Although a relatively small institution compared to the goliaths of New York museums, since 1973 the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) has maintained one of the city’s few cultural oral history programs. Now nearly 250 of its 1,200 archived interviews are available to hear online through the Oral History Collections portal launched last month.
“Oral histories often help fill the holes of traditional archives, which rely on material or paper-based text,” Zaheer Ali, the oral historian at BHS, told Hyperallergic. “Not everyone has had the chance, resources, or opportunities, to leave such a trail. And those who do have tended to come from the more privileged parts of our society. Oral histories allow people whose lives may not be otherwise chronicled to create a historical witness of their experiences.”
Among the collections in the initial launch are interviews from the 1992-93 AIDS/Brooklyn Oral History Project recording the impact of the epidemic on Brooklyn communities, the 1994-95 West Indian Carnival Documentation Project on Brooklyn’s West Indian community and Carnival participants, and the 1973-75 Puerto Rican Oral History Project, featuring Puerto Rican immigrants who arrived in Brooklyn between 1917 and the 1940s. There are themed audio sections like veterans and wartime, sports and leisure, community activists, civic leaders, businesspeople, and arts and entertainment. Each area has the interview subjects arranged alphabetically, with the individual interview pages including transcripts where available and biographical details.
“To collect someone’s oral history is to affirm the historical value of that person’s life, and to be able to present that oral history, in his or her own voice, is to affirm the power of a person to speak for him or herself,” Ali stated. “The historical value of oral histories therefore is found not just in the words that are spoken, but the ways those words are spoken, the accents, the pauses, the silences, the tone, the inflections, the emotions, and the non-linear way that many people remember, reflect, and talk.”
For instance, you can hear Zalman Kleinman in 1993 discussing his artwork in the context of his Hasidic Jewish community; filmmaker and author Nelson George in 2009 talking on the late 1980s to early ’90s Brooklyn art scene as witnessed from Fort Greene; jazz musician Randy Weston in 2008 considering the cultural contributions of Bed-Stuy; and El Museo de Barrio co-founder Celia Vice in 1974 in a dialogue on being a Puerto Rican immigrant in midcentury Brooklyn.
Audio archives are often in danger of disappearing due to the obsolescence of the technology, and can be more complicated to digitize than photographs, books, or even herbaria. The BHS digitization project, supported by a 2015 National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant, involved processing, cataloguing, and making accessible nine collections that were previously unavailable to researchers and the public. This included six collections digitized from analog recordings. The design of the BHS online platform, where there are timestamps for particular subjects in the interviews and advanced search functions, will hopefully encourage engagement with these archives that are intended to be heard.
“When we talk about the past, it is easy — when relying on data, charts, tables, numbers, census reports, newspaper articles, basically any material artifact — to orient ourselves materially,” Ali explained. “If we are not careful, we may lose sight — and sound! — of the human beings that are at the heart of these stories. Oral histories remind us that our collective past is built on these folks — who can be both formidable and flawed, unswerving and unreliable. They summon us to be critical, to be engaged, to be empathetic. Nothing, short of an in-person encounter, accomplishes this like hearing the actual voices of the past.”
Access the Oral History Collections portal online through the Brooklyn Historical Society.