Chicago Underground Library's Community-Based Approach to Collecting and Cataloging on Museum 2.0

Chicago Underground Library's Guest Post on Museum 2.0: A Community-Based Approach to Collecting and Cataloging

Chicago Underground Library is a replicable model for community archives that accepts every piece of print media from a certain area without making quality or importance judgments, going back as far in history as possible. That means we collect university press, handmade artist books, zines made by sixth graders, poetry chapbooks from big names published in tiny local presses, and self-published poetry chapbooks sold for a dollar on the street. We have neighborhood newspapers, internationally-renowned magazines of political commentary, and three View-Master reels of Chicago hot dog stands, neon signs, and motor inns, respectively.

A public library can grant you access to all kinds of knowledge, but where do you go to add to that knowledge base and stake your claim as an expert? You go online, and that’s why physical culture is at risk. While more and more people are creating their own media thanks to the internet, there’s an unfortunate paradox in media creation in the physical, local world. I hear writers bemoan the fact that no one but other writers come to their readings. They blame it on the general public reading less. But people who don’t go to readings believe that the readings are only for other writers and that they wouldn’t be welcome. From CUL’s perspective, if you’re reading to other writers, that’s not a problem, it’s a community. If that community is too small for comfort, the trick is not to stress about the lack of passive listeners, but to create and recruit more writers. CUL strives to preserve media, but it’s equally important to us that we encourage existing media cultures and create new access points.

In order for physical media to remain relevant, institutions like libraries and museums have to start looking at the inclusive and collaborative community-building models present in digital media culture. Our collection has a home that people can visit, but we’ll also bring it to them and share it on their platforms: their classrooms, performance spaces, galleries. The collection is history, but it’s also inspiration, example, and a guide to what’s out there for people who want to be actively involved. CUL helps people who are just starting out or who may have assumed their words didn’t count to get a foothold and not only places them in a collection that values their work, but through our catalog instantly locates them within an interconnected map of the city’s history.

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