Meet Nell Taylor

Nell is the founder and executive director of Read/Write Library and a user experience, data, and discovery consultant. Clients range from global NGOs, government, and Fortune 500 brands to arts education data. Previously, she led planning, research, and communications at an artist's studio that produced interactive video installations for Esquire, Qualcomm, Sundance Film Festival, and the National Portrait Gallery. Nell has spoken at SXSW Interactive, TEDActive, MIT, DPLAFest, Code4Lib, and ORD Camp, among others. She was a 2015/16 National Arts Strategies Creative Communities Fellow. Read/Write Library has been featured in the New York Times, on NPR’s All Things Considered, and as the cover story in the Chicago Reader.


What do you geek out about?

This is going to sound cheesy, but all the ways people who make culture are literally connected to each other. Not in a metaphoric or spiritual way — though I know and respect folx who believe that, too — but in a way where it is so easy to disprove the "one great man" theory of so much art and social change, and to trace who else should have gotten credit, who is doing the work now, who is supporting them, and who we need to support who is coming up next. I'm a data nerd (by day I'm a technical user experience designer and search consultant), but I think there is so much opportunity to be had in using things that are analog to understand our community history and context. With the data from local media, you can use the networks that emerge as a social map to understand how communities and individuals have worked together and influenced each other within a region, and make sure that other people recognize those contributions. That, to me, is the coolest thing, and something I really want to scale up.

What is the greatest purchase you have ever made?

In 2013, I got incredibly lucky to be able to buy a multi-unit in Humboldt Park, the neighborhood I grew up in. As a kid, I was always obsessed with the beautiful old buildings and I've always wanted to have one of my own. After two years of living in a construction zone and the building's multiple attempts to kill me and/or collapse itself into the ground, I feel slightly less romantic about 130-year-old buildings, but I've learned a ton and because I bought it when the market was still recovering, I'm able to keep the rents affordable at below market rate. I strongly believe in affordable housing and keeping people in the neighborhoods they built, whether they are owners or renters. Not only has owning this building helped give me some security, it's also given me a reason to get more involved in the fight for affordable housing and try to get other building owners involved, too.

What don't people know about you?

I only drink decaf coffee as of about three years ago. During the Polar Vortex years, I was up to 10+ cups of fully caffeinated coffee a day and it took me a long time to realize that that much caffeine wasn't helping my energy and was in fact making it and my anxiety worse. With a background in improv, going to film school, and working in tech, I got caught up in the very bro-y idea that in order to be successful you had to push yourself and your body with all-nighters, "networking" parties, 80-hour weeks, a million side hustles, and lots of coffee. I feel like dialing down the caffeine was part of a major turning point for me in how I prioritize my health vs. my work. And my work is better for it, too.

What do you do when you feel stuck?

I have a whole process for this! I start with managing my physical needs one by one: drink some water, eat something, make sure I've taken my medication, take a walk. If none of that works, I turn to my to-do list app (I use Asana personally and to manage Read/Write) and instead of pressuring myself to do a task from it, I offload the things that have been rattling around in my head so I don't need to remember them. Usually by the time I have gotten through this, I'm on enough of a roll to get going again. A change of scenery can often help, too, which I'm fortunate to have the option to do since I work for myself. I have an entire playlist just called "If I Could Concentrate" (named for a Man or Astroman song), but really just one song on there is what I go to over and over: Alan Licht's "Remington Kahn," which is a beautiful, looping, hypnotic 40-minute experimental guitar piece.

What new thing have you learned lately?

Olympic weightlifting! I'm still kind of terrible at it, but the fact that I can do complex movements with heavy weights is exciting and baffling to me at the same time. I started doing CrossFit a year ago after 14 years of trying to find a physical activity I'd enjoy and that I could stick to. With a major accident behind me (my entire left leg was run over by a CTA bus in 2005!) and my ridiculous schedule of running a nonprofit, a tech and design consultancy, and managing an ancient multi-unit, this was no small challenge. I was shocked to discover that I actually loved CrossFit and it fit my totally inconsistent schedule. I never considered myself coordinated, let alone strong, so to be in a place where the focus is on strength, perseverance and community (and not your weight or how fancy your outfit is that you are literally just going to sweat in) was a game changer for me.

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Photo credit: Jamie Kelter Davis Photography