These are exciting times for Chicago Collections (CC), an online member consortium of libraries, museums, historical societies, and other cultural heritage organizations in and around Chicago. CC named a new executive director, Jeanne Long, in February, and is gearing up to cohost the annual gathering of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) in April.
CC offers a free, centralized web-based search engine and record-finding tool that allows users—researchers, teachers and scholars, students, and the general public—to browse archival material held by its member institutions by keyword, subject, participant name, city, and neighborhood; the portal also has full text search capabilities. As the Chicago Tribune wrote on CC’s launch, “Call it one-stop shopping for researchers, from high school students to wizened academics. Call it a case study in inter-institutional cooperation. Call it a free website where those curious about the story of Chicago can poke around and happily fritter away time.”
In addition to the digital portal, CC has several other core components: ASK Chicago Collections, a cooperative reference network; lectures by representatives from member institutions; and exhibitions highlighting archives, manuscripts, and objects from member collections; eventually the portal will include libguides and digital exhibits.
YEARS IN THE MAKING
Although the concept was some ten years in the making, CC was established in 2013, envisioned as a searchable web portal for cultural heritage collections focusing on Chicago and its history. With the help of a $194,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant in 2014, the Chicago Collections website was planned and developed by a board of directors gathered from the initial 12 participating institutions: the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), Chicago History Museum, Chicago Public Library (CPL), Columbia College Chicago, DePaul University, Illinois Institute of Technology, Loyola University Chicago, Newberry Library, Northwestern University, Roosevelt University, the University of Chicago, and University of Illinois at Chicago.
Strategic planning and development continued through most of 2015 to design, brand, and build the site. Developers worked to ensure that all data formats could be ingested and displayed. A controlled vocabulary task force distilled some 13,000 subjects into 88 Chicago-centric topics. Archivists at member institutions could also tag items by topic—then–executive director Jaclyn Grahl told LJ that once they saw how material was being used, many members went back into their collections to re-tag content. “This thing is ever-changing and ever-growing,” she noted.
An inaugural exhibition, “Raw Material: Uncovering Chicago’s Historical Collections,” was held in August 2015 at CPL’s Harold Washington Library Center, featuring a display that included photographs, letters, diaries, and other artifacts that told stories of Chicagoans and their history. That October the Washington Library hosted Dominic A. Pacyga, professor of history at Columbia College Chicago, for CC’s inaugural lecture, “Engaging Chicago: Telling the City’s History.” As well as promoting the consortium, Pacyga signed copies of his new book, Slaughterhouse: Chicago’s Union Stockyard and the World It Made (Univ. Chicago Press).
The digital portal, Explore Chicago Collections, launched in November 2015, with access to over 100,000 maps, photos, letters, and other archival materials from 21 institutions. Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune reporter and WGN radio host; Donald J. Waters, senior program officer for scholarly communications at the Mellon Foundation, and Chicago alderman Edward M. Burke were on hand at the Washington Library to speak on the importance of keeping the city’s archives accessible.
In the first six weeks, the portal had over 15,000 unique users, 20,000 visits, and 120,000 page views from 84 countries around the world.
Vice chair of the CC board of directors Scott Walter, university librarian at DePaul University, noted that in addition to helping drive viewers to primary sources throughout Chicago, CC also enables archivists to set priorities by studying traffic to their collections. “All of us have backlogs, we all have unprocessed materials, we all have materials that are not digitized, and we all have our own mechanisms for establishing priorities,” Walter told LJ. CC “allows us to look at ways in which collections of interest to us locally complement collections available across the city. This process has also been extraordinary for getting our special collections and archives people to talk with one another and to learn about each others’ collections.”
INTERNAL, EXTERNAL GROWTH
Outreach was a consideration even before portal was developed, and continues to be a priority for CC.
Over the past year and a half, CC has grown exponentially. Membership has expanded to include Alliance Française de Chicago, Chicago State University, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), Lake Forest College, Northern Illinois University, the Theatre Historical Society of America, and the Chicago Zoological Society, the Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Experimental Sound Studio’s Creative Audio Archive, the Frances Willard Historical Association, the Oak Park Public Library, and the Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park.
Supporting foundations include the MacArthur Fund for Arts and Culture at The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, joined by funding through private donors and dues from member organizations. Membership is tiered, in order to attract partners ranging from smaller organizations to large institutions, and CC is hoping to attract some corporate partners with links to Chicago history as well, such as the Chicago Cubs or McDonalds—“where the corporation and the community have been tightly bound together for decades,” noted Walter.
