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Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) Launches Oral History Portal

By Zaheer Ali

Posted on April 26, 2017


“I didn’t know anything about that part of Brooklyn,” remembers writer and filmmaker Nelson George, talking about the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene in the early 1980s. “I had no inkling I would move here.” As it turned out George ended up living just a few blocks from where up-and-coming director Spike Lee lived, just as Lee was making his mark on Hollywood. Pretty soon, George realized the Brooklyn neighborhood was brimming with musicians, artist, writers, and actors like Branford Marsalis, Terrence Blanchard, Thulani Davis, Harry Connick Jr., Wesley Snipes, and Laurence Fishburne. “You could see Halle Berry walking down Dekalb Avenue to Spike’s office, which was quite a sight.”

George’s recollections of Fort Greene’s late ’80s-early ’90s transformation into a hub of Brooklyn’s arts scene come from just one of the nearly 250 oral history interviews available in Brooklyn Historical Society’s newly launched oral history portal website. The portal hosts collections of interviews documenting the histories of Brooklyn’s diverse ethnic and cultural communities. Some of these interviews date back to 1973, with narrators born as early as 1880.

The portal culminates a project initiated by a 2015 National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant, with additional support from The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, to digitize, process, catalogue, and make accessible interviews that comprise nine previously unavailable oral history collections. Additional funding from New York Community Trust made it possible to build the web interface.

As Brooklyn Historical Society’s Oral Historian, I am especially excited by the portal’s launch. Six of the earliest collections included here were digitized from original analog recordings, and this is the first time we are getting to hear many of them! Every accent, every vocal inflection, every laugh, every pause, reminds us of the fundamental humanness of our recorded past and communicates historical data that can be just as vital as the actual words spoken.

The portal’s inaugural collections reward listeners with a wealth of historical evidence about the lives of twentieth-century and twenty-first-century Brooklyn residents, and reveal how diverse communities sought to preserve vital social, political, religious, and even culinary traditions while embracing new identities as Brooklynites, New Yorkers, and Americans. With narrators originating from over twenty-five nations, and living in as many Brooklyn neighborhoods, it is impossible to summarize in one blogpost the richness of information contained in these collections; so instead, here are some highlights:

  • The Puerto Rican Oral History Project, initiated by John D. Vasquez, a founder of Puerto Rican Studies at City University of New York (CUNY) focuses on Brooklyn’s Latino/a history. The interviews feature Brooklyn residents who arrived from Puerto Rico via steam ships between 1917 and 1940, a time when Brooklyn was the center of Puerto Rican life, politics, and culture.
  • Three collections describe the rich cultural, political, and social history of Crown Heights: Organizers and participants talk about the history of the West Indian Carnival—now one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere; members of the Lubavitch Jewish community discuss their faith-based commitment to the neighborhood; and community organizers and residents talk about the aftermath of the 1991 neighborhood unrest known as the “Crown Heights riot.”
  • Interviews with activists, founders, workers, and residents reveal the history of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the nation’s first community development corporation that will be marking its 50th year in 2017.
  • The AIDS/Brooklyn Oral History Project collection contains interviews conducted for Brooklyn Historical Society’s 1992 historical exhibition, one of the first in the nation. The ethnic, gender, sexuality, and class diversity of narrators in this collection challenges any singular narrative of the disease and its impact.

In addition, Oral History Project Archivist Brett Dion, who led a team of interns in processing these collections and preparing them for digital presentation, has blogged about some of his highlights in the past few months. You can check them out here.

Not only does the portal represent a boon to both oral history and Brooklyn history, but it marks a considerable advancement in Brooklyn Historical Society’s approach to providing digital access to its collections. Powered by the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) developed by the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries, the portal’s central feature is its audio player that allows users to jump to specific moments in the recording using time-codes in searchable transcripts or indexed segments. This is our second major project using OHMS (our first was the award-winning Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations project), and this time around we added even more functionality, including the ability to search across all the portal’s collections, a frame-free design that is mobile-friendly, and “+15″/ “-15” forward/rewind buttons on the audio player.

On the back-end, the site is built on WordPress, and uses custom plugins that make it easy to add content with rich metadata descriptions. Integrating this metadata with the OHMS interface, the portal thus meets the need for efficiently searching and browsing hours of interviews, while still affirming the primacy of narrators’ voices. This integrated approach to building digital platforms, led by Brooklyn Historical Society’s Managing Director of Library & Archives Julie I. May, can serve as a model for other similarly sized and resourced repositories seeking to make oral histories, photographs, artifacts, and fine collections digitally accessible. Toward that end, BHS has made the custom plugins open source and freely available on GitHub.

Oral histories are meant to be heard, and this portal invites us to explore Brooklyn’s history by listening to the actual voices of hundreds of narrators who lived it. Whether you are a digital humanist, a scholar or student of history, an oral history practitioner, or even a novice user curious about Brooklyn’s past, Brooklyn Historical Society’s oral history portal grants access to voices of the past in a user-friendly design. These are people who generously shared their lives with us, and we are extremely excited to be able to amplify their voices so that even more will get a chance to listen.

Visit Brooklyn Historical Society’s oral history portal:

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