The Lowcountry Digital Library is a collaborative effort to bring online more than 50,000 items from public and private archives in the Lowcountry, said project director John White, an archivist and historian at the college's Addlestone Library. The digital library will contain items "about or housed in the Lowcountry," White said.
Other partners in the project are the Medical University of South Carolina, The Citadel, Gibbes Museum of Art, Historic Charleston Foundation, Beaufort County Library and the Charleston County Public Library.
Charleston doesn't have a central archive for historic material, White said. But it has several small and medium-sized collections of historical documents.
"It's difficult to do research here because you have to go to 20 places around town," White said.
But he thinks the digital library will change that. About 7,500 items already are available online, he said.
And many of those items provide an intimate look into Lowcountry life.
For instance, he said, the library will include a diary with stories about a family's trip from Charleston to Key West, Fla., in the years before the Civil War. It contains accounts of family members' discussions about the inevitability of the war, and others about "loose women."
Another diary from the 1820s includes a man's account of dealing with tuberculosis, White said.
The library also includes a few "slave passes," which were notes from owners that slaves had to carry to move about Charleston. The passes were tucked inside a Book of Common Prayer that was donated to the college in 1934.
The Heyward and Ferguson family papers, about 1,500 documents in all, soon will be available online, White said. The documents include a great deal of correspondence between members of two families with deep Lowcountry roots.
Angela Flenner, project coordinator for the digital library, said she grew to know family members as she read their letters while scanning them for the library. In one case, a young man wrote a lot about preparing to get married. She was devastated to learn from a letter that his wife had died, she said.
White said many of the documents in the collection are fragile and couldn't withstand regular handling. But many people can see them online with no damage to the original documents.
In the past, few children could look at or learn from the fragile items, he said. "It's not a good idea for third-graders to handle 18th-century documents." But the online versions will be available to everyone. He hopes to eventually include lesson plans for teachers of students in kindergarten through 12th grade, he said.
The digital library received a $305,000 grant from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, which will enable it to grow from its current 7,500 images to 50,000 over the next three years.
White said the grant will finance the infrastructure for the project, which will grow larger, and bring in more partners, over time.
People at all partner institutions are being trained to add to the library, he said.
The project won't stop growing when the Donnelley Foundation grant runs out, he said. It will continue making "wholly unique items" available to people in the Lowcountry and around the world.