MIT6 Presentation with Nell Taylor : The Chicago Underground Library: Ranganathan’s Library Rules Applied to the Digital Age

I was so pleased to co-present at MIT at Media in Transition 6 (MIT6) with Nell Taylor, Director of The Chicago Underground Library about the CUL.

This is our presentation (it will be up as a full paper on the MIT6 site shortly):

In the 1930s, Indian librarian S.R. Ranganathan created five rules for organizing libraries and created the colon cataloging system, designed to better connect library materials with each other. The Chicago Underground Library (CUL), an archive of independent and small press media from the Chicago area, expands on the notions of accessibility and democracy that underpin these rules to reimagine special collections and their place in the community. By tracing the evolution of networks and interdependencies within Chicago‚Äôs historically stratified communities and movements, the CUL proposes a social interconnectivity not just among its intended users, but also among the materials in its collection. We presented about how this library has progressed since its inception, implementing Ranganathan’s rules, and how the CUL will continue to grow — hopefully bringing this model to other cities in the future.

Ranganathan‘s Five Laws of Library Science and their Meanings

Books are for use

  • Books (and other library items) are to be used by people to gain knowledge and obtain information

Every reader his or her book

  • Libraries should be accessible to all people that seek their collections

Every book its reader

  • Books should be arranged and kept in ways that allow each book to be useful for every member of the community

Save the time of the reader

  • Organize the library in a way that helps users

The library is a growing organism

  • It is dynamic and changing — a library is like a stream — each moment different

At the root of these five ideas are the notions of democratic access and the opportunity to engage with the ideas of your time, which public libraries provide to a degree. But as guidelines for collecting and distributing information on a fully democratic scale, these rules only get us half way. Their accessibility applies only to readers, not content producers, and the content that readers consume is external to their communities, mediated by librarians who determine how that content is filtered. Libraries provide a window into the larger conversation, but where do you go to get involved in the immediate conversation going on around you?

The Internet, though paradoxically a system designed to provide global connectivity, is actually an extremely successful model (and argument) for localized libraries. It provides equal access to content producers and consumers; it allows for the formation of communities that are self-moderated and determine their own needs; it levels the playing field for professionals and non-professionals alike and gives a clearer picture of the details, dimensions, eccentricities, and new developments occurring in culture as they emerge.

Thankfully, non-professional content receives more attention and respect than in any previous era thanks to the accessibility the Internet provides. We are missing an opportunity to seize that sentiment and direct it at print and other media that wasn’t given the same consideration simply because of the cultural climate in which it was produced. We’ve thrown away countless elements of our community histories that media consumers are only now finally primed to read. Print publications also continue to flourish in communities where digital access is limited. In many ways, it is more urgent to get these contemporary publications into the flow of a library system so that they can have an immediate impact in conversations from which they are typically excluded, especially ones that concern their immediate communities.


Our model allows for in-depth collection development, rather than broad strokes based on temporary trends or assumptions about the wants and needs of the community the library serves. Localized libraries also answer the question of where you draw the line in choosing what you preserve: You don’t. Once the burden of collecting and maintaining its own creative record is dispersed into hands of individual communities, a network of localized libraries can more equally share the burden of storing and disseminating material.

We recognize the importance of public libraries and historical societies, but understand that they serve different publics and perform different functions. The CUL serves as a supplement to traditional repositories; an alternative, but parallel, history that is interwoven and even frequently overlaps with established, mainstream collections.

Our guidelines

Starting from the democratic underpinnings of Ranganathan’s rules and tracing the access systems of the Internet rather than public libraries, we’ve come up with our own model for localized collections that ends up closer to the core of those original ideals. The CUL applies guidelines supporting access, use, and connectivity in the following ways:

The Library serves the public — both for content creators/producers and users

Rather than just granting access for readers/end users, we grant complete access for publishers/content producers. It’s a fully democratic model.

-Open acquisitions policy: We take everything– very different than the traditional acquistion or curatorial role of libraries, museums, exhibitions
-Repository for independent/small press historical materials, ephemera, neglected or underused materials.
-Community is self-defining. If you think your work belongs in a collection about Chicago, then it probably does. Even if you’re in Joliet. Or New York.
-If a serial began somewhere else and then moved to Chicago. Or vice versa. (example: LiP magazine started in Chicago, then moved elsewhere twice)
-We will add materials produced by a Chicagoan who is well-represented in our collection, but those particular materials were produced elsewhere. We collect those to help develop context around the individual.
-Define “published” broadly; anything intended for public consumption is “published.”
-Resist arbitrary distinctions about what “independent” or “small” mean. While many of the ideas (including non-hierarchical cataloging, open acquisitions, and independent publishing) may seem radical, anarchistic, or punk, we have no political ideology or agenda. A library that excludes material based on narrow definitions of small or independent press (it’s circulation is too big, it takes advertising, it looks fancy, etc) is just as problematic as libraries that ignore independent press.
-Regardless of what readers are seeking, the CUL has a variety of non-traditional Chicago-based texts
-We don’t know who will find each individual item useful or interesting — but all items are physically browsable, as well as searchable in the online catalog

All items and contributors are important
-The online catalog does not make traditional distinctions between different types of contributors — all are included
-Organization system is un-hierarchical
-Cataloging and connecting every contributor to a work, whether they are editors, typesetters, illustrators, etc
-We do this so that a web can start to emerge that shows how publications, and by extension, whole movements and communities are connected
-You can see how someone who might have made a small contribution to a publication went on to produce something very important, then trace them all the way back and see where their influences and attitudes came from
-In independent publishing, the difficulty of producing a publication means that the contributions of everyone have heightened importance

Locus — both community and place — are valuable parts of the creative process and create social/free exchange of ideas

By design, Chicago is historically very fragmented along racial and socio-economic lines. Even in the literary community, poets and fiction writers don’t communicate. We want to find ways to bridge those connections between different communities. We represent communities of content producers who don’t find homes in mainstream collections.

-Include material produced by youth in publications from classroom, artist-in-residence, and workshop settings
-Actively reach out to underserved communities to collect publications and put their contributions into the wider creative conversation in Chicago
-Give extremely local historical context for inspiration. (Gwendolyn Brooks chapbooks; if she can do this and she’s from my neighborhood, I can do this.)

Locus — both community and place — are valuable parts of our library’s role

All elements of connectivity and accessibility that are readily apparent online need to be exemplified in the physical world. Abstract connection is not truly connection. We attempt to create programming that:
-Invites and encourages participation to make the idea of creative/intellectual engagement with your community less intimidating
-Brings materials to life that might have otherwise never been looked at (Orphan Works series)
-Encourages multi-disciplinary approaches to using our materials; tries to expand the role that print can play in other creative communities
-Encourages collaboration

The library is a growing organism
-The CUL is receiving new material — and hopefully will be part of a network of similar localized libraries
-Most libraries don’t acquire books until they’ve been thoroughly vetted as “important,” leaving a large gap in the time between when it can reach the public. Our collection system allows us to get print information out sooner

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