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At Brooklyn's Underground Library, art converges with printed word

Underground Library

Underground Library Photo Credit: Tiffany L. Clark

The Internet gives young authors countless ways to find audiences, but for some, the romance of print remains seductive.

So when two Williamsburg artists were trying to get their experimental literature published, they took matters into their own hands – literally.

Last year, the mysterious 'underground librarians' (who wish to remain anonymous) started turning their creations into handmade books and distributing them in an original way.

Anyone who signed up to be a member of what they called the Underground Library would receive a book from an unknown source, for reading and passing along. The book must be passed to 12 people before returning to the original member using the enclosed addressed and stamped envelope. In the process, a community is born around the creation, love and sharing of the printed word in an era where it is increasingly seen as passé.

The artists hand-make the books in their Frost Street studio, using materials they can get at a reasonable price, such as book boards covered with book cloth in royal blue or forest green and printing paper with perforated edges and intricate pencilled illustrations.

Members are encouraged to pass to the books to others who will appreciate sharing in the book’s journey. Names are written on the library card on the inside cover and messages are scrawled on the pages.

“Its an empowering feeling to pass it on to someone, knowing they're about to experience something special,” said Peter Karinen, the first member.

The Underground Library serves as an alternative publishing house while retaining some artistic mystique. Of course, the creators are interested in getting new artwork out into the world.

“Ideally, these books would end up in the hands of a major publishing house,” one of the creators said. “But if they don't, we believe the experience we are creating is just as compelling to an audience.”

The library has more than 150 members and has published three editions to date, with 150 unique copies in circulation.

The first release was an illustrated short story, ‘The Gotham Carnival,’ a pseudo-historical account of a Paleolithic amusement park upon which New York City was unintentionally founded. The second was ‘Forever Michael,” a sympathetic re-telling of the 1978 version of John Carpenter's Halloween.

They released “High & Low,” a book by musician Jeff Morisano, who goes by the name Kissed Her Little Sister, at the end of May. Morisano says the project is “its own thing.”

“I am not sure what I hope to achieve,” he said. “I just hope some people can get this book and enjoy looking at it, and holding it, and touching it.”

James Marcus, media commentator at the Columbia Journalism Review, called the Underground Library an “unusual enterprise.”

“Not the least because it's swimming against the current of almost every trend in contemporary publishing.”


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