Digital Archives Provide Window to Past

Jan 24, 2011
SCI publishes online collection of historic items from years of serving New York’s maritime community. 
Not too long ago, another behemoth contended with the skyscraper for space in Lower Manhattan. On any given day, hundreds of ships manned by hundreds seafarers carried cargo from around the world to the one-time busiest port in the world. The Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI), a 177-year-old maritime service organization affiliated with the Episcopal Church, greeted seafarers over decades of change to provide for their needs while in port and at sea.
“Because of this,” writes the Institute’s Associate Archivist John Thayer, “the story of SCI is inseparable from the story of the modern seafarer, as well as the story of the development of downtown Manhattan and the Port of New Jersey.” Thayer and his team have just completed  a major digitization of some 12,500 items from SCI’s archive collection, the beginning of a project to share the Institute’s collection of historic artifacts that record the development of New York and maritime commerce.
In 2008, SCI moved its collection of items—consisting of correspondence, ledgers, deeds, scrapbooks, journals, and thousands of photographs—from the crypt of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to its headquarters in Lower Manhattan. Archivists began cataloging the material, and in 2010 began digitizing selections from the collection.
Today, SCI opens the vault of over 170 years of history. The six categories published digitally contain annual reports from SCI, minutes of meetings, photo scrapbooks, photographs, chaplains’ journals and the Institute’s newsletter published since 1910, The Lookout. An online searchable database houses information about the historic items with links to scanned images. 
As maritime commerce’s influence on history emerges from this collection, some famous names appear in SCI’s storied past. Former president Franklin D. Roosevelt joined SCI’s Board in 1908 and served in different capacities until his death in April of 1945. Names like Astor, Vanderbilt, and Morgan swayed the direction of the Institute and solidified its presence on the New York City landscape.
From open-air tent services on downtown piers in the 1860s to housing survivors from torpedoed vessels during World War II, SCI’s archival records capture a remarkable history. “The archives tell the story of real people and an extraordinary past,” says Thayer. “Within the collection are the voices of the waterfront … from the seafarer to the chaplain to the boarding house keeper. By preserving and publishing these records we are ensuring that these voices can be heard again.”
Explore the Institute’s Digital Archive Collection here.