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Writers cut their work loose at Chicago Underground Library’s Science of Obscurity event tonight

July 10, 2009 – Rejection letters have it coming.

Writers, publishers, bookmakers and bookworms of all types will come together for food, drink, mingling, and to celebrate the darker side of writers’ lives – by trebuchet catapulting their rejection letters and literary works down the block.

From 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. tonight at Jupiter Outpost (1139 W. Fulton Market), the Chicago Underground Library will host its first ever “Science of Obscurity” event. All are welcome and admission is free to this official lead up to the Printers’ Ball, July 31 at Columbia College’s Center for Book and Paper Arts.

Local, national and international writers will also be stopping by to give some insights (serious, lighthearted and otherwise) into their work.

The Chicago Underground Library houses independent and small-press literary treasures from local authors. Books, magazines, zines, journals, newspapers, art books, broadsides and more call the Underground Library home.

ChicagoTalks sat down with Nell Taylor, the non-profit’s founder and director. Here’s what she had to say about today’s writers, getting her library off the (under)ground, and the Science of Obscurity event:

Q. How did the Underground Library get started?

Volunteers Brendan Denison (left) and Kimberly Sessoms catelogue the collection at the Chicago Underground Library. By Erica Christoffer
Volunteers Brendan Denison (left) and Kimberly Sessoms catelogue the collection at the Chicago Underground Library. By Erica Christoffer

A. It was totally by accident in 2006. I had the idea for a little while. My boyfriend and I sent an e-mail to some of our friends to see if they wanted to get together at a coffee shop and talk about it. Well, one of his friends works for Gapers Block and posted it on that site, then the Reader picked it up and the Chicago Journal. We ended up with 40 people at our first meeting. It was a vote of confidence for what we wanted to do.

Later that year we moved into our first space in a coffee shop at Belmont and Elston, which has since closed. Like every non-profit, we had our ups and down and bumps in the road getting started. We moved into a temporary location, but there were problems with the building and things preventing us from promoting it the way we wanted to.

We moved in with AREA Chicago and InCubate into the current space (2129 N. Rockwell) back in December. We are kind of rebuilding from scratch again after moving around and being off the map for a while. But we had a shorter distance to go this time.

Q. What is your background and how did you become a lover of all things literary?

A. I went to Columbia College and was in the film and video program (2003 grad). I was interested in doing film archiving at one point. But I had always loved libraries and had worked in a library in high school. I was doing a lot of writing and drawing, but up to that point in time I wasn’t really feeling my own work. So, the library has been a good way, as a dormant writer and artist myself, to keep up with what’s going on. I’m sort of the Chicago literary cheerleader at this point.

Q. After opening up a second time this past December, did you noticed a difference in the Chicago media climate with so many more unemployed writers, freelancers and journalists, than after your initial opening in 2006?

A. It’s been really fascinating to me because when we opened in 2006, we called ourselves the Underground Library, but I really saw ourselves as trying to draw a bridge between the mainstream and the underground by selecting academic publications and longstanding independent publications as well as zines. At that point there really was more of an obvious distinction and more lines clearly drawn between the professional writer and the amateurs and the people who were underground by choice.

At this point, there has been a larger shift in culture due to changes in technology. I know a lot of people think it be stills the death of the professional writer with all the community and citizen journalism projects that have sprung up. But I think it presents more of an opportunity. What I see happening is that the culture of sharing and the proliferation of content that’s developed online has made people, in general, more accepting of non-professional and amateur content as something that’s viable and something that’s worth paying attention to. In some ways it might be harder to make a living at it. But there is no better time than now if your true goal is just getting your message heard and getting your voice out there.

We do try to follow the Internet model in terms of the breadth and depth of the variety of things we cover, rather than trying to make any kind of editorial or curatorial stances in terms of what we collect.

The Underground Library contains a variety of magazines, books and zines by local Chicago writers and artists.
The Underground Library contains a variety of magazines, books and zines by local Chicago writers and artists. By Erica Christoffer

Q. Would you say the library is like a living Internet?

A. Yes, in a lot of ways. As I’ve grown with the project, and as loose as it is, and with as many problems as that’s caused, it’s allowed the project to work extremely well. We’ve come a long way in terms of our mission and who we serve and the best ways to serve them. It is much more driven by the theory of technology that it was in 2006.

Ideally, I’d like to see more of these local libraries created. I’m moving to Los Angeles next year and I’m starting one there. And if we can multiple ones going around the United States, you’ll be able to look very deeply into different regions and different community. We may aggregate through traveling exhibitions and research to show how movements have developed at a grassroots level, because we have all this stuff that would have otherwise thrown away.

Q. Can you give some examples of the kind of work you have in the library right now?

A. We have issues of the Chicago Review, the Journal of Ordinary Thought from the Neighborhood Writing Alliance, Fractal Edge Press, Poetry Magazine, Punk Planet – those are the kinds of things we have that people may of heard of.

In the middle realm of obscurity, we have zines from the 1980s that were made by people who are very successful writers now or critics. We have a lot of In These Times, Venus, Dumpster Land, Trading Punches with Grandma, zines that people of a certain generation from Chicago would know. We’ve got books of poetry, handmade art books, things made in small numbers where one or two copies exist. What binds it all together is its all Chicago specific.

We’re open 1-5 p.m. Saturdays at this point, but we do take appointments.

Local-centric works show history of grassroot efforts. By Erica Christoffer
Local-centric works show history of grassroots efforts. By Erica Christoffer

We’re starting to do a lot more events now. We do a series called Orphan Works were we have people who aren’t writers – musicians, film maker, sound artist, graphic designers, visual artist – we have them reinterpret works from our collection. It gets them into a wider audience and shows that (the library) is not just a repository, but it can be even more of a living organism and encourage the production of new works. For something like that we bring out a “pop-out” library to the event so people can actually see it and lay their hands on it. We’re looking to start doing that at other events – for instance, someone who is giving a lecture on some sort of Chicago history – we can come and bring a series of books that relate to that and expand on what’s being discussed as a resource.

Q. Are you expecting a good turnout for Science of Obscurity tonight?

A. We are expecting a big turnout. I’m really keeping my fingers crossed because it was a combination of four different ideas we had for events. We have people participating all over the map. It’s a great way to do a literary event that’s more inclusive. We have a lot of people from the performance community or art community.

Q. How are you actually going to launch the books?

A. On a trebuchet. It’s going to be outside, and at the end of the night we’re shredding everyone’s rejection letters and we’re going to ball them up and launch them down the street as well. I’m really looking forward to it.

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