Remembering the Houses of Western Springs: Digitizing and Providing Access
I remember, I remember
From “I Remember, I Remember” by Thomas Hood
Western Springs is a suburb of Chicago located on the western edge of Cook County. The community was first settled in the 1870s and the village was incorporated in 1886. Being located along the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, the village became an affordable location for the homes of Chicago-bound commuters. The village was in many ways typical of Chicago suburbs that developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Surprisingly many houses built in that era have survived.
The Western Spring Historical Society was formed in 1966. In the past 39 years, the volunteers of the Historical Society have built a collection of photographs of the houses in Western Springs, including the picture to the right. With some of these photographs, the Society has letters from former residents or other primary documents. In recent years, as the older houses have been disappearing at a faster pace, the Society has increased its efforts to document the change.
While the Historical Society has been very successful in collecting material, it has been able to open its archives to the public only for a few hours on Tuesday mornings and occasionally by appointment. Former residents and descendants researching their families' lives and homes in Western Springs come to the Thomas Ford Memorial Library (the community's public library) instead, seeking information that is often only in the files at the Historical Society. New residents interested in the histories of their houses also come to the Library.
The Library tries to help these information seekers. The reference librarians show them the books that the Historical Society has published and help them contact the Historical Society's members to get access to the historical data. While the efforts of the Library and Historical Society together do sometimes succeed in getting the needed materials, the results have been slow coming. Some visitors to the community have been unable to wait.
Individuals at both the Library and the Historical Society have been thinking about the need for better access to local history information for years. Informal conversations led to a meeting in the summer of 2004, at which the Historical Society and the Library committed to cooperate to make the photographs and information on the houses and their residents more accessible to the public. Staff at the Library wrote a grant proposal asking for funds to digitize a collection of photographs with the view of making them available via the Internet and submitted the request to the Illinois State Library. In September 2004 the Illinois State Library agreed to fund a digitization project. This news reached the Library in October.
Work to digitize the photographs and create a database of the images and information about them began in October 2004 with preparatory work. Library staff attended training workshops at the Illinois State Library and at the University of Illinois. Software was ordered in November. Hosting for a website was arranged, and the URL www.westernspringshistory.org was acquired. Library staff looked at various digital collections via the Internet and began discussing website design. In December representatives from the Illinois State Library visited the Thomas Ford Memorial Library to train staff on use of CONTENTdm digital collection management software to submit digital information and metadata to the Illinois Digital Archives.
Digitization began in January of 2005. The librarian in charge of the project traveled one block from the Library to the Historical Society and began borrowing files that had been used to write the Society's 1978 book Western Springs: 19th Century Houses and Their Owners. These files held black and white photographs taken for the book and drafts of the text for each house. Some folders also included letters from former residents, newspaper clippings, older photographs, or other documents.
Digitizing the photos was the easy part of the project. Staff members scanned the mostly 8x10 photographs on the bed of a Konica Minolta model 8020 printer/copier/scanner, which the Library leases for the networking of its printing and copying. The images were captured on a staff computer and edited using Adobe Photoshop. These images were then loaded into the Illinois State Library database using CONTENTdm.
During the training workshops at the Illinois State Library, we learned that entering the metadata would be the lengthiest part of the project. We found this to be true for several reasons. First, we had to decide what data to include with the photographs. The amount of information and our certainty of its accuracy varied from house to house. We modified our initial list of fields for the data after we had done our first batch of records, as we realized that we knew less than we thought knew. Second, the fields we planned and the field names on the CONTENTdm were not the same. We had to decide through a bit of trial and error how to modify both. Third, there were many documents to read to harvest the data.
In addition to sending the digitized photographs and metadata to the Illinois Digital Archive, the Library staff began loading the data onto the www.westernspringshistory.org website in February. The Library's webmaster created the website with WordPress, open source weblog software. The website's main page shows the most recently entered house records. Visitors will see that each record has at least one photograph, the address, the date of construction, and collection data. A click on the photograph will retrieve a larger version of the photograph. Visitors will also find that they can browse the collection by street using the directory on the left side of the screen, or they may search the collection by keywords using the search box on the right side. In the bottom right corner of each record is an indication whether there have been any comments made about the house. Visitors may click the word comments to read the memories of others or to leave a message of their own.
While we were digitizing and scanning photographs, we were also planning our publicity for the project. We wrote promotional notes throughout the project for our local newsletter, posted the information on our Library website, and spoke with our community news reporters. We also mentioned the project at all our history lectures, and we attended Historical Society meetings to report our progress and ask for guidance.
We held two public programs on the architecture of Western Springs and surrounding communities and contracted local architectural historians to speak. The first was a slide lecture program on a Tuesday evening in the Library meeting room. The second was a Saturday afternoon party to launch www.westernspringshistory.org. With numerous members of the Historical Society in attendance, we had another slide lecture, a demonstration of the website, displays from the Historical Society, and refreshments. For more than two hours party-goers discussed the houses, the website, and local preservation efforts.
We also designed a brochure explaining the project and promoting the website. Library staff wrote the text, a professional graphic artist laid it out for publication, and a local printing company produced the brochures. We mailed the brochure to every household in Western Springs in May 2005 and made it available in the Library and at the museum of the Historical Society.
The project has been promoted in the last three issues of Ford Library Matters, our quarterly Library newsletter, which is mailed to every residence in the village of Western Springs. Copies are also distributed at the Library. The story first appeared in our Winter 2004-2005 issue as an announcement that the grant had been awarded. In the Spring 2005 issue, we described the project and promoted two public programs that were a part of the project, including a web site launch party for the community.
After the launch party and the distribution of brochures throughout the community, the public began visiting the website and posting comments. Some of the comments were from former residents who told about their lives in the houses. Others were from current residents asking for more information. The Library and Historical Society also began receiving complements from community members who had seen and appreciated the digital collection. The best way to tell the stories of people who benefited from the project is to include their comments to the website.
In the Summer 2005 issue, we announced that the website was available. We produced a brochure about the project and mailed it to every residence in Western Springs. We also distributed the brochure from the Library and the Historical Society's museum.
The Library and Historical Society have committed to continuing and expanding the project. The grant allowed the partners to acquire software, learn digitization skills, choose metadata categories, and establish a website. With all of this in place, the partners can continue the process with reduced costs.
The Library still has the lease on the scanning equipment (not paid for by the grant), has a website, and has trained staff to do the work. The Historical Society has other items that can be digitized, including photographs of houses, businesses, schools, churches, and government buildings.
The Library and Historical Society are forming a steering committee to plan further additions to the local history website. Some volunteers from the Historical Society will help with the digitization of documents. Library staff will also continue to oversee the process and the posting of items to the joint local history website.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs2.5 License.
This work is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License