EXCERPT: Chapter 6. Interactive Archives

“Des Plaines Memory is a work in progress…we are operating in a dynamic environment and trying to apply archival principals to the ever-expanding possibilities that come from today’s technologies.”

—Steven F. Giese, Digital Projects Librarian

Public libraries have consistently played an important role in helping patrons keep up with innovations in digital tools—tools to help find and retrieve information, tools for communications, and tools to promote creative expression. Just as they did with public access computers over the past two decades, public libraries are currently helping patrons by lending Kindles, offering online book clubs, teaching advanced computer skills, and otherwise helping patrons stay ahead of the digital curve. This same role is playing out in how these libraries’ archives and special collections departments are applying digital tools to enhance collections access and build new community connections. More and more professionals in these departments are experimenting with new approaches to interactive archives in the public library setting. According to Renee DesRoberts, archivist at the MacArthur Library in Biddeford, Maine, “I have a foot in both worlds—one in local history and one in technology—which gives me a chance to experiment with new technologies to put information in the hands of folks.”

As with other categories of programming in this book, there is no single approach to interactive archives and digital programming. Variation and experimentation hold sway. In fact, in no other aspect of archival work is there so much innovation. From the use of QR codes in history tour apps to crowdsourcing projects that enhance knowledge of key collections, special collections librarians are experimenting with a multiplicity of paths to increased interactivity in the archival environment. These experiments can be roughly grouped around five purposes:

  1. Enhance traditional programs
  2. Attract younger audiences
  3. Foster public participation—direct or indirect, on-site or online
  4. Leverage citizen knowledge to improve documentation of collections
  5. Enhance and expand online communications

Several examples profiled below illustrate how digital tools can enhance traditional exhibitions. The Houston Public Library Exhibit Snapshot (THPLES) developed by the Houston Metropolitan Research Center demonstrates how a digital tool can bring the full experience of a library exhibition to remote visitors. In fact, with the capacity to present details on individual exhibition items and respond to viewers’ questions or comments, some might find the online THPLES exhibition experience preferable to the physical experience.