The day after the presidential election, the Wednesday morning adult ESL class at Wright College Humboldt Park took a field trip, heading south on California Avenue to the Read/Write Library. The class, consisting largely of women from Mexico and Central America, was working on writing personal stories based on neighborhood photos. Nell Taylor, the Read/Write’s executive director—and also its founder, head librarian, programming director, and chief ambassador—brought out a pile of books of pictures and poetry and personal essays in both English and Spanish for the students to look through.
None of these books was The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros’s famous story collection, though that would seem a logical choice, since Cisneros based it on her memories of growing up on Campbell Avenue, just a few blocks away. But the Read/Write Library doesn’t have a copy of The House on Mango Street. Unlike most libraries, its goal isn’t to assemble a carefully curated collection of books and periodicals that approximate a cross-section of all human knowledge. Its ambitions are both more humble and more grand.
The Read/Write library is, instead, a repository of pamphlets, zines, community plans, oral histories, neighborhood newspapers, literary magazines from CPS schools and state prisons, parish-church and settlement-house cookbooks, self-published poetry and novels, and other ephemera that, taken together, tells the story of Chicago by Chicagoans in their own words, not filtered through the perspectives of academics or journalists. Most people read to find connections in the world, but at the Read/Write Library those connections are immediate: you may find yourself reading about your own neighborhood, about people you already know.
The Wright students looked through, among other things, Unexpected Chicagoland, a collection of photographs by Camilo José Vergara; exhibition catalogs from the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture; photo zines produced by students at Benito Juarez Community Academy (one centered around pigeons was especially popular); a chapbook of poetry by Carlos Cortez, De Kansas a Califas & Back to Chicago; and Gallery Humboldt Park, a zine from the late 80s or early 90s produced by women connected to Association House, a neighborhood nonprofit that provides health and educational services.
“It was interesting to read books from our community,” says Laurina Cervantes, one of the students. She had immigrated to Chicago from Guerrero, Mexico. “We looked at a book from a guy who lived in Pilsen. He was telling about his family. It wasn’t a big book. It was not expensive. It was folded paper. He was telling part of his life, like eating beans every day, how big was his family, the routine of life in the USA. It was like my life. When you’re an immigrant, you don’t think too much about education. You think about working.”
Cervantes hadn’t known about the library before, but she planned to return during winter break and bring her kids.
“To see that the first morning after the election reaffirms that we’re needed and our work matters,” Taylor says.
For the past year and half, she’d been in doubt. The Read/Write Library was undergoing what she described in more optimistic moments as “growing pains.” Several longtime volunteers had left the library for babies and out-of-town jobs, and Taylor had failed to get grants that would have supplemented the donations that form the bulk of the library’s budget. She spent a lot of time going back and forth between wondering if anyone would care if she closed the library down and feeling like she couldn’t close it because she’d be letting the community down. “If you’re cycling back and forth between such extreme feelings,” she says, “neither is right.”
Taylor is more given to reasonable compromise than to drama. She’s 34 and has the sort of calm, cheerful, how-can-I-help-you demeanor you’d expect from a librarian, although she never actually went to library school. She’s tall, with short hair swept to one side, and has a penchant for thrift-store sweaters and dramatically oversize earrings.
As Taylor watched Cervantes and her classmates pore over books and chapbooks, she began to feel better. This was exactly how the library was meant to function. The women were seeing that you didn’t have to be a grand and important person to have your words matter enough to be preserved in a library. You could be a Chicago woman practicing your English by writing stories about your life and your neighborhood.
Taylor also began to realize that if people were frightened that their civil liberties would be taken away, it was even more important in the present moment that the library continue its mission and find new ways of, as Taylor puts it, “making people understand their stories are important and valuable.”
The Read/Write Library began in the middle of a snowstorm nearly 11 years ago, in February, 2006, at the Mercury Cafe on Chicago Avenue. Taylor had sent out an e-mail to her friends asking if anyone would be interested in meeting to discuss a community library. One of those friends, Andrew Huff, mistook it for a press release and published it as an event notice on his website, Gapers Block. Forty people showed up, and not just with ideas, but also with books, magazines, and library skills. “So I thought, I guess I’m doing this all of a sudden,” Taylor recalls now.
