Silent Stories: Interview with the creators of Brooklyn Public Library project “Our Streets, Our Stories”

This material first appeared on the Library Portal on September 27, 2022, in Latvian. I interviewed Tania Evans as an editor of the media, which is run by the Library Development Centre at the National Library of Latvia. For the material to be available in English as well, I’m re-posting it on the Sea Library’s website.

Next year will mark 10 years since the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) in New York, USA, launched a community studies project, collecting, recording and digitally storing the stories of residents of Brooklyn neighborhoods. The ambitious and at the same time intimate project “Our Streets, Our Stories” is easily accessible to every citizen of the world on the interactive map.

Brooklyn is a borough of New York City on the western part of Long Island. It is also the most populated area of ​​the city with about 2.5 million inhabitants. Once crime-ridden, Brooklyn became a hipster subculture destination in the 21st century. As a result, the district’s appeal, popularity (and therefore property prices) grew so rapidly that today more and more affluent residents can afford to live there, and the face of Brooklyn is changing. During the changes, local history acquires additional value.

The meticulous project Our Streets, Our Stories continues today, both by listening to whatever stories are on the heart of Brooklynites, and by periodically recording thematically focused stories, for example, listening to memories during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It should be noted that the pandemic has not been the only challenge US libraries have had to deal with in the past two years. In January 2022, The New York Times wrote that parents, activists, lawmakers, and library patrons across the country are submitting books for censorship at a rate not seen in the past twenty years (since the American Library Association has been recording such numbers). Most of the banned books deal with topics such as race, sexuality and gender. From September 18 to 24, Banned Books Week was held in the USA for the 40th time, where questions about how to keep all books accessible to everyone were raised. BPL is one of the libraries that former president and free speech advocate Barack Obama mentioned in a Twitter post thanking all those who resist censorship.

In an interview for the Latvian Library portal, BPL librarian Taina Evans repeatedly emphasizes how important it is to give the opportunity to speak to those who are least heard, whose voices are the quietest and who we often pass by, even in a regional research project like Our Streets, Our Stories. This is essential not only for today’s community to feel heard, but also for future generations to have a more complete picture of the history of the city’s neighborhood. The portal is grateful for the immediate responsiveness of BPL employees in creating the material.

What is the main goal of the Our Streets, Our Stories project?

It’s our mission as a public library to collect and preserve the stories of our community. In Brooklyn, that community is constantly changing. That’s why BPL started the Our Streets, Our Stories initiative in 2013, not only to witness the change taking place all around us, but also to record and preserve the history of our neighborhoods before that history is forgotten. Since the project is a collaboration with BPL’s Services for Older Adults department, part of the aim of the project is also to deepen our commitment to and relationships with older adult patrons, folks who are often the keeper of our borough’s many stories.

Tell me about the process: how are the stories recorded and things collected?

 In the past, our Outreach Services department has set up a table in one of our sixty-one branches across the borough to collect the stories of that particular neighborhood. The interviewer (usually a staff member at BPL) uses a recording device and starts out with one main question: “What is your Brooklyn story?” The question is intentionally broad and can lead the speaker in countless directions. Based on that first question, the interview proceeds however the speaker would like to direct it, with the interviewer asking specific follow-up questions. We have also had targeted calls for oral histories within a particular area of interest, such as our Brooklyn Jewish History Project, the Greenpoint Environmental History Project, and our Brooklyn COVID-19 Stories Project, among many others.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, we transitioned to recording oral histories remotely, using a combination of phone calls and video calls, utilizing help from a team of volunteers who wanted to talk to their neighbors about what it was like to live in Brooklyn during the beginning of the pandemic.

After the stories have been recorded, the interviewer listens back to the tape and marks timestamps for different topics that the speaker brought up. You can see those timestamps in action on our interactive map, which allows you to click around neighborhoods in Brooklyn and listen to different stories. The timestamps also allow patrons to search stories by keyword, and helps guide the cataloging effort, which one of our archiving librarians steps in to complete. Finally, each oral history will be added to our digital collection, available for anyone to discover, listen, and share.

Has the connection between the library and the community changed thanks to this project?

