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Houston Public Library's Exhibit Snapshot

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Houston Public Library's Exhibit Snapshot

Houston Public Library, Texas


Innovation Synopsis

The Houston Public Library's Exhibit Snapshot is an open, searchable, and expanding resource that enables global access to exhibitions of the Library’s extensive collections. As users experience and navigate through the virtual gallery, the intuitive interface facilitates examination of works with contextually appropriate functionality including close-ups, metadata, and related media.


The Houston Public Library’s Exhibit Snapshot (THPLES) represents an articulation of the Library’s mission “We link people to the world" and the commitment that the Houston Public Library has to serving a dynamic and diverse service population. Offering curated, interactive exhibits of the Library’s unique collections, THPLES is flexible enough to appeal to local, national and global customers. In light of the recent recession and deep budget cuts faced by many school districts, students’ visits to cultural institutions have been drastically reduced or eliminated completely. One of the goals of the resource is to appeal to teachers looking for creative alternative ways to inject rich cultural experiences in their classrooms while demonstrating to students that the library is more than books. Because THPLES documents and showcases actual physical exhibits, it creates a sense of place and community that encourages virtual users to actually come into the Library. However, in an age where time and money are scarce, THPLES can also save its users both. The Houston Public Library’s Exhibit Snapshot serves as a venue for outreach and education. It offers to a wide and diverse audience access to a vast, primarily non-circulating, broadly respected special collection. Organizationally, THPLES effectively links three Houston Public Library programs (Exhibits, Special Collections, and Digitization) into one elegant product.

Key Elements of Innovation

On the front end, THPLES functions as a dynamic outreach tool that brings unique and unexpected Library holdings to customers via a series of online exhibits that appeal to the eye and the mind. On the back end, it integrates workflows from multiple departments and multiple systems (CONTENTdm, Millennium, various databases) in a way that fosters innovative partnerships, fortifies preservation efforts, and diversifies staff skill sets. By bringing together curators, catalogers, librarians, archivists, and web developers, THPLES, offers staff engaging cross-training opportunities while expanding the scope of the Library’s services to the community. We chose to begin THPLES endeavor with the exhibition Faces, Places & Spaces. The Houston Metropolitan Research Center (HMRC) is home to thousands of glass plate negatives capturing Houston and its citizens from the late 1800s. The negatives reveal a visual cross-section of Houston citizenry and scenes representing the first century of the city's history. Although these images are unique to Houston, they are representative of many places and cultures around the world providing the viewer a link into their own life. The exhibition explored the glass plate negative in a contemporary context, demonstrating its enduring value as a documentary and aesthetic form. The Houston Public Library’s Exhibit Snapshot has a number of characteristics of a virtual museum. It serves the visitor’s need for a site where various types of information can be found together with corresponding pictorial illustrations. It also allows the visitor to understand the historical relationship between different works and documents in the collection. Although not a conventional one, the THPLES resource becomes a searchable database.

Achieved Outcomes

The Houston Public Library’s Exhibit Snapshot serves as a space to collect digital editions of physical exhibitions that might otherwise be unavailable to customers. It also ensures that Houston Public Library exhibitions are properly documented and preserved. It simultaneously fills different roles for different viewers: a source of aesthetic enjoyment, a convenient alternative to visiting a Houston Public Library exhibition space as well as an incentive to visit, a tool for education in schools and at home. It directly links primary source material to students and teachers with the click of a button. It also promotes Library services and area cultural organizations such as the Houston Area Digital Archives, the Special Collections Division, and the Houston Arts Alliance. Further, it fosters synergistic partnerships among HPL departments, enhances interest in digitization and digital preservation, and positions the Library as a link to thoughtfully curated and innovatively presented exhibitions. It also serves as an effective tool to identify and make available many unprocessed and hidden collection items. Future development of the Exhibit Snapshot resource will include additional exhibits, as well as curriculum kits and lesson plans for ease of integration into a classroom setting. The supporting curriculum materials will bolster this project as a channel through which the Library brings its collections and services to the world.