New One Stop Search for Data on Chicago History Topics

Looking for a digital scan of the Eastland shipwreck, union membership at one of the city's long-gone businesses or an arrest record from 1900? A new digital resource is now available that takes some of the legwork out of researching Chicago's rich history, and DePaul librarians played an important role in developing two of its tools.

DePaul University is a member of the Chicago Collections consortium, a collaboration among more than 20 local museums, libraries and cultural organizations that hold archival materials preserving the city's past.

The consortium developed the EXPLORE Chicago Collections portal, which enables users to do a single search and get results from the collections of all consortium members, saving users the task of searching at each institution. Meanwhile, the Cooperative Reference Network connects people to curators, librarians and archivists at member institutions who are more knowledgeable about items in their institutions' collections.

"Our participation in Chicago Collections ensures that DePaul faculty and students have access to the unique collections and specialized expertise that allow them to do their best work when teaching, learning, or conducting research on the City of Chicago and its people," says University Librarian Scott Walter.

It's also yet another way DePaul fulfills its Vision 2018 strategic goal to deepen the university's distinctive connection to its hometown.

DePaul's library already curates a Chicago Research Guide that directs students and faculty to information on city neighborhoods, art, music, politics, business and other topics. The Chicago Collections portal supplements these individual sources by consolidating the search function for material held by all member organizations.

Megan Bernal, associate university librarian for Information Technology and Discovery Services, oversees the university library's digital systems. Her expertise includes collaborative virtual reference systems, which led to her co-chairing the teams that developed the portal and the reference network. 

New one stop search for data on Chicago history topics

Users are geographically diverse. "There is a large diaspora of people with a Chicago connection," Bernal notes. "They might have photos, letters, a rare book or a piece of architecture from a building that no longer exists." They search the database for more information about their item to better understand its context and value.

Authors are another group of users. "Writers are pretty savvy researchers," Bernal says. But often a collection consists of hundreds of linear feet of material. Writers, especially those from out of town, may want to know what is in a specific box to determine whether a research trip would be valuable or the box a bust.

Chicago Tribune reporter Mary Wisniewski, whose biography "Algren: A Life" was published this month by the Chicago Review Press, did not have access to this digital treasure when she was researching gritty Chicago novelist Nelson Algren's exploits. "I wish I had it when I was writing the book," she says, indicating she spent significant amounts of time reviewing the Chicago Public Library's rare book collection, listening to tapes of Studs Terkel's radio show housed at the Chicago History Museum and reviewing folders of content at the Newberry Library--all consortium members.

People doing genealogy research are another category of users, who are often seeking graveyard or birth records, Bernal adds.

"The big value is that it is a free service," she says.

Humanities and Social Sciences Librarian at DePaul Alexis Burson answers inquiries from the Cooperative Reference Network. "I love looking at the questions," she says of the interesting queries that land in her email box.

"Someone will say 'My father belonged to a camera club at the American Indian Center in Chicago. He took pictures of me in my native dress and I want to find copies.'" Burson uses the portal to identify who holds the material and refers the question to that institution for details.

Jaclyn Grahl is executive director of Chicago Collections and says the portal has become extraordinarily popular in the first year it has been available. Grahl reports about 72,000 visits from more than 53,000 users in 150-plus countries and all 50 states.

The consortium has more plans for Chicago Collections. "Our focus now is on expanding the use of, teaching about, and learning from primary sources in our members' archives and collections," Grahl says. That includes a repository of instructional materials to foster use of Chicago Collections content in K-12 and university classrooms and an academic conference for scholars and graduate students who study Chicago topics.