Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Illinois' Digital Past

Tonight I did a presentation at North Suburban Library System (NSLS) in Wheeling, IL (northwest of Chicago). Although the presentation wasn't digitization related, I learned that NSLS is involved in a statewide digitization program called Digital Past. The web site says:

Digital Past is a local history digitization initiative undertaken by libraries, historical societies, museums, and other cultural venues throughout Illinois in partnership with the North Suburban Library System (NSLS) in Wheeling, Illinois. It began in 1998 with a grant from the Illinois State Library and has become a popular resource for researchers of all ages and interests including schoolchildren, genealogists, historians, authors, producers, and special interest groups. Digital Past contains collections from over 30 institutions of varying topics and formats including 55,000+ records in over 100 collections.
member libraries. Along the way, it received help and support from Northwestern University. The project began by digitizing 15 separate collections of historical documents held by NSLS. Funding from the National Endowment of the Arts and Institute for Museum and Library Services has supported some of the of the individual collections that are part of this program.

The web site displays the digital assets in CONTENTdm and in online exhibits. The online exhibits, which are web pages, allow institutions to display materials with additional information that provides needed context or to group the items together in a more meaningful way.

I suspect that this history that I want to know is on the NSLS web site and contained in the articles and other pages about the project. (Some of it articles written by program participants.) I am curious to know how they grew the funding for the project, how they fostered cooperation, and how they are thinking about long term maintenance. Who know...perhaps Kay Schlumpf, Digital Past Coordinator, will leave a quick comment here with some hints! (They'd be useful to many people, I bet.)

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Kay Schlumpf said...

Hi Jill!

Of course I'm happy to leave a comment, but I don't know how brief it will be...

Digital Past continues to grow by leaps and bounds - just this past month we've trained 3 new participants covering 3 types of libraries - Sterling Morton Library at the Morton Arboretum, Des Plaines Public Library, and William Rainey Harper College. Along with those 3 we've also had the Lenhardt Library at the Chicago Botanic Garden join and very shortly Brookfield Zoo will also join. With these additions we are up to 38 participants who are often working in conjunction with other institutions such as local historical societies or museums. As of this writing we have 86,429 items on the server.

As for your questions...

Funding - Since the original grant monies were spent, support at the System level for equipment, upkeep, staff, etc has primarily come out of the System's annual budget. We do charge a modest amount to our participants to offset maintenance costs. We are always looking for grant possibilities and sponsorships/partnerships that may benefit the program. Funding for the participants (the ones digitizing and cataloging) is a mix of institutional support, volunteers, and grant funds. It's rare, but we do have at least one institution, the Lake County Discovery Museum, which has continued to grow their online collections solely through grant funding and donations by interested parties (like postcard collectors, since they hold the Curt Teich Postcard Archives). The Discovery Museum has about a third of the items in Digital Past.

Fostering Cooperation - Digital Past really allows our participants to get "out there" and gets the community involved. With so many institutions involved for so long, it's easier to build cooperation among local entities and the institution and the public. For example, in the beginning, libraries that had an existing working relationship with their local historical society found this as a way to make their often hard-to-access materials available to a wider audience. Often the library did the scanning/cataloging and historical society provided the content. The digital object served as a billboard, so to speak, which drew more people into the doors at the historical society or library to see what else they had. Some have used Digital Past as an ice-breaker between the two groups and others as a way to repair or strengthen relationships.

Long term maintenance - The North Suburban Library System (NSLS) is always looking to the future and works to maintain support for Digital Past - both technically and financially. We seek out grants, sponsorships and partnerships that will help us grow. There's a team of us who working on ways to optimize the infrastructure to keep the maintenance costs as low as possible. Fortunately, we have visionary and energetic support from management, as well as the rest of the staff, which is key to the success of any digitization initiative.

I'd be happy to answer any further questions from you or your readers!

Kay Schlumpf

Jill Hurst-Wahl said...

Kay, I forgot to mention that your project has created a balance between feeling centralized and feeling like truly individual projects. The ability for institutions to host exhibits and have them connected from the project site is wonderful. It allows them to "get credit" for their work and boast of their holdings, while also making them more accessible through Digital Past.