Taylor had actually conceived the idea three years earlier, when she was still a student at Columbia College. She was studying film, but realized she knew very little about the rest of the Chicago arts community. She wanted to have a way to encourage collaboration between different kinds of artists. In high school, she’d been on the Oak Park Library teen administrative council, where she organized a weekly poetry slam and saw how libraries could bring people together. “There’s a low barrier of entry for a library,” she explains. “Anyone can walk in.”
Her library, which she originally called the Chicago Underground Library, would be a completely accessible community resource. It would not be a white-gloves archive with everything locked away in boxes. It would consist mostly of original materials, not digital reproductions or microfilm, in order to make the history and culture feel tangible and concrete.
As materials continued to accumulate under the stereo in Taylor’s apartment, she began thinking about ways to organize them. The librarians introduced her to arguments about naming, hierarchy, and identity that were taking place in library circles, in particular the philosophy of radical cataloging.
The radical catalogers wanted to take the power to assign labels and hierarchies from the hands of librarians and give it back to the users. Traditional libraries organize materials by a standardized system—the Library of Congress and Dewey Decimal are the most popular—that uses a hierarchy of prescribed terms to classify and shelve each item. In order to find something, you need to understand the specialized language of the library search engine, which usually requires some training. Also, the prescribed terms can be outdated or reflect the prejudices of the people who came up with them, like, for instance, using “illegal immigrant” instead of “undocumented.”
Over a series of heated debates, fueled by beer and pizza, Taylor and the Chicago Underground volunteer librarians decided that since most of the material they were collecting existed outside of traditional publishing, their catalog would have to be organized outside of traditional library systems. They decided to classify items under multiple keywords, using the sort of terms someone from the community might type into a search engine (known in librarian circles as “natural language”), and identify every single contributor so visitors could see how different people worked together and influenced each other over time. There would also be a comments section for each listing so that users could suggest additional search terms or share stories or other details. Everything would be shelved alphabetically within the type of publication—books with books, zines with zines—in order to encourage one of the greatest joys of library browsing: stumbling across something wonderful and unexpected that you never knew you were looking for. The only criteria for accepting material was that it had to be from Chicago and that it had been intended for public consumption, not a personal letter or diary.
The library’s early history was nomadic—it moved five times in as many years. Its homes ranged from a file cabinet in the basement of Mojoe’s Coffeehouse in Avondale to the lobby of the Congress Theater to a church in Lakeview where the windows blew open during a blizzard and buried a third of the collection in a snowbank. (Miraculously, everything was saved.) In 2011 it moved into its current location, a former metalworking studio in the back of a former bar at the corner of California and Walton. The landlord built the space out for the library, adding bathrooms, a kitchen, a gas fireplace, and a storage loft. He painted the walls bright turquoise and gave Taylor a break on the rent. Taylor and her volunteers assembled a collection of thrift-store couches, bookshelves, and folding chairs and tables, plus an ungainly wooden ticket booth, and created a cozy and welcoming space. Around the time they moved in, Taylor changed the name to Read/Write Library; too many people, she found, associated “underground” with the criminal underworld.
As the collection grew, the purpose of the library evolved too. After the blizzard catastrophe, while the library was still searching for a permanent home, Taylor experimented with a series of site-specific pop-up events around the city with specially curated collections about each location. One of these, at the nightclub Berlin, with material about Lakeview and Boystown, generated a particularly strong response.
“There’s an element of recognition that starts to disarm people,” Taylor says. “People would respond to things they remembered and places they used to go to, friends who had died. They were gathered around the table telling stories. It’s a neat way to make a publication live again.”
When the Read/Write Library came to Wicker Park, students from 826CHI, the nonprofit writing center for kids, stopped by to look at material about Wicker Park and the neighborhoods where they lived and went to school.
