Transcript: Library for the People Episode 5

Transcript: Library for the People Episode 5: Accelerators of Social Impact

Alison Cuddy: Libraries have long been a place to get your creative flow going. To find sources of inspiration. Ask any Chicago based writer or researcher and many will say they spent time in the stacks and archives.

Some of them have become great successes as a result, including this Grammy-winning rapper.

Chance the Rapper: I still got orange and white and set, people that. Top now. Used to get little in the dark. It's all cool now. We're all little kids at heart accidentally broke chance.

Cuddy: That's Chance the Rapper, age 17.

Chance the Rapper: Y'all remember now the time I cracked my hand open at Auntie Linda's house…

[rapping continues in background]

Cuddy: What you're hearing is Chance performing at the Harold Washington Library Center's YOUmedia space in 2011. There's no stage, just a temporary speaker and a DJ next to library shelves full of books, where a couple of teenagers are working on another project. There are about ten people in the audience.

This summer, Chance is headlining Chicago's United Center, where the Chicago Bulls play. The capacity there? 23,000.

Chance the Rapper: and the kingdom singing back the days when I was God, but some days I said, When I was, some days I question, let's take it back like Indians to Indian first and crickets to the…

[rapping continues in background]

Cuddy: From the Chicago Public Library Foundation and PRX, this is Library for the People, a podcast celebrating 150 years of Chicago Public Library.

I'm Alison Cuddy. In our last episode, we talked about the library as public space. Today, we're exploring the creative and social life that is created inside that space.

To understand that, we're focusing first on a critical time for fostering social skills: the teen years.

YOUmedia began in 2009 as an experiment in getting teens into the library. Billing itself as a place for “hanging out, messing around, and geeking out,” the concept was based on a landmark study of young people's digital habits, which identified that trifecta of activities as key to healthy living and learning with new media.

With major support from library leadership and the MacArthur Foundation, an old storage room at Harold Washington Library Center was converted to an art studio slash living room slash lab. And YOUmedia was born. Here's one student who came out for the YOUmedia launch party.

Malcolm, YOUmedia student: Kids need an outlet to express themselves. If, if they don't have that outlet, they turn to the alternative. So this space gives kids the, the outlet that they need. I mean, they can pretty much come down here and construct some type of media to express themselves with.

So if kids like to do graphic arts to be more creative, or kids like, like to make movies or music videos, or write songs, do poetry, they, they have a space where they can come down here and do that.

Cuddy: Now, as YOUmedia turns 14 and itself becomes a teenager, the program has grown up and across the library.

You can find similar spaces at close to 30 neighborhood branches, and programs for teens at every branch. Back then, though, it was still a novel space, one that proved to be a lifeline for Chance, a.k.a. Chancelor Bennett. He was a student at Jones College Prep, just two blocks south of Harold Washington.

With another classmate, he'd formed a rap group called Instrumentality.

Cuddy: Free studio time may have brought Chance through the doors of YOUmedia, but it was the other budding musicians he met there, the social scene, that also inspired.

Chance the Rapper: We didn't know about this studio, now that we found out there's a studio where it's like, hour blocks for free, to people as young as us.

Uh, we could come in here from now on and just do exactly what we need. Cause we used to have to wait until we got that $75 and, uh, had a bunch of songs written and finished.

Cuddy: In this early visit, Chicago MC and YOUmedia mentor Simeon Viltz encouraged the young artist after hearing a couple of his songs.

Simeon Viltz: I really appreciate everything you came in here and said, you feel me, lyrically, um, and, and, and I see that you are not afraid to talk about stuff that, that people need to talk about.

You know what I mean? So, like, as an MC, as a writer, like what inspires you directly to what you're talking about?

Chance The Rapper: I mean, like, um, I feel, I, I agree with you a lot on that.

Viltz: Mm-hmm.

Chance The Rapper: So, I mean, uh, the, what I was just rapping about the different, uh, things that high school students go through, um, I mean, those ideas come through my everyday life and I'm just sad that like a lot of people don't talk about it.

So I'm thankful for like MCs, like Vic Mensa or, or other young MCs like Will Golf, um, who actually talk about these things.

Viltz: Mm-hmm.

Chance The Rapper: So, I mean, I'm influenced by everyday life as well as the other young MCs in Chicago.

