Progress on Documenting Sandy, from the Director of Library and Archives

The history of Brooklyn contains many stories of resilience and reinvention and Hurricane Sandy adds another chapter to that account. Brooklyn has come out in force to help this recovery and Brooklyn Historical Society is committed to doing its part by making sure there is a thorough and publicly available collection of material that will document the preparations, response, and recovery efforts.

Soon after Sandy made landfall, Brooklyn History began using email and social media to collect photographs. Our November Photo of the Week series featured “before and after” photo essays about areas impacted by the storm. We have a Storify page where you can see some of these photos, and you can still contribute: tweet photos to @brooklynhistory or using the hashtags #brooklynphotos and #sandy, or email us at library@brooklynhistory.org, with “Sandy” in the subject line.

Throughout the fall, BHS has turned its efforts to more systematic documentation of the storm. Journalists sometimes refer to their work as the first rough draft of history. I think of the archive’s work coming just behind the news cycle to collect the information that writers and researchers will need to write the second, third, and thirty-fourth drafts of our history. To that end, we have started up collecting efforts in several areas. Some of these projects are already in progress, although the most intense work will happen in the first months of 2013, and some will go on for a few years:

  • Dozens of compelling photos are being collected and nearly a hundred reports, articles, maps, and other publications have been tagged for ingest into a digital archive.
  • We’re meeting with grass-roots and community-based relief agencies , with the goal of making the records of their work accessible through BHS. We are also indexing or seeking copies of records from government agencies and NGOs to facilitate future research.
  • Field projects will document people’s individual experiences and the impact on the built environment, through partnership with some great professional associations of historians, writers, architects, and urban planners.

A fundamental part of our business in the Library and Archives is collecting the artifacts and documents of the past, but there is a growing importance and urgency to collecting the present. Our Sandy documentation project is serving as an important field test of the best ways to do systematic documentation in the moment. Disasters are an obvious example of the when and why of this kind of collecting, but many other major events could fall into this category, political demonstrations or major urban development projects, for example.

Outside of newsworthy events, present-tense collecting becomes more important as more records are born digital and have entirely digital lifecycles. We cannot assume that those records will be waiting for us a year from now, let alone a generation into the future, out in the attic or off in the warehouse. Indeed, the Sandy archive will be our most substantial born-digital project to date.

As our Sandy documentation project develops, there is tremendous potential for exhibits, research, and programming around this growing archive, which should be a natural complement to our research efforts on the waterfront, community building, urban planning, and public policy. In the next week, we will finish planning our partnerships with several agencies that will help carry this project forward, and I look forward to bringing you that news, along with information about how you can help.

As always, what I most look forward to is seeing you here in the Othmer Library: for research, for simple enjoying of the cool and quiet, and in the near future, for a couple good public policy throw-downs about the lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy.

Leah Loscutoff. [Cleaning Records at the Norton Records Archives]. Red Hook, Brooklyn, NY: 2012.

Leah Loscutoff, an archivist who oversees BHS’s CHART digitization projects, took this photo at Norton Records. Leah spent several days working with the staff and volunteers to salvage Norton’s collections. Collections were moved from their flooded warehouse in Red Hook to their Prospect Heights office, where this photo was taken, the week after Sandy. The storm had a terrible impact on independent publishers and record labels, artists and their studio spaces, and individual collectors. You can learn more about Norton Records and their recovery story at their site, http://www.nortonrecords.com/.

About Jacob Nadal

Jacob Nadal served as Director Library and Archives for the Brooklyn Historical Society from 2012-2014. Prior to this, Jake has worked on collection management, preservation and conservation, and digital library projects in a variety of different settings, from major research libraries to post-conflict archives in Liberia. He served as the Preservation Officer for UCLA Library, Preservation Field Service Librarian and Acting Head of Collections Care for The New York Public Library, and as Head of the E. Lingle Craig Preservation Laboratory at Indiana University, Bloomington. He teaches in graduate programs in library and information science and leads professional workshops with numerous state and local cultural heritage groups. He received a Masters degree in Library Science from Indiana University, Bloomington and a Bachelors degree in Music from the University of Puget Sound.
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