Preservation and Community Engagement at the Brooklyn Historical Society

By jdixon

The Othmer Library and Archives of the Brooklyn Historical Society are home to a comprehensive collection spanning 400 years of the borough’s history: over 33,000 books, 1,600 archival collections, 1,200 oral history interviews, 50,000 photographs, 8,000 artifacts, 300 paintings, and 2,000 maps. Such a diverse collection calls out for varied and creative preservation and presentation solutions. I recently visited the Library and saw first hand that it is equal to the task, having undertaken a variety of activities to maintain these collections and encourage community engagement with local Brooklyn history.

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The Society’s Brooklyn Heights home opened in 1881.

The Library’s reading room, housed on the second floor of a beautiful landmark building in Brooklyn Heights, is open to the public during the Society’s regular hours. Many materials, such as historical maps, are readily available to patrons without an appointment. The practices in the main reading room demonstrate the Library’s efforts to strike a balance between unrestricted access and the protection of archival materials. When possible, even very old materials are publicly accessible, and where necessary patrons will be instructed in proper handling of delicate items or provided with tools like cradles or special weights. All of these materials are well protected – for example a collection of fire insurance maps, dating from 1846 to 1932, have been flattened, placed in protective sleeves, and organized in bound volumes for researchers to peruse as they wish.

Many materials, in particular those which are too delicate to remain in the open public stacks, are stored in the archives on the second level of the reading room and may be visited by appointment. The Library’s collection of directories, dating from 1736 to 1938, are one of the extraordinary resources stored upstairs, and contain a wealth of information on the local residents and commerce of their day. These materials are frequently used by patrons researching genealogy or property histories – as I learned, these are the most frequent public uses of the Library – finding connections to local history with the help of archival materials.

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Delicate newspapers in an upstairs conservation corner (l); closed stacks books (r)

The Library is also digitizing its collection of photographs, and to date has digitized approximately 33,000 from its collection. 4,000 of these are accessible online and the remaining can be viewed on-site. These photographs include images of Brooklyn, dating back to the 1870s, and family portraits and candid photographs of Brooklyn residents. In their pre-digital states these images run the gamut of photographic formats such as daguerreotypes, tintypes, cartes de visite, glass negatives and slides, stereographic prints, and negatives. This digitization process is ongoing, and additional images are regularly digitized, including by patron request.

The Library also plans to digitize oral history recordings currently stored on tape. The oral history collection includes over 1,200 individual interviews in English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin. When available, researchers can access the audio and video of interviews in addition to the transcript, adding additional layers of understanding that may not be gleaned from simply reading words on a page. So long as interviewees have given permission for their oral histories to be shared, these records are available in the Library without an appointment. Librarians can also send transcripts to patrons who wish to access oral history information remotely.

In addition to providing public access through on-site and online research, the Library participates in educational initiatives with local schools. For example, beginning in 2011, the Society partnered with colleges like Long Island University, City Tech, and Saint Francis College in the Students and Faculty in the Archives (“SAFA”) program to teach students through primary archival materials. Professors set aside selected materials and students learn to properly handle them, demystifying what could otherwise be an intimidating and unfamiliar setting. Making archival materials available to students and to the general public – not just professional scholars – promotes community engagement, connection, and dialogue. Students learn that the Library contains their history, and they are empowered to use Library resources to create their own projects.

Brooklyn is a large and diverse urban center, and developing a collection that adequately reflects Brooklyn is, and will always be, a work in progress. From its founding in 1863 until 1985 the Society was called the Long Island Historical Society, and its collections spanned beyond Brooklyn to general United States history. Such materials were deaccessioned in the mid-twentieth century in an effort to narrow the Society’s focus. Today, the Library’s Collections Committee evaluates all proposed donations to ensure that they fit with this concentration, and will decline donations that would be better suited to a different home. Also, there are shelves of unprocessed Library materials stored in the closed stacks, which will steadily be incorporated into the collection or deaccessioned. Curating the collection and ensuring that new materials fit the Society’s mission, as well as creating meaningful finding guides, is a large task that cannot be accomplished overnight. Librarians have prioritized quality end results over rushed completion of processing.

Equally impressive are the Library’s efforts to maintain collections that reflect Brooklyn’s diversity. One major oral history project, for example, is called “Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations” and reflects experiences of growing up with a mixed heritage. Another interesting collection, stored in the archives and available by appointment, are the slavery pamphlets – eighteenth and nineteenth century copies of speeches, sermons, and reports from anti-slavery or colonization societies – primary sources from an important era in Brooklyn history. In a similar vein, a current exhibit in the Society’s museum – which draws heavily from the Library and Archive collections – is entitled “In Pursuit of Freedom” and explores Brooklyn’s abolitionist movement. Another exhibit examines the Disability Rights Movement in New York City, with audio versions of the exhibit and braille copies of exhibit labels made available. Clearly, the collections are not limited to the history of any single Brooklyn population.

My visit to the Brooklyn Historical Society Library demonstrated the complexities of maintaining an archive and supporting a cultural heritage institution in today’s digital world.  It is not enough just to preserve collections through paper enclosures or mylar sleeves and organize them for scholars. Archives must also also ensure public access through digitization and education programs, and grow collections to reflect the diversity of the local population. If archive development and digitization are said to create and foster cultural heritage and social memory, then the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Library collections are building an inclusive and dynamic Brooklyn heritage.  The Society’s commitment to community engagement is admirable and a model for modern archives.


Brooklyn Historical Society, The Othmer Library. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Dalbello, M. (2009). “Digital cultural heritage: concepts, projects, and emerging constructions of heritage,” Proceedings of the Libraries in the Digital Age (LIDA) Conference, 25–30 May, 2009.

Teach Archives. (n.d.). Retrieved from


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