Cuddy: Musical artists Vic Mensa, Saba, No Name, and Mick Jenkins all came out of YOUmedia.

In 2012, Chance would make his debut mixtape "10 Day" in the YOUmedia studios. The rest, as they say, is history. Grammy-winning, sold-out stadium touring, history.

But you don't have to have superstar ambitions to find what you need at the library. Sometimes it's students sharing their wisdom with elders in their community.

Cuddy: For example, at around 30 Chicago Public Library locations, you can find a CyberNavigator, ready and willing to help anyone who needs any kind of help with a computer. In this age where we are all digitally connected, the library provides access to computers and to Wi-Fi. Critical services, especially for people experiencing the digital divide.

Ayala: Yeah um, Agustin Ayala, I'm a CyberNavigator here at the Toman Library Branch.

Cuddy: Ayala works at the library when he's not working on his computer science degree at UIC. So we spent a little time with him to learn more about the work of a CyberNavigator. He can help people to print documents or fill out a job application or do research.

Ayala: Anything that has to do with basic technology needs, um, is part of my job. To kind of teach him, my most importantly is to teach, not just kind of do it for him. You know what I mean?

Cuddy: Toman Branch in Little Village is home to Chicago's largest Spanish speaking community.

Ayala: I do speak Spanish, so I am capable of helping Spanish-speaking patrons. Um, well, I'm Mexican, so I kind of like, how do I put it?

Like, I could see their situation. Like I, I, I find things that I could have in common with them, so it kind of makes me feel like a little more personal.

Cuddy: As Ayala says, most of these requests are work related or about learning skills to better navigate the online world. He shares a different kind of request from a patron he's worked with many times, Ranulfo Magayun, who loves to sing karaoke.

Ranulfo Magayun: Yo canto y este yo vengo con él para bajar. Algunas letras de algunas canciones que son de mi de miss gusto y este…

Cuddy: Magayun is eager to learn the words of songs he likes. He comes to the library to find the lyrics, and then prints them out in a font large enough for him to read.

Magayun: Y vengo siempre aquí con él y él me ayuda.

Ayala: He comes over here to find lyrics and I help him, like, download them and make them bigger.

Cuddy: The first time Magayun approached Ayala, it was for help tracking down a song he'd heard somewhere and wanted to add to his karaoke repertoire.

Ayala: It was a weird request. Like I said, it was, um, looking for a song, so technically computer request, but it was like, I only know so much music.

So [laughter] um, he was singing it for me, like quietly. And at first I was like, oh, I never heard this song, but then, you know, I heard it again. He kept like doing a little more kind of imitation of it he was just doing the, “hey.”

That part. Uh, and he kept doing that. I was like, um, I know I heard that song before, I didn't know the original song. I just saw it from like, like a meme.

Cuddy: Ayala recalled a tongue in cheek meme, a YouTube mashup that had He-Man singing a disco version of the song, “What's Up” by 4 Non Blondes. It's kind of an anthem. You may have heard it.

[mashup version of “What's Up” by 4 Non Blondes]

Ayala: It, it was the 4 Non Blondes song. You know what I'm talking about. The only reason I knew it was from the He-Man meme.

[mashup version of “What's Up” by 4 Non Blondes]

Ayala: He was like, really happy about it. He's like, I can't believe you found it. And that's pretty much how the first interaction went.

It's a good thing that he did come over here because we ended up finding it and he was happy about it.

Cuddy: So, thanks to Ayala's internet skills, plus his familiarity with TikTok and meme culture, he and Magayun were able to find the lyrics online and print them out.

So, whether you're Chance the Rapper or Ranulfo Magayun, your musical and other dreams can come true at the Chicago Public Library.

Coming up, we visit Sulzer Regional Library to hang out with plants and fish and members of the Zine Club. Oh my.

[Chicago Public Library Foundation ad]

Deanie Adams: Hi, I'm Deanie Adams. I'm the director of the Sulzer Regional Library.

So we're out here in Lincoln Square, um, kind of on the border of the Ravenswood neighborhood.

We're in the YOUmedia area today. It is our, uh, final meeting of the Zine Club. So we've been working with a local artist to do risograph printing.

