Naper Settlement to digitize archives with help of $800,000 federal grant: ‘It’s momentous for the museum’

Naper Settlement will soon be able to digitize — and preserve — its trove of historical artifacts and records with the help of $800,000 in federal funds recently awarded to the effort.

Rena Tamayo-Calabrese, president/CEO of the Naperville history museum, called the grant “life-changing.”

“It’s momentous for the museum,” she said. “It really is.”

Naper Settlement is calling its digitization initiative “The Whole History Project: Using Digital Media to Generate Community Conversation.” It’s an extension of a project already ongoing at the museum, the Birck Family Innovation Gateway, Tamayo-Calabrese said.

Set to be open in May, the gateway venture is essentially a new welcome center for the settlement. It will stretch 4,800 square feet and act as the “front door” to the 13-acre campus, according to the museum website. The centerpiece of the gateway will be a digital, interactive exhibit.

The idea is that over time, the settlement will make its historical collection, which includes tens of thousands of photos and other archival materials, accessible online. To do so, the settlement will use a three-dimensional scanner to capture the breadth and depth of resources, then compile those images into digital displays.

Online exhibits will be organized by theme, intended to tell a story like the physical displays at the settlement’s campus, Tamayo-Calabrese said.

“It democratizes the collection,” she said.

Bringing it to fruition will take new equipment, technology, software and time, she said. In all, the effort — which also will include the development of corresponding educational programs — will be a $1.8 to $2 million project, Tamayo-Calabrese estimated.

They already have about $1.3 million of that, with a donation from a private donor of more than a million dollars and now the $800,000 in federal funds.

Funding was provided through congressionally-directed spending allocated by U.S. Sen Dick Durbin, D-Illinois.

Durbin earmarked the $800,000 in an appropriations act signed by President Joe Biden last week. The allocation was directed to the Naperville Heritage Society, a volunteer board of community members that works with the city of Naperville to oversee the settlement, Tamayo-Calabrese said.

“The use of congressionally-directed spending provides members of Congress, who know their states and districts better than federal agency personnel in Washington, with the ability to direct federal funding to priority projects in their communities, including the Whole History Project,” Durbin said in a news release.

“With this federal funding, we are educating Illinoisans about the rich history of Naperville and Illinois for generations to come,” he said. “Through preservation and interactive platforms, this project lays out our state’s diverse story.”

Tamayo-Calabrese said it took about a year of working with Durbin to make the $800,000 award possible.

Asked about funding still needed, Tamayo-Calabrese said, “If there’s a dollar out there, we’re looking for it,” noting that the settlement is exploring state and federal grants as well private donations.

But the Whole History Project doesn’t need to be fully financed to get started, she said.

“We can get very far with the funding that we have,” she said.

This year, the settlement will be doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work for the venture. Next year is when people can start to see some digitized archives appear on the settlement’s website.

As for what those first 3D scans will be, Tamayo-Calabrese said there will be a selection process for deciding which of the city’s stories should be accessible to a larger audience first.

Tamayo-Calabrese said the goal is to have the Whole History Project completed by the end of 2026.

tkenny@chicagotribune.com