The University of Chicago’s Joseph Regenstein Library is one of the largest research libraries in the world, with over 7.7 million volumes in its collection. But books aren’t the only worthwhile reading material in the building–anyone who walks the perimeter of the bookstacks can’t help but notice the scribbled musings, large and small, that find their way into the library’s private study areas.
While these complaints, pleas, and words of advice have been quietly appreciated by some before their inevitable whitewashing by the library’s janitorial staff, Quinn Dombrowski, a library staff member who graduated from the University in 2006 with a joint BA/MA, has been working hard since the summer of 2007 to document and preserve the quiet desperation of the university’s overworked students. Her prolific Flickr page is home to nearly eight hundred photos of Reg graffiti, which have caught the attention of the LA Times’ “Jacket Copy” book blog and Chicagoist, among others.
Dombrowski says she got the idea shortly after she was hired at the Reg. While wandering through the stacks with her camera and looking at the books, she began to pay more and more attention to the quirky words on the walls instead. “They’re really a window onto the authentic UofC culture,” she explained over coffee. “It’s very stereotypically geeky. There’s no attempt to gussy it up for prospective students.”
With exceptions, much of the graffiti is by turns amusing and touching. “I’m in love and it’s finals week,” someone has noted, expressing with simplicity a sweet and easily relatable complication. Someone else informs the reader plainly, “I dislike Frankenstein.” Many of the more interesting scrawls come from the interactions that blossom from one initial comment: “Why can’t I get higher than a B on a paper?” one exasperated student queries, and impatient advice balloons out beside it: “You should write better,” someone explains, and someone else offers the longer recommendation, “I got an A- once. Maybe you should concentrate more and not write on walls. It shows you’re distracted.”
There is something unique, Dombrowski says, about the UofC’s graffiti. Her project has brought her a new interest in library graffiti, and a recent peek inside the University of Michigan’s library revealed “a lot more love and sex and frats, but very little in the way of the charming graffiti the UofC is known for.”
Since her Flickr album began to receive more attention this year, Dombrowski has managed to present the graffiti in a number of new formats, from buttons to shirts to, more recently, a book–“Crescat Graffiti, Vita Excolatur: Confessions of the University of Chicago.” Signed copies are on sale throughout Hyde Park, from 57th Street Books to Powell’s. Dombrowski has also announced a RegRemix contest through her website crescatgraffiti.com, in which she is encouraging people to restructure a sample of graffiti in some new format, with graffitied paraphernalia going out as prizes for the winning entries.
At present, due partially to her sudden exposure and a need to issue “preemptive disclaimers” about not ruining university property, Dombrowski has put graffiti documentation on the back burner for a while. Still, being no stranger to a myriad of pet projects, she has continued to find ways of amusing herself with her camera. “I’m really inspired by the South Asian book covers on the fourth floor [of the Regenstein],” she explains, referencing the colorful and often trippy books written primarily in a number of Indian languages. For each image, she makes an amused guess at the title of the book, based on the cover. There are already over five hundred photos.