Cuddy: I'm a bit surprised to find these modern teens immersed in such an old school, pre-internet form of culture. Zines are DIY short magazines, often connected to some kind of fan culture or subculture. The club grew out of a previous project and a collaboration between Ashley Houghton, an artist with a focus on printmaking and photography, and Daniel Thorson, who runs teen services at Sulzer.

Daniel Thorson: Ashley, came to Sulzer last summer as part of a grant project that I was working on for photography. And we took a group of five teens for eight hours a week.

We went out to different neighborhoods and we took DSLR cameras that the teens got to have all summer. Um, take pictures, come back, critique them, um, edit them, uh, print them out, put them on display, look at other artists' works, and then kind of get inspired to go out and talk about kind of capturing community and reflecting ourselves.

And um, Ashley was working with that with me kind of very closely for about eight weeks. And the teens loved her.

Ashley Houghton: During the photography program, I started talking about zines and how they can now use all these awesome photos that they took to make zines. Um, and then we kind of just went down that path of developing this program.

Um, so it was really fun to introduce them to zines and zine culture. Chicago is like a hotspot for zine culture. Um, so it was really cool to introduce them to that and, um, yeah, get them connected to that community.

[voice over of Houghton talking to teens]

Houghton: I'm gonna send that around, and then we're gonna do one more, um, collaborative eight-page zine. Um, and then we're gonna swap those at the end. So does that sound good?

Teen: Yep.

Houghton: Cool. All right. I'm gonna put this up on the wall so you know what I'm doing.

So you just, you know how we did that, like collaborative zine last week. It's gonna be something similar just to cover. So like you're all gonna contribute like a little drawing. You can scan something if you don't want to draw whatever you want.

Teen: Okay.

Houghton: Yeah.

Cuddy: Daniel Thorson says programming for teens is more of an art or improvisation than a science.

Daniel: So It's really just figuring out what their interests are, figuring out where your interests as the adult in the room kind of can align with them. Then creating those sort of mentorship opportunities, I think, is where kind of the true joy of the job comes in.

Teens: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. We could have a, we could have with a second color in that. We could have like a lightning bolt or something.

Oh, that's smart.

I like that because like what, on a … we need some way for him to die. That's what I want to know.

Cuddy: What are their zines about?

Houghton: a lot of them are about, are about like, custom characters that they've made.

I know Jonas, um, is also in the Dungeons & Dragons group. Um, so a lot of his zines come out of the characters that he's developed through that.

Cuddy: Here's Jonas.

Jonas: Yes, he's dead for like a couple years and stuff. And then when he comes back alive, he realizes all of his friends are dead. But he's alive and he must live with his immortal, not immortality, I guess. Whatever.

I'm gonna print a couple of them. This is like, this is gonna be like a black color layer. This is gonna be, I don't know, like, like pink and this is gonna be yellow and then I'm gonna bring into blue or something.

Houghton: Knight is making a zine about Tomato Man, which is a character that he's developed through this program.

Knight: This is the one and only tomato man. And he's very angry because his cousin killed his dad, and his dad is now a bottle of ketchup.

Cuddy: Beyond that one liner, Knight's zine has a complicated backstory. It's kind of like the godfather of tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables.

Knight: You know these is like a typical eight-page zine about all of Tomato Man's enemies. So we - he hates Spinach Man, Avocado Man, Banana man, Apple man, Orange Man and Kiwi Man. And then in the next saga of Tomato Man we learn why, because all of those people are involved in the Tomato Mafia which you can see here… [fades out]

Turns out, it was actually his cousin who killed the dad.

[other teens gasping]

Knight: And turned him into a bottle of Heinz ketchup. And then, his cousin was later killed by his other cousin. Who then took over the Tomato Mafia. It’s very complicated.

Cuddy: As the afternoon progresses, there is more instruction going on how to bind your zine. The teens, who range in age from 13 up to 18, which is when you have to graduate from the YOUmedia program, comment on each other's work and help each other out.

Most of them didn't even know each other until they started coming here.

[voice over of Houghton talking to teens]

Houghton: Mikayla, I need to show you how to use this spiral bound zine.

So all you're gonna do, it's really easy. It's like a, like a three ring, um, hole punch. So you just load the paper here, and then you just load your paper up like that. And you press it down and then you take one of the like spirals, like that…

There we go. Okay. And then just like tuck it over like that. And then, yeah, then you have like a, a zine. And then I can help you get your prints together, if that would be helpful.

