'An extraordinary experience': Des Plaines library staffer honored for COVID-19 project

A Des Plaines Public Library staffer is being honored for creating a digital collection about life during the COVID-19 pandemic and for related work.

Digital Projects Librarian Steven Giese will receive the 2021 Illinois Library Association's Reference Services Award.

Teaming with the Des Plaines History Center, Giese created the "Making History Together" campaign and the "Life During COVID-19" project, in which he's using digital technology to collect and preserve Des Plaines residents' stories and artifacts that reflect how the pandemic affects their daily lives.

It includes written accounts of stay-at-home orders, essays from high school students, photographs of drive-through graduations and socially distanced celebrations, and other mementos.

"We tend to think that history is a record of the actions of a few extraordinary people, but that isn't true," Giese said. "Everyone's lived experience has an effect on the experiences of everyone else around them and are worth preserving."

The stories and photos are available for online viewing at

As the pandemic isn't over, the project is ongoing.

"We are committed to documenting the long-term effects of this crisis on our community, which may play out over decades," Giese said.

Inviting residents to share their experiences, and then cataloging the responses has been cathartic for everyone involved, library spokeswoman Heather Imhoff said.

"(It's) a great way to ensure we don't forget what an extraordinary experience we are all living through," she said.

The award further recognizes Giese's collaboration with local art teachers on an exhibition called "Six Feet apART."

The exhibition, which was publicly displayed at the library in May and June, featured thousands of works by Des Plaines School District 62 and Maine West High School students and reflects their feelings about the pandemic.

The artwork reminded Giese of the AIDS memorial quilt.

"Seeing the depth of emotion displayed by the kids was like a kick in the guts," Giese said. "You see all the loneliness, fear and isolation along with expressions of hope, joy and love of family."

Imhoff was similarly moved.

"I cried the first time I stood in front of all of that art," she said. "I found it overwhelmingly beautiful and expressive and honest and hopeful."

All the artwork will be digitized, cataloged and archived permanently in the "Life During COVID-19" collection.

Coinciding with these efforts, Giese directed the implementation of an updated digital platform for the Des Plaines Memory archive, which he created in 2011.

"The new platform allows us to build a complete website around our collections, providing better context for our users," Giese said. "We're continually creating and adding new collections to the site."

The Reference Services Award is handed out for excellence in providing assistance to library users. It will be presented during the 2021 Illinois Library Association conference in October.

Giese described himself as an "evangelist for digital collections." He said he hopes the award will inspire more public libraries to create similar projects.

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Some of the pieces from the "Six Feet apART" exhibit that were displayed at the Des Plaines Public Library earlier this year. They're being digitized and will be available for viewing online. Courtesy of Des Plaines Public Library
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