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Photos: This Game-Changing New Archive Explores Chicago History

By Justin Freeman in News on Nov 9, 2015 8:48PM

The new historical photo archive Explore Chicago Collections has launched, quickly establishing itself a darling of Chicago librarians, academics, and anyone looking to get lost in its treasure trove of photographs and other media.

The new archive is a game-changing collaboration between various local libraries, universities, and museums, created in an attempt to simplify research. In the past one would have to hop from institution database to institution database while researching a topic. For example, let’s say you went to check out Open House Chicago a few weeks ago and now you’re trying to find information about Daniel’s Burnham’s architectural designs. Previously you’d have to hit up each database individually, going from Chicago Public Library collections, to the Chicago History Museum's archive, and every media repository in between. Explore Chicago Collections changes that, creating a centralized location where one can type in a topic and search all of the participating archives across the city at the same time.

Jaclyn Grahl, the Chicago Collections Executive Director, and Kate Flynn, the Chicago Collections Portal Manager, spoke with us via email about the Explore Chicago Collections project. Highlights of our conversation is included below.

CHICAGOIST: How and when was Explore Chicago Collections conceptualized? To bring it from concept to reality, about how long did it take and how large was the team involved?

EXPLORE CHICAGO COLLECTIONS: The idea for Chicago Collections grew out of conversations between the library directors of the Newberry Library and the University of Illinois at Chicago Library … nearly eight years ago. As they discussed potential collaborative projects, it became clear that widening the circle of participants would be beneficial to achieving the common goals of preserving and celebrating materials about the greater Chicago region and its history.

C: Was simplification of research the primary intended goal?

EXPLORE CHICAGO COLLECTIONS: You are correct! We did want to raise awareness of collections on the same subject that we knew existed at different institutions. For example, you can find images related to the Century of Progress World's Fair at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Art Institute, the Newberry Library and the Chicago History Museum.

Ultimately, our goal is not just for people to find things online, but to drive use of collections and primary source materials. We want to encourage knowledge-seekers of all kinds to reach out to our member institutions and visit these materials in person. That's where the real magic happens. Beyond these goals, we are also focused on supporting our archives community by identifying collaborative projects that we'll be able to achieve together in ways that may not be possible as individual institutions.

C: The design used is refreshingly simple and clean. I don't think many people fully understand just how badly designed some library websites and research databases are. How important was design during the process?

EXPLORE CHICAGO COLLECTIONS:Yes, design was a huge consideration for us. The vision for the portal was that it be easy to use by a wide variety of audiences including researchers, educators, students, and the general public. We wanted it to have a simple, consistent, and accessible design that not only highlights the content of the portal in a dynamic and engaging way, but also adheres to the vision of Chicago Collections as an organization.

C: You all have a rather extensive list of participating institutions. Are there any plans to expand in the future? Maybe the Shedd, Adler Planetarium or other well known Chicago institutions?

EXPLORE CHICAGO COLLECTIONS: Absolutely! Chicago Collections is committed to making the portal’s content as full as possible by expanding membership. Over the past 18 months, we are excited to have already added 9 new members, making 21 members in total. … The sky's the limit!