Cuddy: What do you like about working with teens? What's that experience like for you?

Houghton: They're cool. They're fun. I think zine making brings out a lot of their like personalities, so it's been really nice to like, hear their jokes and like experience their humor. [laughs]

I love their energy um and it's really inspiring and refreshing to introduce people to these um practices or techniques.

Cuddy: Ashley has also gained from the experience. It's taken her own work to new places.

Houghton: I just graduated last year with my MFA in print media from the Art Institute. Um, and when you're making art in a more serious and professionally aimed space and place, sometimes you lose sight of the fun.

Um, so they really breathe life into my own art practice as well. Um, and they just bring that energy back into, into my work. So that's been really great.

Cuddy: That's the YOUmedia ethos right there. Curiosity plus critical mass drives creativity. Inside this room, which thanks to rows of windows on all sides, is both separate from and continuous with the library, these teens have made a space that is entirely their own.

Cozy, a bit messy, full of expression and life. Their artwork - drawings and photographs and models - is everywhere. And other things you may not be used to seeing in a library, like fish and plants, Deanie Adams explains.

Deanie Adams: So Obie is our goldfish who started it all. Um, he's swimming around in a 150-gallon stock tank pond at the front of the library. And someone had gotten him, I think their child won him as a prize or something. The teens got excited. He started off in a tiny fish tank and it was just far too small.

And then the plants kind of came along with him too. So I, feel like it all evolves really organically just from what everyone wants to do when they're here.

Cuddy: For Chance and his peers, that meant poetry slams and studio time. For this current group of teens, it means fish tanks, 3D printing and Dungeons & Dragons and zines.

So, if the original YOUmedia at Harold Washington helped create Chance the Rapper, maybe the next breakout graphic novelist or Nobel winning scientist is among this small group of passionate, goofy and hard-working teens.

Coming up…

Eric Klinenberg: I was in a branch library basically every day for a year and became one of those annoying people who goes to, you know, any city and says, “the first thing I need to do is go to the library.” Because, you know, what better way is there to learn about the city or than to go check out its libraries?

Cuddy: I'll talk with Eric Klinenberg, author of “Palaces for the People.”

[Chicago Public Library Foundation ad]

Eric Klinenberg: What kind of city would build a building like that and not have it be for kings and billionaires, but just for ordinary people? And, and you see that and when you walk in and you realize, wait, this is for me.

Cuddy: When Eric Klinenberg wrote “Palaces for the People” in 2018, his book was part of a wave of interest in how to create meaningful social spaces, places people could come together, despite their differences, and connect. Talk to one another, play together, worship together, form social ties. Be part of something bigger than their individual lives or stories.

The book takes us inside many of those spaces, like churches and parks, childcare centers, and libraries, which Klinenberg considers to be a unique and precious meeting ground in American life. Using the term social infrastructure to describe them. We'll learn more about what that means in a minute, but first, let's follow Eric inside some of his local libraries in New York City, which is where he did the research for the book.

You do a great job taking us inside the library, in particular, your local library or the library that becomes a focal point of your book, and that's the Seward Park Library on the Lower East Side. And you talk a lot about that place and the surrounding community. What did you learn spending so much time in the library? What do you now understand about how they operate?

Klinenberg: I was in a branch library basically every day for a year and became one of those annoying people who goes to, you know, any city and says, “the first thing I need to do is go to the library.” Because, you know, what better way is there to learn about the city or than to go check out its libraries?

The way librarians dignified the people who were there. The fact that there's such tremendous diversity, uh, in every register when you walk into the library. Um, the, you know, the, the sense that so much of who we are is accessible there, is visible there.  Uh, is, is is there for us to explore, Uh, the, the kind of civic mindedness of the library as a, as a place that's there to, you know, help us engage each other and the world.

Uh, the sense that the, you know, the library at the time was trying to register voters. Some libraries were actually allowing people to vote inside the library.

They were, they were creating, uh, drop off places where, where people could vote. All of that felt very inspiring to me. When I was going to the library daily, I learned that libraries were the most common places in New York where people were getting English as a second language education. Was the most popular, uh, place where people were getting citizenship classes. They were lending outfits to people who needed to go on a job interview and didn't have the right clothes to wear. Uh, they were doing programs for older people who were at risk of isolation. They had literacy programs for younger people and after school programs for high school students.

