Group aims to raise profile of underground literature

  • Medill News Service
  • February 09, 2006 @ 5:45 AM
Emerson Dameron starting publishing his own magazines when he was 16. But he never really thought anyone was reading them, and he certainly never thought he was part of an underground literary movement.

"I started to realize how much was out there," he said of the independent publishing community in Chicago. "I had no idea that someone else might be doing it, you know, two floors down."

Indeed, Chicago, like any big city, is chock-full of writers just itching to have their voices heard. But if you don't land a deal with a major publishing house, how will anyone ever read your masterpiece?

Enter the Chicago Underground Library, a grassroots organization co-founded by Dameron. The underground library is dedicated to providing a place where small-press and independently-published work can be read by anyone with a hankering for literature off the beaten path.

Organizers, who have invited interested readers to a meeting Saturday to discuss the project, hope to digitize books and other literary works submitted to them by small Chicago publishing houses, and create a searchable online archive where readers can download the works that interest them.

"With the advent of things like Google, there's pretty much unlimited access to mainstream publications," said Nell Taylor, the library's other co-founder. "We're trying to build a parallel connection from the independent perspective."

Many of the small presses in Chicago don't have the means to widely distribute their books, meaning that the books don't always show up in libraries or popular bookstores. The few times that they do make it into the mainstream, the books are usually taken off the shelves after a short time to make room for new arrivals.

"There wasn't really any preservation being done at all in the indepenent press," Taylor said. She added that the underground library, in addition to digitizing the books, hopes to eventually acquire building space for a physical library.

But the group isn't just about the books, Taylor said. It's about bringing together a large, if little-known, literary community.

"There are a lot of people doing really interesting things out there," she said. "But everyone's kind of separate and isolated from each other. We want it to be a community resource and support center, besides being just a library."

Taylor said the group hopes to offer workshops and programs to educate authors about the publishing industry, and to eventually collaborate with other organizations in Chicago and beyond.

The group calls the program the "Underground Library" because they were "trying to create a resource for people without official media, who didn't have a lot of commercial contacts," said Dameron, adding, "Underground seemed like a word that's not too loaded but still has a lot of energy."

Taylor and Dameron hope to attract both publishers and authors to Saturday's meeting, where they will open up the entire project for public discussion. They said any concrete plans for the library depend on the response from readers and publishers.

'We don't want to presume that we know exactly what the community wants," Taylor said. "We want to hear from the people who would actually use this resource what they think needs to be done."

Taylor and Dameron said that, ultimately, the underground library is about making sure that the newest literary voices of Chicago are heard.

"We're trying to make a collection that cannot neccessarily replace, but at least supplement the collections that are out there," Taylor said. "There's so much that's not neccessarily in anyone's radar yet."

""We're interested in looking at anything that's not getting attention elsewhere," Dameron said. "Even the guys that sell their poetry on the train- we'll look at that."