Digitizing Long Island's historical documents

Students are preserving the past by digitizing documents and photos from the collections of historical societies throughout Long Island.

You can find graduate student Alexis Durante each week inside the digital lab of the Palmer School of Library and Information Science at the Long Island University campus in Brookville.

"These materials are fragile, they're delicate and they have an expiration date if you don't preserve them," Durante said. "So everything we do for them to withstand the test of time is really special." 

She's one of a handful of students this semester carefully scanning and capturing images using some of the most advanced technology.

"We tell our students we're not just preserving documents — we're preserving stories of the people who made Long Island what it is," said Dr. Greg Hunter, a professor at the Palmer School.

The work is part of a multi-year project to make articles and artifacts accessible online for free to anyone, anywhere, thanks to a generous grant from the Gardner Foundation. 

So far, over a hundred students have digitized more than 75,000 images from 45 historical societies. Now they're working on the life and legacy of Long Island native and literary figure Walt Whitman.

"You really get to understand the person by the things they choose to save and also the people that preserved it," said Margaret Guardi, the curator at Walt Whitman Birthplace. 

Part of the collection includes Walt's application to be included in an 1880s encyclopedia of famous Americans. 

"You're breathing in his dust particles and feel his energy," Durante said. 

"Everything from Shelter Island, East Hampton, Five Towns area, we have photo albums from the 1938 hurricane," Hunter said. 

With COVID restrictions lifted, students this semester will use portable digitization labs with scanners that can actually be brought to historical societies.

"This project has enabled our students to get hands-on experience, to meet people they never would've met," Hunter said.

Teaching the next generation of history keepers to keep the past alive.