson who had been fighting the good fight in all things independent media for close to a decade. Armed with his experience and firsthand understanding of the needs of independent and small presses, we took the idea to the people. The first community meeting was in February, and 40 people showed up, less than half of whom we knew. We got a tremendous amount of insight and changed many of our plans and directions based on the input from this first meeting. We continue to be driven by the suggestions of those who would benefit from this project.
CWA : You describe yourselves on your website as "Chicago's sexiest librarians." How did the two of you get that title? Was their an actual vote or poll taken, or did you make that declaration on your own?
Nell : Well, we wrote this semi-press release, which we circulated to about a dozen of our friends. (This was for the meeting in February.) In this release, to close friends, we referred to ourselves as “Chicago’s sexiest librarians.” Of course, the release ended up distributed much more widely than we had anticipated, with the title intact, to complete and total strangers who had no prior knowledge of our sexiness or lack thereof. Whatever sells.
CWA : Are either or both of you true librarians? Did you study library sciences, or whatever it is you study to become a librarian?
Nell : There are only a handful of schools in the country where one can go to study library science. There is only one school in the country where one can go to simultaneously study library science and art history. And that school is in Brooklyn. I’d been planning to apply there in order to get this project off the ground, but a number of circumstances led me to being Chicago-bound. After hanging out on a number of librarian-related discussion lists, I began to wonder whether library science was the way I wanted to go; there was a lot of talk about the distaste for new ideas in the industry. If you’re inclined to research, however, there is an amazing amount of information on information science online. So you can study that, as other librarians study the same materials, but you probably won’t get your gold star from the ALA that way.
Emerson : I’m not a librarian in any formal sense. I’m a proofreader by trade, and I dig details. I enjoy organizing and cataloging things in the same way that some people enjoy fussing over baseball stats and crossword puzzles.
CWA : Is the CUL just Internet-based, or do you have an actual physical space where you can touch and read the materials in it?
Nell & Emerson : We do have a physical space, which is the core of the project. We are located in the basement of MoJoe’s Hot House at 2849 W. Belmont. The internet presence was intended as a supplement, not a substitute to the natural community and creativity that can be born from being in an actual library.
CWA : How big is your current collection? How big to you envision it becoming further down the road?
Nell & Emerson: Our current collection, we estimate, is around 800. In the last week alone, we received donations of about 30 individual publications that fit our collection (along with at least 100 more that didn’t.) We’d like it to be as big as we can make it. We anticipate we will probably outgrow our current home, but we hope that we can keep up with it and eventually establish a permanent space large enough to serve as a community center and to house a growing collection.
CWA : What kind of materials is CUL interested in? And how does one go about getting their own work(s) into the CUL? Can just anyone submit their written works to the CUL, or is there a screening process?
Nell & Emerson : The CUL is interested in anything and everything written in or around Chicago or by those whose ties to the community are very strong. We don’t make quality judgments on the materials we collect because that would eliminate many things which are essential to understanding the history and development of the publishing community and the city at large. We’re interested in art books, full length novels, handmade poetry chapbooks, glossy magazines, Xeroxed political pamphlets, music zines, literary anthologies, news and current events publications... Any size, format, theme, circulation, as long as it was made independently or by a small press and particularly if it’s of obvious local interest. All you have to do is get in contact with us and fill out the donation form available on our website (which provides us with information on what you’re donating, as well as a way to let us know if you want us to make your work available on our website as a PDF.) You can send your donations, along with the form, to Nell Taylor and Emerson Dameron, PO BOX 11040, Chicago, IL, 60611-040.
CWA : How difficult has it been getting the CUL off the ground? What have been the biggest challenges? Surprises?
Nell & Emerson : Honestly, the biggest challenge has been from our personal lives intruding. We’re working to expand the support network of the CUL and develop a board so that the library’s fate doesn’t just rest on two people. We’ve been incredibly lucky to have amazing people volunteering with us from the start, on the business and legal side as well as the professional information science and technical development side.
CWA : Do you find that mainstream libraries are supportive of the CUL?
Nell & Emerson : It tends to be on a person-by-person basis. We’ve talked to a number of librarians in both the public and academic spheres who have been extremely helpful, and we’ve also encountered one or two snide emails from librarians who don’t take us seriously. Which we have absolutely no problem with. A lot of the techniques we’re trying and the experimentation with which we’re approaching this project flies in the face of the idea of librarianism being an exact science. There is no way to scientifically treat the variety of materials we collect: photocopied one-sheet poems by homeless men with one name, things we found hanging in trees which turned out to be elaborate art projects... Our volunteers who work in libraries on a daily basis find that they have much more flexibility and cause to use their creativity and research acumen with us than they would ever have a chance to in a mainstream position.
CWA : What's your take on Chicago's literary scene?
Nell & Emerson : There are a lot of amazing things going on here, but there doesn’t seem to be a tremendous audience for them outside of other writers and artists. As a result, a lot of people seem to develop an “every man for himself” approach to dealing with getting their work out there; that or they stay very insulated within groups of people who are doing the same things they are in order to have a built in audience. We’ve had this confirmed by a number of other lit scene veterans. There’s a strong need for more dialogue and support between creative people in Chicago.
CWA : What is your ultimate goal for the CUL? Ten years down the road, what do you envision for the CUL?
Nell & Emerson : We would like it to be a self-contained space that can support the library as well as provide work space and room for workshops, writers groups, critique, discussion... Community outreach involving technology training for those who want to publish their own books but don’t know how, or helping people become exposed to the history of their neighborhoods. We’d also like to see it become a center for research that can create an alternative voice to what one might find in the public libraries or the historical society.
CWA : Here's where you get to say anything else that you weren't asked about but wanted to discuss.
Nell & Emerson : This would probably be a good place to talk about our volunteers and some of the more technical aspects of running this project. From the beginning, we’ve been very concerned with doing this the right way and finding the means to achieve balance among the incredibly broad range of philosophies and approaches taken by publishers and writers in this city. We strive to be wholly independent of any political or creative favoritism... You won’t find any agendas here. Our volunteers also span generations, politics, and professional levels. We’ve been extremely lucky to have the time of professionals in the business, legal, technological, educational, and, of course, library fields help us figure out the way to build this into a lasting resource and community center. And we’ve been extremely lucky to have the energy and idealism of people who are relatively new to the professional game (or just not interested in it at all) on our side. We find that whether someone has been publishing and editing the works of others for thirty years or has just Xeroxed five copies of their first zine on the sly during study hall, each can help us better round out our collection and programming. The idea is to get to everyone talking to each other, not for us to be intermediaries.