Chicago’s Read/Write Library pops up

The Read/Write Library in Chicago has a pop-up exhibit happening now through July 21st at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. After being closed for three years, it’s great to see the library back in action! The Read/Write Library collects books, comics, journals, newspapers, and zines published by those in the Chicago area.

The pop-up also included an abridged history of the library written by founder and executive director Nell Taylor.

  • February 2006: In the middle of a blizzard, forty strangers gather at the now-defunct Mercury Cafe in West Town to discuss the project. People bring materials to donate, and more keep coming after. Volunteer librarians and archivists convene weekly in my Humboldt Park apartment to devise new approaches to cataloging and presenting collections that prioritize representation and self-determination. At first, we would call it Chicago Underground Library, using media to connect the dots between different creative communities—ones that might exist for only brief moments in apartment galleries, basement DIY venues, or purely as ephemera. Very quickly, we expanded beyond creative material to draw connections between neighborhoods, cultural and political movements, and everyday residents of the city.
  • Fall 2006: We move the growing collection into a filing cabinet in the basement of MoJoe’s Hot House, a coffee shop in Avondale. Anyone interested could learn how to catalog the library material through our Cataloging Socials.
  • Fall 2007: MoJoe’s is sold. The collection finds a new home at Butchershop, a gallery and studios for artists and musicians on Lake Street. Still humble in size, the growing library now occupies two filing cabinets.
  • Winter 2008: The arts and activism-focused publication AREA Chicago and the artist residency inCUBATE form the Orientation Center in a storefront at the Congress Theater in Logan Square, and invite the Underground Library to be a partner in the space.
  • Winter 2010: Center closes. We move the collection into the lobby of Red Tape Theater, in the parish house of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in East Lakeview.
  • January 2011: Another Chicago blizzard blows open the windows of the parish house and buries half the collection in snow. Thanks to quick work by conservation volunteers, most of the materials are salvaged (you may notice some crinkly zines here). The library leaves St. Peters; we begin programming Pop Up Libraries in Uptown, Logan Square, and elsewhere throughout the city to keep the collection public as we look for a new home.
  • Fall 2011: The library returns to Humboldt Park in a new and permanent location, and we change its name to Read/Write Library in recognition of its unique, participatory, and community-driven nature. Pop Up Libraries continue as a regular part of the programming, tailored to the locations and audiences of our partner schools, arts and community centers, and others across the city—even in other cities and states.
  • Winter 2017: After years of developing our programs, we triple the size of our Humboldt Park space, making room for expanded activities and collection access. As the collection reaches new audiences, it continues to grow, filling out the larger space.
  • Winter 2021: The gentrification of Humboldt Park catches up with us. Rising rental costs force Read/Write Library to leave after a decade in the neighborhood, fifteen years after we first convened there. The collection goes dark, placed in storage.
  • Spring 2024: Read/Write Library returns! With the summer Pop Up Library at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, one of Chicago’s historic centers of community-driven cultural production, we are excited to reopen the library to readers and contributors.

A small room with a sign reading Read/ Write Library and shelves displaying newsletters, newspapers, journals, books, and zines

A corkboard with papers featuring preprinted questions and handwritten and handdrawn answers.

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