In partnership with local NPR affiliate WBEZ, CC produced an August 2016 segment for the Curious City, which digs into local topics of interest. Using material from various CC member collections, the podcast and article “Zeppelin Poseurs: Why Chicago’s Airship Dreams Never Took Off” looked at Chicago architecture of the 1920s and 1930s, searching for airship mooring masts and investigating why, exactly, dirigible travel technology never quite took off. A second jointly produced show, on the history of Chicago’s Boystown—one of the first recognized gay communities in the United States—is in the works.
CC has also worked with the Chicago Metro History Education Center and the Library of Congress’s (LC) Teaching with Primary Sources program, and the LC Digital Preservation and Outreach Program for a Digital Preservation Member workshop; and has sponsored several Wikipedia Edit-a-Thons on Chicago topics, as well as professional development programs and researcher round tables. The speaker series continues as well, with the Washington Library hosting author and historian Julia S. Bachrach last January to speak on local public park spaces. On March 28, Brad Hunt, vice president for research and academic programs at the Newberry Library, will speak on little-known aspects of Chicago city planning.
Currently CC has seen some 79,000 users from 165 countries and all 50 states. In 106,500 sessions, they have logged 575,000 page views; more than 150 questions have been posed and answered through ASK Chicago Collections since its launch.
NEWS FROM CC
On February 6, CC announced the appointment of Jeanne Long as executive director, succeeding Grahl, who shepherded CC from its inception to implementation. Long served most recently as director of programs and outreach for Imerman Angels, the nation’s largest one-on-one cancer support organization. Previously, Long had an extensive career with CC’s partners, AIC and SAIC, where she served as director of committee partnership.
“I think what attracted me to this consortium was the idea of being able to work with all the major cultural centers and libraries,” Long told LJ, “and having a working consortium that not only is serving knowledge of Chicago’s rich resources, but serving general public inquiry throughout the world. It’s frankly been an honor to witness the commitment from so many professionals in this field.”
This April 20–21 CC will cohost DPLAfest 2017 with the Black Metropolis Research Consortium, CPL, and the Reaching Across Illinois Library System (RAILS). CPL became one of DPLA’s Illinois service hubs in 2015, along with the Illinois State Library, the Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois (CARLI), and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, previously a Content Hub partner. This year’s gathering, held at the Washington Library, will mark DPLA’s fourth major event bringing together librarians, archivists, museum professionals, developers, publishers, teachers, and others for interactive workshops, presentations and discussions, hackathons, and other events.
Among other initiatives, CC is developing digital exhibitions working with member content. Currently the board is taking guest curator applications for a digital exhibition to launch in late summer or early fall 2018, looking at Chicago’s tradition of cultural change and protest.
The exhibition, tentatively titled “The Long Tale of Protest: Chicagoans Raise Their Voices,” will use materials from member archives to document events and individuals who “advocated, protested, resisted, or simply lived through events that convulsed and transformed the city,” according to the application; the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention will serve as a pivot point for the exhibition.
Protest, said Walter, “is a strong tradition here in the city of Chicago, and one that’s been reinvigorated in the last 12–18 months. So I think we will be able to reflect the lessons of history from the largest movements to the grassroots neighborhood movements, and [this will] help us to think about what that means for the future.”
THE POWER OF ARCHIVES
What’s next for CC? “To continue and to promote it to a wider audience,” said Long, “and to put the consortium in different populations and arenas—looking at it as not only a reference tool but a…tool for other conversations, be it on a corporate front or everyday public life.”Walter hopes that CC will not only serve the Chicago community, but help grow awareness of the “unique power of library archives” in collaboration. He noted, “When our mayor talks, for example, he’ll talk about the architecture, certain aspects of the city that he often refers to as distinctive strengths…. He often touts our universities, and he often touts our museums. And we would like to get libraries alongside museums, as some of the talking points to help him begin speaking more broadly about Chicago as a cultural heritage center.”
As planning proceeds for the Barack Obama Presidential Center—to be located in Chicago’s Jackson Park—said Walter, “we’ll certainly be knocking on the door.”
In the meantime, CC will continue to reach out to new cultural heritage organizations and institutions, both to grow its constituent collections and to help ensure its sustainability going forward. “By simultaneously growing our numbers and the awareness that we’re stronger together, and sharing that,” said Long, “that will provide…awareness of our jewels that have yet to be uncovered by a bigger audience.”
“I think our pitch is unique because we are bringing together libraries, archives, and museums,” Walter added. “My hope is that even as belts tighten—whether that’s at the institutional level, the foundation level, the individual giving level, or the federal level—[CC] is going to look like a winner. This is going to look like exactly the kind of collaborative, forward-looking public-facing cultural heritage initiative that should be funded.”