Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Labor of Love: Opening Up Archival Gems for Community Engagement

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Labor of Love: Opening Up Archival Gems for Community Engagement

Article excerpt

Opened in 1899, the Westmount Public Library (WPL) in Quebec, Canada, is an architectural gem. First reactions to the space often include the word "beautiful. " And while the space reflects the time in which it was built--through architecture and decorative elements--it does not reflect the stories hiding in library archives, special collections, and reserve stacks.

The items with the strongest connections to the community--the unique items and documents that tell our local stories--are our least accessible. An extensive postcard collection--made possible by the generosity of Westmount citizens--contains more than a century of relationships, historical milestones, and social history. Our multitouch table project with Doklab's Local Stories application puts local stories back into our public spaces, so people can engage with regional history in new ways.

The multitouch table project provides an opportunity to avoid an all-or-nothing situation in regard to digitizing special collections. We can now curate smaller, more manageable parts of the collection and make them available sooner. As a small team, we navigate copyright, scan what we need, and highlight the stories of interest to our community.

The Table: Nuts, Bolts, and Touchpoints

The WPL, in collaboration with the city of Westmount's IT department, recently purchased Doklab's Local Stories ( application and a multitouch table. Julie-Anne Cardella, the library director, saw the application in action on a library tour of the Netherlands. Doklab, based in Delft, has created an application that makes it easy for libraries and other cultural institutions to tell their own stories. The WPL's digital content has become accessible and interactive. Working with Erik Boekesteijn, Jaap van de Geer, and the rest of the Doklab team, Local Stories is coming to Westmount in two languages (French and English) at the beginning of summer 2016. Using it is the simplest part of the project. Working in the cloud, we are able to upload images, videos, and text, as well as create quizzes and populate maps with points of interest. Most of the functionality is as easy as attaching a document to an email.

The table was put together by Hadrien Laporte of, a local provider of solutions for large-format and mobile touchscreens. SmartPixel worked with a local carpenter to design a wood table that matched the older decor of the library. It was fitted with a mini computer, a 46" LED display, an infrared (IR) multitouch overlay (with 12 touchpoints), an audio divider, and inputs for four sets of headphones.

The Collection That Inspired the Collaboration

The inspiration behind the collaboration with Doklab came from the WPL Postcard Collection. The collection includes more than 40,000 postcards, most of them donated by the citizens of Westmount. The cards in the collection span 130-plus years. The earliest postcard dates back to 1878. How did a single branch library, serving a population of 20,000 citizens, amass such a collection? The short answer is generosity. In 1974, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the library and the city's centennial, the library board's chairman, the library director, and the city council decided to build a postcard collection. They began with only 11 cards.

The 1974 team put out a call in the local newspaper (Westmount Examiner, "Library Launches a Collection of Postcards"): "The Westmount Public Library is going to collect postcards. It is asking citizens to scour their attics, old correspondence, albums and other likely caches for contributions to the collection.... [I]t [postcard collecting] is increasingly being recognized as an excellent means of historical record and a way to preserve for posterity, more clearly sometimes than the written word, the story of contemporary times." The goals today--to unearth the treasures of historical and social importance in and for the community--remain the same. …

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