“We asked them who knew the neighborhood best,” Taylor recalls. “They said, ‘Librarians! Teachers!’ They asked questions, and the questions were intense: ‘Are things always this violent?’ We asked them, ‘How can you have an effect?’ We told them, ‘Maybe it’s not the librarians or teachers who have the answers.’ Different people who you may not have expected might know the answers about what people want from the future.”
This encapsulates the current philosophy of the Read/Write Library: that the best answers about the history of a neighborhood come from the people who live or lived there. That’s why the catalog is accessible by Google: many people have discovered the library by searching for their own names or the names of their friends and relatives. At the moment, Read/Write contains about 6,000 items. Only 1,742 of them have been cataloged.
Maryam Heidaripour is a PhD student at IIT who’s working with the library on its organizational design as part of her dissertation on utopian local communities. “The Read/Write Library envisions a utopian future where citizens are involved in history,” she says. “History isn’t being given to them, but they’re contributing bits and pieces of their knowledge of local history and events.”
Heidaripour notes that many urban designers start their projects from scratch, assuming that nobody bothered to preserve old community plans or histories for them to build on. But she found that the Read/Write Library has a large collection of community plans, some going as far back as the 1950s, when neighborhood activists were discussing, in language that seems appallingly racist today, what to do about the “Negros” moving into Lawndale. (Some of these plans came from a single donor, who stored his entire collection in a rotting paper bag, which he handed over to Taylor at a meeting at a McDonald’s in the Loop.) “Preserving these things is superhelpful,” she says, “especially if you want to build the future of the community. No other library preserves these things.”
Taylor also loves the old sociological materials and finds them useful for explaining present-day social justice movements. “It gives you an idea of why people did things,” she explains, “what they were thinking, what they were responding to. Social justice outreach is really important, but I think it’s really vital to collect material about the systems people were reacting against in the first place.”
One former volunteer made a habit of reviewing old social-justice-oriented publications on the library’s blog. “He looked at the things they got right and wrong, as a way of interrogating people’s good intentions,” Taylor says. “This is relevant to conversations people are having in social justice movements right now about intention versus outcome. It’s what groups like Black Lives Matter and woman- and POC-led movements have been talking about: it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to do good if what actually happens is reinforcing stereotypes of a neighborhood.”
Pat Carr, a volunteer who for the past three years has been the library’s chief cataloger, is particularly fond of a zine called Damaged Mentality. Produced by someone with a brain injury, it contains descriptions of daily life and random bits of information, like a recipe for vegetarian gravy. “It feels like a personal connection, a very journalistic, intimate connection,” Carr says. “It’s not holding back because a lot of people are going to read it. There’s a lot of value in that, in being able to get a strong personal connection to what someone is going through in life that’s very different from their own.” There’s a Gmail address on the back of the zine, but Carr has never been moved to contact the author. The experience of reading is already too personal, he says, almost voyeuristic.
Taylor is very careful not to say that the library is “giving people a voice.” What the library does is give them an audience: “We want to help them find an audience, and for the audience to find them.”
Taylor conceived of the Read/Write Library as an entirely community-driven project. She rejected the traditional nonprofit model of a paid staff and a governing board in favor of volunteers, beholden to no one. The promotional materials had a DIY aesthetic, with hand-drawn graphics. It experimented with a wide range of programming, depending on the whims and interests of its volunteers: a librarian dance party, a science fair of unpublished work, a puppet show in which an archivist debated library theory with Death, a literal book launch with a trebuchet, and a bookmobile-on-a-bike called BiblioTreka. It had its bad periods—most notably when Taylor contracted flesh-eating bacteria—but most of the time, it had enough volunteers and donations to keep going. “We’d been powered by kids in their 20s with endless time and energy,” Taylor says. “Time is a privilege.”
But when six of the core volunteers left within one four-month period in 2014, Taylor found herself doing most of the work alone, which, along with her day job as a data and user-experience consultant, resulted in 90-hour workweeks. She didn’t want to abandon the volunteer culture she’d spent so many years cultivating, but she began to wonder if it was time the library grew up too, so she could have some permanent help.
