William Vanderbilt II traveled the world with his camera but thousands of his photographs rarely saw the light of day.
“Up until recently these albums have been in our archives but they have not really been accessible for the public,” said Killian Taylor, archives and records manager at the Vanderbilt Museum and Planetarium in Centerport.
Part of the difficulty has been their size — some of the volumes by the grandson of 19th-century tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt are more than three feet long.
Thanks to a digitizing project at LIU Post’s Palmer School of Library and Information Science, historic photos and records like these are becoming available online. In January LIU announced it had received a $1 million endowment from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation to continue its Digitizing Local History Sources project.
“It's been wonderful that by creating digital copies of these items all of a sudden, basically the world is able to see these and see some of these wonderful photographs that most people haven't seen in 70 years,” Taylor said.
LIU’s project began in 2017 with a grant from the Gardiner foundation, which has contributed $2.2 million to date. The latest round of funding will be used as an endowment with interest on investments paying for the continued work.
“We’re here as long as the endowment lasts, which is supposed to be forever,” said project director Gregory Hunter, professor of library and information science at the Brookville campus. The project has to date scanned 80,000 images on behalf of 46 Long Island historical organizations, according to its website. Students at the Palmer School scan the documents on a high digital camera system called the DT Atom.
“I've tried to be a partner with the historical societies, so I go out and visit them, and try to figure out what … helps them most,” Hunter said. “What can I digitize that helps them meet their purposes.”
The records reveal facets of Long Island’s history that few know about. Sacramental records from St. George’s Episcopal Church in Hempstead included evidence of slavery. “On the first page of the baptismal registers is a record of the baptism of an enslaved child,” Hunter said. “People just don't think slavery was on Long Island.”
The project also scanned glass plate negatives for the Southampton History Museum. “They didn't really know ... what they were, because they’re negatives and they're on a fragile medium,” he said. “We were able to take on that headache for them and digitize.” The negatives were a collection of photos by a society photographer who was “at all the parties, at the weddings at the beach club,” he said.
The Walt Whitman Birthplace Association in Huntington Station asked for a family diary to be scanned.
“A lot of those entries are in Walt Whitman's own hand where he indicated his parents and his siblings, and then after he died his relatives continued it,” Hunter said.
Taylor said that digitizing Vanderbilt’s collection also helps with research because they don’t need to bring out fragile documents.
“When you’re dealing with objects that are that old, the less they are handled and hassled with the better off they’re going to be,” Taylor said.
Digitizing Local History Sources project
- Started in 2017
- 80,000 images have been scanned
- 46 historical organizations have participated
Source: Long Island University