Oral History

Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) is the only cultural institution in Brooklyn that maintains a permanent oral history program.

Begun in 1973, BHS’s oral history collections now include over 1,200 interviews. Through an integrated description program with the Library & Archives, these oral histories bring the voices of history to broad audiences through exhibitions, digital humanities projects, K-12 and post-secondary curricula, public programs, and via the BHS blog and Flatbush + Main podcast.

The collections provide a wealth of historical evidence about the lives of twentieth-century and twenty-first-century Brooklyn residents, and reveal how diverse individuals and communities have sought to preserve vital social, political, religious, and cultural traditions as Brooklynites, New Yorkers, and Americans. The collections contain interviews conducted in English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin, with narrators born as early as 1880.

Recording the voices of today’s and yesterday’s Brooklynites is just one of the ways that BHS fulfills its mission to make the vibrant history of Brooklyn tangible, relevant, and meaningful for today’s diverse communities, and for generations to come.

Searching:

As BHS works toward a single online access catalog for oral histories, there are a few entry points for searching.  

  • Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations website
    CBBG, an oral history project and public programming series at BHS that examined the history and experiences of mixed-heritage people and families, cultural hybridity, race, ethnicity, and identity in the historically diverse borough of Brooklyn. It resulted in a website allowing users to listen to oral histories and to discover articles that delve into topics of race, ethnicity, and identity. The website also features a related educational curriculum.
  • Brooklyn Historical Society’s Othmer Library
    Some interviews in our collections are available for library use only. Those, along with all our processed oral history collections, can be accessed onsite at the Othmer Library, where you can search and browse through the collections at the Listening Station using the NYU Finding Aid Portal and PastPerfect (collections management software). Additionally, you can also access the he CBBG website and BHS’s Oral History Portal at the Listening Station. Librarians are available to assist your search for individual interviews in oral history collections. The Listening Station contains interview audio, as well as transcripts where available.

Guildelines for Use

Oral histories are intimate conversations between and among people who have generously agreed to share these recordings with BHS’s archives and researchers. BHS asks that users please listen in the spirit with which these were shared. BHS abides by the General Principles & Best Practices for Oral History as agreed upon by the Oral Historical Association and expects that use of this material will be done with respect for these professional ethics.

Every oral history relies on the memories, views, and opinions of the narrator. Because of the personal nature of oral history, listeners may find some viewpoints or language of the recorded participants to be objectionable. In keeping with its mission of preservation and unfettered access whenever possible, BHS presents these views as recorded.

The audio recording should be considered the primary source for each interview. Where provided, transcripts created prior to 2008 or commissioned by a third party other than BHS, serve as a guide to the interview and are not considered verbatim. More recent transcripts commissioned by BHS are nearly verbatim copies of the recorded interview, and as such may contain the natural false starts, verbal stumbles, misspeaks, and repetitions that are common in conversation.  The decision for their inclusion was made because BHS gives primacy to the audible voice and because some researchers do find useful information in these verbal patterns. Unless these verbal patterns are germane to one’s scholarly work, when quoting from this material researchers are encouraged to correct the grammar and make other modifications maintaining the flavor of the narrator’s speech while editing the material for the standards of print.

All citations must be attributed to Brooklyn Historical Society using the following format:
[Narrator’s Last name, First name], Oral history interview conducted by [Interviewer’s First name Last name], [Month DD, YYYY], [Title of Collection], [Call #]; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Oral History Collections (chronological by creation date):

Puerto Rican Oral History Project records, 1973-1975 (1976.001)

Hispanic Communities Documentation Project records and oral histories, 1986-1991 (ARC.032)

Brooklyn Navy Yard oral history collection, 1987-1989 (ARC.003)

AIDS/Brooklyn Oral History Project collection, 1992-1993 (1993.001)

Crown Heights History Project collection, 1993-1994 (1994.006)

New Neighbors: Sunset Park’s Chinese Community records, 1992-1996 (1994.007)

West Indian Carnival Documentation Project records, 1994-1995 (2010.019)

Patricia Carino Pasick collection of Johnson Street Filipino-American oral histories, 2004-2014 (2013.001)

Voices of Brooklyn oral histories, 2006 – present (2008.031)

Independence Community Bank oral histories, 2006-2007 (2008.032)

Brooklyn Navy Yard oral histories, 2006-2011 (2010.003)

Pfizer Inc. collection,1839-2008 (ARC.084)

Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation oral histories, 2007-2008 (2008.030)

Congregation Beth Elohim oral histories, 2010 (2011.004)

Brooklyn Heights Synagogue oral histories, 2010 (2011.005)

Listen to This: Crown Heights Oral History collection, 2010 (2010.020)

Brooklyn School of Inquiry, 2010 – 2016 (2011.009 closed to researchers until 2022)

Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history collection, 2011 –2014 (2011.019)

Oral History Resources:

Oral History Association Principles and Best Practices

Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS)

Brooklyn Historical Society’s Github page for PastPerfect/Wordpress implementation

If you have further questions about Brooklyn Historical Society’s oral history collections or if you have an oral history collection to donate, please contact us at library@brooklynhistory.org.  If you would like to suggest we interview someone, please contact us at oralhistory@brooklynhistory.org.