New online portal archives Chicago’s history and culture

Explore Chicago Collections launched on October 22nd, partnering with the University and 21 other institutions.

By Olivia Rosenzweig

On October 22, the University and 21 other institutions helped launch Explore Chicago Collections, a new online archival portal for discovering the history and culture of the city.

In 2011, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation provided a grant to the project, naming UChicago and 12 other institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago History Museum, and Northwestern University, as founding members.

Ashley Gosselar, a processing archivist at the University Library, has worked on this project for two years. “For years the Chicago cultural institutions have communicated about the scopes of their collections…but what this portal is doing is essentially connecting the dots and making this information more publicly discoverable,” she said.

Charles Blair, Director of the University of Chicago Library’s Digital Library Development Center, is co-chair of the portal committee. “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 and their staffs [nearly eight years ago],” Blair wrote in an e-mail.

Blair also discussed how he and his colleagues approached the creation of this huge Chicago database. “Deliberately we were looking at not skewing it so you could only be an advanced researcher who knew a whole bunch of jargon, and we certainly did not want to skew it so that if you were a professional researcher it would be too dumbed-down to use,” Blair told The Maroon.

He emphasized that the main goal of this collection is to give anyone who is interested access to the kind of information that is at a UChicago student’s disposal.

While the portal has many historical pictures uploaded to the interface, the biggest resources the portal provides are finding aids. Finding aids are reference tools that describe a certain archival manuscript and direct users to where they should look to find the original document.

Kathleen Feeney, head of archives processing and digital access at the University Library, said that UChicago’s contributions to the portal include information on historical figures, like Ida B. Wells, and on famous UChicago faculty like Edith and Grace Abbott. “Within our 13,000 guides our goal was to ultimately [contribute] about 400 of them, so we started with uploading 50,” Feeney said of the finding aids.

The University also benefited from its partnership on this project.  “We are using their code model [that was created for the portal] to build our digital collections [at the University]…we gave something to them, we’re getting something new and improved back, so we’ve leveraged our involvement in this project,” Blair said. 

The University’s involvement with the portal continues as the Library uploads more finding aids to the website.