Of course, over time I also discovered that the library was starting to fall apart. Uh, it was aging. The infrastructure wasn't working, the bathrooms were breaking down. Uh, they, they got more of certain kinds of users than, uh, they were prepared for, you know. Most worrisomely, I think, for people who run libraries, they've become kind of the place of last resort.

So, you know, if you, if you wake up in Chicago and you're homeless and it's a cold day, someone's gonna tell you to go to the library to get warm. And if you've got, you're suffering from a mental illness or from a drug addiction, and you know you need to be in a place that's, um, welcoming to you and that offers you a chance to connect with someone, other people, someone's gonna tell you to go to the library

And if you're old and alone and you need companionship, someone's gonna tell you to go to the library. And if you’re a kid and your school doesn't have any afterschool programs, someone's gonna tell you to go to the library.

Libraries have become this last-ditch safe space, and that's great for so many people who need them, but it's very tough on the libraries themselves and the people who work in them.

Cuddy: “Palaces for the People” is about libraries and other institutions that you point to as very important and something we should be thinking about because they are a form of social infrastructure. And that is, it's really important to think of them as physical spaces.

Klinenberg: I define social infrastructure as physical places that shape our interaction. And a social infrastructure can work really well if it's, you know, it's funded, if it's designed well, if it's built well, if it's maintained well, if it's programmed. And it works even better if it does all those things and it's inclusive, right? I mean, you can have a really good social infrastructure that's exclusive. And it will help people bond with people who are already like them, but it'll be pretty bad for the social fabric in general.

Or like, like think of a, a country club as a great example of that, right? I mean it's, it's designed to be awesome social infrastructure and we can hang out with people who are welcomed into that country club and maybe they're welcomed on the basis of class. Or maybe they're, you know, welcomed on the basis of religion or ethnicity or shared interest. But it's exclusive.

So what's special about a, an urban public library system is that it is so generous and also so open. The Harold Washington Library is a gorgeous building. It's a beautiful building. There are times when it’s better maintained than others. There are times when its better staffed than others. But it's an incredible palace for the people of Chicago. It’s an incredibly special place.

Like what, what kind of city would build a building like that and not have it be for kings and billionaires, but just for ordinary people. And you see that and when you walk in and you realize, wait, “this is for me.” It tells you something about your standing in that place.

You feel recognized as an individual, as a kid, but then you very quickly also learn that that library card is your ticket into a community because, you know, let's say you really want a Curious George book. And tere's a Curious George book on the shelf.

The librarian might say, “you can take it home, but make sure you, you bring it back and keep it in good shape.”

You're learning about sharing. You're, you're learning about shared interests. You're becoming a democratic citizen. And, and, and I think we take for granted just what a powerful institution the library is in helping us develop this understanding from a very early moment in our lives of the ways in which we depend on each other and the ways in which our interdependence can allow us to, to live better.

Cuddy: The title of your book comes from Andrew Carnegie and this incredible vision he had, that there should be libraries in every community across the United States.

I mean, he's also a super complicated figure. He's a big industrialist of his era. Amasses a big fortune, um, in some very complicated and, and brutal ways. Um, but, but he also really wanted citizens to have this resource. Um, what do you think the legacy of Carnegie and his vision of the library is for our current moment?

Klinenberg: I guess for me, the, the thing that's so powerful about Carnegie and his contributions is, you know, as you said, this is a guy with a very checkered record as a human being. I mean, he was against the income tax. He was very fine, uh, with massive amounts of inequality that we would find objectionable today.

Uh, he had, was pretty violent, uh, against striking workers, uh, at his companies. Not, not a model human being, but he was incredibly generous when it came to building libraries and to supporting them.

The reality is that for most of American history, we've had a lot of public and private partnerships where, you know, we have things like a library foundation that helps to maintain a library system because the public funding is insufficient. Um, but it is odd to me to realize that we live in this information economy and that we have all of these, you know, massive mega billionaires who've made their money on companies like Amazon or Google or Facebook.

And we haven't had anything like the kind of philanthropic giving to, uh, our contemporary libraries that, you know, our ancestors had a hundred years ago.

