Des Plaines Public Library: Digital storytelling of a community’s past, present, and future

In 2021, the late Steven Giese, then Digital Projects Librarian at Des Plaines Public Library, talked us through the Library’s migration to Quartex and how his small team worked remotely to build and launch a new digital collections site that serves and engages their local community.

Migrating digital collections to a platform that enables community storytelling

Des Plaines Public Library has been at the heart of the community for over 100 years, serving 400,000 patrons annually, and needed a way of celebrating the city’s history, while involving local people in documenting the present and future.

The Library’s existing digital collections platform was no longer fit-for-purpose for several reasons, including its inability to allow remote access to the admin interface, limited options to customise front-end sites and a lack of platform development to address the evolving needs of both clients and end users.

"Our licence was due for renewal," said Giese, "but we were already keen to start afresh and rebuild our collections elsewhere."

Extensive capabilities within a developing platform

At this point, Giese discovered Quartex and realised that its flexible, intuitive, and cloud-based interface could meet all the Library’s needs.

It was a lifesaving moment. We could see immediately that Quartex was going to be easier to work with and could facilitate how we use our digital collections.

From lone arranger to a small team, building and learning simultaneously

"I had been a lone arranger for ten years, so it was a matter of putting together a small team to work on this project. My two colleagues were enthusiastic but novices in digital asset management, so a degree of training was necessary before we could really get going."

Rather than import legacy metadata from their existing platform, the team made the decision to start from scratch and build their collections afresh, learning the platform as they worked and correcting any mistakes along the way.

However, the simplicity of working in Quartex – and the ability to work remotely – helped the team pick up and drop tasks without major setbacks in progress or schedule.

"The learning curve was not as high as we thought and we quickly began to put our collections together," said Giese. "One reason it was so fast was that we chose three small collections that were photograph-based. We were not doing original cataloguing; we were working with metadata exported out of our existing platform, so it was mostly cleaning up and adapting the metadata."

The website creation tool really saved us, this was really, really easy to use.

The existing Des Plaines Memory site’s successful track record as a community engagement tool kept the team highly motivated to publish their new site quickly, as a way of keeping their patron base engaged during the pandemic.

Three months to launch, and three new collections celebrating past, present and future

Following the first training session, Des Plaines Public Library took around three months to reach a point at which the new Des Plaines Memory site could be launched publicly.

Initially, three collections were published, “On the Streets of Des Plaines 1915”, “Life During COVID-19”, and “My Des Plaines Memory”, with the latter two being live, evolving collections inviting community engagement to contextualise assets and further contributions to expand upon each collection.

With these collections, we wanted to really create the idea that everyone's lived experience is valid and it's all part of our living history.

"We've managed to add six collections within our first year surpassing my expectations and the website itself is an effective tool to encourage our users and community partners to contribute content."

The role of digital collections in storytelling

The team’s further plans included the launch of further collections, especially those based upon community contributions that explore further aspects of life in Des Plaines, as well as experimenting with further ways of creatively using Quartex’s feature set, such as building on their existing newsletter program.

As champions for local storytelling, the team was mindful of the thoughtful crafting of metadata and user journeys to link one asset or collection into another, linking facets of community life and exploring the rich canvas that makes up the city’s history.

I saw that it would be really easy to create a website that was a destination and not just an envelope around our digital collections.

"I’m just really excited by all the opportunities created by having a really full and robust website," concluded Giese, "as well as a highly discoverable, easy to put together, digital asset management system."

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