On March 13, in response to the spreading coronavirus pandemic, the Urbana Free Library shut its doors for the first time in over 100 years and only the second time in its 147-year history.
With the library’s closure, the Champaign County Historical Archives within also shuttered, along with restaurants, retail businesses and other cultural heritage institutions across our community. Despite this closure, the library staff continues to stay busy working from home.
In the archives, we launched our digital exhibits web page, started a library-wide oral-history transcription project and created a soon-to-be-released COVID-19 community archiving project. By focusing on these things, we hoped to bring new and informative content to the community, as well as provide an outlet for those looking to share their life experiences through the pandemic.
Our “Local History & Genealogy Digital Exhibits” page, available at urbanafree.omeka.net, is sponsored by Friends of the Urbana Free Library. It offers a variety of exhibits about local history and is regularly updated with new content. Current exhibits highlight Chanute Air Force Base, Roger Ebert, the history of the Urbana Free Library and early Jewish life in Champaign County. These exhibits contain fascinating artifacts and photographs, along with historical interpretations by archives staff of the materials and events surrounding them.
One of the most interesting exhibits on display is “Champaign’s Gambling Hotspots in 1937.” It is based on a nine-part series on local gambling written by an anonymous reporter from the Evening Courier. This exhibit is filled with the excitement of true crime accompanied by captivating artifacts and images, like poker chips from the era found nearly 50 years later in a wall and floor plans of actual gambling dens.
Our oral-history transcription project will immensely expand access to the archives’ collection of over 250 oral-history recordings. Members of the archives and library staff listened to hours of local voices from throughout Champaign County history and meticulously transcribed every word. By transcribing these oral histories, the recordings become digitally searchable as documents, accessible to the hearing impaired or those without speakers, easier to understand and generally more accessible for research purposes. As the transcriptions are completed and reviewed, they will be added to our catalog to accompany the oral history recordings.
In addition to bringing content to people at home through our digital exhibits and oral-history transcriptions, we are also readying to launch an archives project to collect records related to local people’s experiences with COVID-19. This project, titled “Archives-at-home,” will be a web form with a short series of questions, along with an area to submit digital items like images, diaries, artwork and more.
We plan to collect materials related to the pandemic throughout its duration. If you are interested in contributing to this effort, please check the library’s website and our social-media platforms for updates concerning the form and how to submit. As the archives and library begin to slowly reopen to the public through curbside pickup, we remain mindful of our mission to be welcoming, spark curiosity and contribute to a strong social fabric. Our efforts while working from home embody these ideals, and we hope to keep the community engaged with local history and its creation.