Uh, we have failed to invest in the public realm, and I think we're really paying a price for it.

I recently went to this incredible library called the Oodi Library in Helsinki, Finland. It's like this gorgeous spaceship of a building.

You, you, it's glass and looks like it's about to take off and, you know, float into another atmosphere.

There's just so much more we could be doing, uh, if we, I think, recognize the value of the library and appreciated it. Didn't take it for granted. And I'd like to be seeing us do all that, you know, just from, you know, public dollars. But, I know we live in a world where the only way that's gonna happen in a lot of communities is if there's some philanthropy involved as well.

And it's a real puzzle to me, uh, why these mega billionaires who've made so much on information have been so stingy about, you know, returning the favor and, and being generous, uh, to the library.

Cuddy: Of course, we wanted to talk with you because you wrote this wonderful book about libraries as these potential spaces for civic engagement, places we could kind of overcome our difference, differences to really connect to one another. But since you wrote the book, a lot has changed for libraries.

Libraries have become places that are facing, uh, attacks on the books that they have, on the programming they do on librarians themselves. And so that they've become a space where we're trying to negotiate difference and navigate the kind of ideas that we wanna convey to one another.

And I was just curious what you thought about that, this development, um, around libraries in recent years.

Klinenberg: You know, we're talking in 2023 and for the last few years the library has been the object of just fierce political battles, uh, over what we are teaching kids, generally. That's the, the big issue, is a lot of communities have decided that libraries have become brokers of inappropriate information. And that has led to boycotts. It has led to, uh, calls for banning books. And in some places it's led to calls to defund the library altogether.

Uh, and I, this is for me, has been a shocking development and a, a really disappointing one, obviously. It, it feels like an attack on the best thing we have going, uh, in the public realm.

And it feels to me like an assault on this key source of open democratic life. And, and I guess that's what it is. I mean, the, the reason libraries have become the object of attack is because libraries stand for and represent the soul of a democratic society.

They, they stand for and represent the soul of an open society. They stand for diversity, you know, diversity of people and diversity of perspective.

I think what's happening is that we have a political party that's turned against that, uh, that entire set of ideas. And we have a deeply anti-democratic, uh, movement in the United States right now. And they have found in the library a prime target.

Cuddy: Beyond political parties, what do you think is resonating with people more generally such that they are kind of joining this fight against the library? I mean, libraries are in every community across the United States. We all use them regardless of our political persuasion.

Klinenberg: I think there are still, you know, right wing communities that love the library, but they don't necessarily love all the things that libraries stand for these days. And they have become hostile to information that challenges their worldview. And that's, you know, information about the history of this country.

You know, specifically the history of racial discrimination and slavery and violence. Uh, they've become, uh, intolerant of information about diversity of identities and sexuality in particular. Uh, they have turned the library into, uh, a weapon in a culture war. And in some places, that, that's become a winning battle.

And you know, the library has gone from being a relatively neutral common ground where people with different ideological perspectives could, you know, find themselves next to each other at a table pursuing the same kind of thing, even with their different interests. Uh, and it's turned into a symbol, um, that's now increasingly ideological.

And, and what's weird is the ideology it's associated with is, is the ideology of openness and democracy. And I guess what's shocking about this moment in American life is, things that we took for granted, like democracy and the library, are now being attacked.

It's - we can't take them for granted anymore. That's why the library is as important as it is, but it's also why the library has to justify itself in a way that it never has.

Cuddy: So how will the library justify its existence? On our final episode of Library for the People, we'll focus on this question and the future of libraries in general. You'll meet a diverse group of people thinking about this, from Chicago's new mayor, Brandon Johnson, to one of the city's most creative citizens, Eve Ewing.

You won't want to miss the finale.

Library for the People is a production of PRX and the Chicago Public Library Foundation. The show is produced by Minju Park and Shane McEwan. The senior producer is Andrew Gill and the executive producer is Jocelyn Gonzalez. It is mixed by Merritt Jacob.

Special shout out this episode to Simeon Viltz for his video interview with Instrumentality. Mary Ellen Messner, Rica Bouso and Shamil Clay gave production oversight for Chicago Public Library. Morgan Church and Edwin Ochoa managed the project for PRX.

I'm Alison Cuddy. See you next time on Library for the People.

Back to Top