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Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) Launches website, The Packer Collegiate Institute: A Story of Education in Brooklyn

By Julie May

Posted on November 13, 2017


In 1845, a group of Brooklynites formed a committee to establish a school for “Female Education.” This group established a board of trustees, raised money to build the school and it opened as The Brooklyn Female Academy on Joralemon Street in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn with increasing success year after year.  A fire nearly destroyed the school’s future in 1853, but Harriet Putnam Packer offered the funds to rebuild. The school was designed by Minard LaFever (also known for St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church) and reopened as The Packer Collegiate Institute in 1854. The school was known to provide a distinguished education to young women in Brooklyn and beyond throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and became coeducational in 1972.

A new website, The Packer Collegiate Institute: A Story of Education in Brooklyn tells the rich and sundry stories of Packer’s educational development in the context of Brooklyn’s commercial and social development. The site culminates a project to preserve, process, and make accessible the institutional archive of The Packer Collegiate Institute with funding from the Leon Levy Foundation and The Packer Collegiate Institute with three main components: the school’s history told through narrative essays, digitized collection items visible in the gallery, and student research papers in video and essay format that reflect the rich topics found within the collection.

The Packer Collegiate Institute records (2014.019)Over the past two years, processing archivist, John Zarrillo and archival assistants, prepared and transferred the collection to climate-controlled storage, completed some necessary conservation/preservation work, and selected initial collections/items to digitize. John published the extensive finding aid to New York University’s finding aid portal to assist researchers in discovering the collection. The records contain administrative records related to finances, the campus’s architecture, Board of Trustees minutes, student publications, photographs, audiovisual media, and event ephemera dating from about 1780 to as recently as 2016. In addition to the finding aid, the documents highlighted throughout the website are accessible via the Gallery. Multi-page documents and photographs are viewable alongside detailed catalog information including descriptions, dates, authors, and subjects.


The Story of Packer


Once the collection was fully processed, a digital curator, Teresa Iacobelli, spent hours researching The Packer Collegiate Institute records at Brooklyn Historical Society. Her research flows together in a narrative history accessible in digestible, but content-rich chapters. She follows the school’s beginnings in 1845 offering education to young women beyond grade school, through a fire in 1853 that nearly destroyed its ambitious beginnings, and the transformation into a coeducational institution.  The narrative reveals Packer’s participation in society throughout wars and Brooklyn’s unflagging urban development. A major component of Packer’s history is how the curriculum changed to reflect American values, customs, and perceptions on the importance of education for both men and women in an evolving world.

“The story of PCI is more than the story of a school. It is one of social and economic transformation in Brooklyn and the United States. It is the story of the development of urban growth and institution-building, of the evolving status of American women, and of the changing beliefs about the nature of education and its role in American society.” – The Story of Packer (

Packer Students in the Archives


As soon as the collection became available to researchers, Dr. Sarah Strauss, History Faculty at The Packer Collegiate Institute, immediately made use of it.  She developed an advanced topics history course called Making History.  The course enables students to conduct original research to gain insight into history by using the materials held in the Packer Collegiate Institute records (2014.019) housed at Brooklyn Historical Society’s Othmer Library. Students visit the Othmer Library much like any other researchers, but with special assistance from Reference Librarian Cecily Dyer and supervision from Dr. Strauss.  Throughout the semester, students learn about care and handling of rare documents, take photographs of relevant materials, record citations, and develop their skills as historians. The students’ focused research is delivered in two forms: first, in the composition of a scholarly essay; and second, in a public presentation at a scholarly symposium held at the end of the academic year. The Packer Collegiate Institute: A Story of Education in Brooklyn website features the first year’s student presentations and this year’s student essays. The Student Projects section of the site will grow with each Making History class that delves into Packer’s history using the archival collection.

“Last year I took Packer’s new Advanced Topics class in archival research, where we were given access to hundreds of boxes of the school’s historical primary sources. It was a really unique experience to be a high school student doing such intense research—being trusted to handle important documents and artifacts, some of which dated back to the 1800s. It was both exciting and somewhat nerve-racking to delve into those initial boxes…Stepping into the BHS library, and settling down with a box, I immediately felt like I was traveling back in time. Being able to spend so much focused time with just a handful of archives was a very intimate experience. For my research project, I looked at some of Packer’s curriculum catalogues from the 1950s and ‘60s, along with editorials from Packer’s student publications from the ‘60s and ‘70s on issues pertaining to feminism and freedom of expression. After just a few visits to the library, I felt like I really knew the girls whose writing I had been picking apart and analyzing, and that’s what made the research, as difficult as it was at times, that much more interesting and exciting to conduct.” Testimonial from Delilah Righter, Class of 2017

Teen CouncilIn addition to the Packer Making History course, BHS’s Teen Council also benefitted from access to the Packer records. The program welcomes 15 – 20 high school students from various local high schools to research and interpret an element of Brooklyn history. Inspired by the Women’s Marches and the importance of education for their generation, the 2017 Brooklyn Historical Society Teen Council created an exhibition called Wise Eyes: Still Woke about Brooklyn women, past and present, who’ve been active catalysts for education and empowerment. They selected two Packer alumnae to feature directly in the exhibition. Mary Ingraham Bunting Smith (1910 – 1998) was an advocate and leader for women in higher education and the sciences in the second half of the twentieth century. Lucy Burns (1978 – 1966) was a leader in the movement for woman suffrage and co-founder of the National Woman’s Party. Burns and Bunting Smith share the space with three other Brooklynites: Elsie Richardson, Esther Cooper Jackson, and Debbie Almontaser. The exhibition runs through May 15, 2018 on BHS’s 2nd floor, appropriately located just beyond the Othmer Library entrance.


Not only does the website tell the story of The Packer Collegiate Institute, but it represents the second BHS website to use a new method of providing digital access to its collections. Similar to BHS’s Oral History Portal, 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 school’s rich historical narrative, the site offers a click-through to rich and descriptive cataloging information in the website’s Gallery. 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.

Visit The Packer Collegiate Institute: A Story of Education in Brooklyn at


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