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Eureka grad uses website to bring Audubon into 21st century

May 13, 2012 at 05:31 PM

Peoria Journal-Star

EUREKA — Lucas Longman graduated Saturday from Eureka College. He might be inclined to say his education was for the birds.

He’d be correct - but in this case, that doesn’t mean it was a waste.

An internship with Peoria-based professional storyteller and author Brian “Fox” Ellis led Longman to develop a website designed to become the ultimate clearinghouse for information about John James Audubon, the 19th-century French-American naturalist, ornithologist and painter.

Now that his undergraduate career is complete, Longman is joining Ellis in a full-time project that aims to create a digital archive of historic documents scattered throughout Illinois.

“I’ve had many wonderful interns over the past dozen years, but he’s been one of the best,” Ellis said.

It’s a somewhat different career path for a student who began his post-secondary education as an insurance major at Illinois State University. But the 23-year-old graduate of Fieldcrest High School in Minonk believes chronicling aviaries beats toiling as an actuary.

His work also might have larger implications regarding the use of modern technology to help preserve the past.

“This internship has really helped define exactly what I want to do,” said Longman, who is from the rural area between El Paso and Minonk. “It’s combined my research and historical skills and technical skills with the computer. They’re my two loves, history and computers.”

Audubon on the Web

Longman majored in history, with a minor in computer science. He wasn’t certain that combination would lead to gainful employment until his academic adviser, Eureka history professor Junius Rodriguez, suggested Ellis’ internship.

Originally, Longman was to help Ellis research a book he is writing about Audubon. A Longman-designed website would complement the book.

As Longman delved deeper into the project, however, the website -, the basics of which a previous intern had established - became a bigger deal.

“The Web page is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, but I didn’t have the resources until Luke came on board,” Ellis said. “In addition to being a great researcher, he has an eye and skill for Web design.”

The website contains biographical information and time lines regarding Audubon, who lived between 1785 and 1851. Research papers about Audubon, authored by college professors, are posted.

“We want to make it so the website has a ton of information on Audubon, but is also a staging point for research into Audubon and ornithology,” Longman said.

The site also features for-profit aspects. Upcoming ornithological events, such as birding festivals, can be posted or advertised for a fee.

Ellis said the site, which earlier this month was launched officially, is creating a buzz among birdwatchers. It’s also created job opportunities for him. Ellis portrays Audubon in front of various audiences, including school groups.

“If I just booked a couple of gigs a year off that page, it was worthwhile marketing. And I’ve already done that,” Ellis said.

‘Man of many facets’

For Longman, who was unpaid for the first semester of his two-term internship, it’s also been an education.

He confessed to ignorance about Audubon when the internship began. That has changed significantly.

“He was a man of many facets,” Longman said about the author of “The Birds of America,” a book of illustrations still considered among the best of its kind, 185 years after its debut.

“He was a great artist and was a good scientist, a good observer,” Longman said. “But he was more of a good storyteller. It was hard to narrow it down to what really defined Audubon. He was a great self-promoter in everything he did.”

In the course of his research, Longman discovered Audubon not only painted birds - he also killed them.

Soon after he shot them, he would pin them to a board in almost lifelike position, for use as models. Contemporaries, such as rival Alexander Wilson, painted from birds that already had been slain and stuffed.

Audubon was born in what now is known as Haiti, the offspring of a French naval officer and Creole chambermaid who weren’t married. According to Longman, Audubon often would tell different stories about his origin, because he didn’t want anybody to know he was illegitimate.

“I don’t think people know that much about Audubon, beyond the (National) Audubon Society,” Longman said in reference to the American environmental organization.

Digitizing history

That lack of knowledge about Audubon, among others, has been a motivator in Ellis’ and Longman’s new effort: Historic Illinois.

That project entails setting up websites for local museums, incorporating them into a larger network and offering digital archive service for their catalogs. Ellis and Longman plan to begin with Peoria-area groups, then perhaps expand to other areas of this state and others.

“One of the things I’ve noticed is there is a lack of primary-source documents online,” Longman said. “You have to travel to a certain location to get your hands on them. That’s what I’ve always wanted, to make this historical information more accessible to people.”

Longman hopes that access will help spark a passion for the past among previously indifferent Web surfers. It’s not a demographic with which he is unfamiliar.

“I remember when I was in high school, a lot of classmates didn’t seem to be that interested in history,” he said. “I always loved history, and I was always thinking to myself, ‘I wish kids would get more into it.’

“If it’s more accessible and if it’s presented in a different way, they would get more into it.”

Ironic it might be, then, if Audubon’s handiwork someday is transmitted easily by Tweet.

Nick Vlahos can be reached at 686-3285 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow him on Twitter @VlahosNick.


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