In 2015 Taylor was one of National Arts Strategies’ Creative Community Fellows. Part of the program involved a weeklong retreat in Norfolk, Connecticut, where she was forced to reflect on what she wanted the future of the library to look like. She met with mentors who helped her design a new organizational model—one that still had a place for the volunteers—and yelled at her for not appealing to her network of friends in the community for help. It was all very businesslike, but it helped Taylor realize that growing up was not a betrayal of her earlier ideals.
“One thing we talked about was, ‘Who is this for? Who is going to use this and care about this and why?’ ” she says. “And what people need is not for us to uphold some sense of integrity with rules we created for ourselves that were never realistic in the first place.”
The result is a new model for a grown-up Read/Write Library, with professionally drawn graphics, program evaluations, a board of directors, one paid employee, and, if all goes well, a bigger new space, with a reading room and classrooms. In order to cover expenses, Taylor rents out the library as an event space: so far it has hosted meetings for community groups, a site-specific production of King Lear, and two weddings, the most recent of which left a flock of paper cranes lined up on bookshelves and tucked into the corners of display cases.
The first big new program, a book club called Hungry for Stories, in tribute to Studs Terkel, is already under way. It’s a deliberately eclectic collection of work from Chicago publishers—January’s selection is Zoe Zolbrod‘s memoir The Telling, while February’s is Color Me Rising, a coloring book from For the People Artists Collective, and March’s is This Is a Dance Movie!, a collection of short stories by Tim Jones-Yelvington. Membership is for a minimum of three months and includes copies of all the books; the cost ranges from $21 to $27 a month, depending on the length of the subscription.
The Read/Write Library is small, just 600 square feet, large enough for 20 people to sit comfortably for a book-club meeting; when Taylor first envisioned the project, she didn’t think it would reach capacity. But by the registration cutoff at the end of December, 30 people had signed up, and the proceeds were enough to help cover the salary of a part-time staff member. Taylor’s not sure where she’ll put them all, but since 12 of them won’t be starting till February this is, she notes, a very good problem to have.
The book club was planned before the election, but now that Taylor has seen the outcome, the project has taken on special urgency.
“Since the election,” she says, “people have been focused on what they can do and how they can connect with other people and pop that filter bubble. As the book club evolves, there are some concrete discussions that start from this. We’re talking about this as trying to grow a community of people who are trying to read outside their comfort zone and think about why we value the stories we value. This is inherently political.”
The library world, and by extension, the Read/Write Library, has always been concerned about civil liberties, especially issues of privacy and information protection. But the election and the subsequent news about Russian hackers has given this issue urgency as well. In the upcoming months, the library will host workshops on privacy and encryption.
Taylor has been thinking more about the related issue of trust. Some of the work in the library, especially the zines, is deeply personal. Although it was published, which creates the assumption that it was intended for public consumption, perhaps it was only for a very small audience of people known to the creator (similar to the difference now between a blog and a subscriber-only e-mail newsletter). Some potential donors Taylor has approached are concerned that their work will be taken out of context, or somehow used to hurt the community; she’s been able to assuage most of these concerns by explaining the catalog system.
Other people, though, have been genuinely shocked that anyone would be interested in collecting their work and are resistant to letting it go. “Those have been harder to overcome,” Taylor says. “People have internalized this idea over the years that what they produce doesn’t matter.”
That’s one of the reasons Taylor wants to work on reaching out to more areas around the city: she wants people to be able to connect with what’s been lost or hidden about their communities and to know that their writing does matter, even beyond the boundaries of their blocks and neighborhoods. This is especially important now when the Oxford English Dictionary has declared “post-truth” the word of 2016, fake news is a real concern, and we’re facing a new president who campaigned on the notion that in order to make our country great again, large numbers of people would have to be silenced and even deported.
“It’s really weird to be in a position where you don’t know if you’re being totally rational or a conspiracy theorist, to think we could be in a Fahrenheit 451 state any minute,” Taylor says. “It’s a weird place to be after eight years of thinking about—I wouldn’t say complacency, but thinking what we were doing had become less urgent.” She pauses. “It’s a damn good thing focusing on strategy and scale and infrastructure right now.” v