The project aims to actively collect a broad range of stories from our diverse neighborhoods so that future generations may better understand the history of this great borough. As a public library system, we are uniquely positioned to discover, record, and preserve those Brooklyn voices.

As for the oral histories collected during the pandemic, we saw that many of our patrons wanted an opportunity to talk with and listen to their neighbors. So, our archive not only filled a need to save stories that were being overlooked, but also helped patrons connect to each other during what was a very lonely, scary, and stressful time for our city.

What are the main challenges?

The way people access information is changing, which causes libraries to re-envision their service models and seek opportunities to engage the community in a new way. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly important to establish a local archive as the demographics of our communities shift, something that is happening at a rapid pace in Brooklyn and many urban centers throughout the country.

The person who seeks to gather stories has to have a good understanding of the community they are working in, and also has to be trained in how to properly collect oral histories (leaving time for silence, not interrupting, letting the speaker take the conversation where they want to go, etc). Depending on the particular community, language can also be a challenge. We would like to collect stories in languages other than English, and we have done so in some cases—but that of course requires a larger team to communicate, interpret, and catalog those stories. Expanding oral histories to other languages is perhaps the next challenge for our project to tackle.

Each and every story has a value but can you highlight some that have struck you?

There are so many to choose from! But since we collected COVID-19 stories most recently, Virginia can speak to those: “I was drawn to the story of Linda Cangieter, who experienced our city’s lockdown from the perspective of a person with multiple sclerosis who had already been leading a life mostly indoors, away from crowds. Christina Li, a teenager in Borough Park, talked about the racism she experienced as an Asian-American student in Brooklyn during the beginning of the pandemic. And finally, Michael T. Mingo, a formerly-incarcerated Brooklynite, worried for the safety of his friends who were still incarcerated when COVID-19 was running rampant through jails and prisons in the city.”

Interactive map of the project Our Streets, Our Stories. Screenshot from the Brooklyn Public Library website.

What would you suggest to other libraries that would love to collect local stories in a similar way? What good advice do you have based on your experience?

Collecting and displaying oral histories requires a whole team. Not just an outreach person to identify and solicit interviews, but also staff who can catalog the material and a web team that can display audio files in a way that is accessible to patrons.

Our Streets, Our Stories presents an innovative grassroots approach that has the potential to significantly impact engagement in both the library and community, as well as to enhance neighborhood archives. Our advice would be for libraries to ensure the library can continue to maintain the digital content of the collection and be an active participant in the project. This is not a commercial enterprise in any fashion, rather it is an outreach initiative of the public library designed to connect neighborhood residents with their local history and to facilitate conversations about the changing face of the neighborhood.

When stories are collected, what are the best ways to popularize the material?  

 One endeavor that we have had success with is using the oral histories in our library’s flagship podcast, Borrowed. Because the podcast is focused on neighborhood stories, it is the perfect venue to highlight specific speakers. You can hear excerpts from our COVID-19 oral histories in “Stories from the Pandemic,” and “We’ve Been Here Before” contains other oral history excerpts about the changing demographics and community in Canarsie, Brooklyn.

Beyond that, our oral histories have been included in local museum exhibits, including the Museum of the City of New York and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum

What role and responsibility do libraries and librarian have in collecting the memory of their region and community?  

 The public library is a place to collect stories, but also a place to defend and preserve perspectives that are often overlooked or ignored. I would urge any library seeking to start an oral history project to think about the voices in your community that have special need to be listened to and archived for future generations. For us in Brooklyn, that means using our branch libraries to do outreach to patrons whose stories are not often heard in national media, or whose voices for whatever reason are not as loud as others. Those are the stories that need the library’s care and attention, and conversely, the stories that the library most needs to preserve.

Could you highlight similar projects that inspire?

 For inspiration, we often look to what our colleagues at Queens Memory Project are doing. They operate out of Queens Public Library and Queens College, CUNY and are always coming up with new projects that are tailored to their specific neighborhoods and communities.  Some other inspirational oral history projects in our area include the NYC Trans Oral History Project and Community Oral History Project, both at New York Public Library, The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, and StoryCorps.

If you travel through these documents of time and people what can you conclude: What is Brooklyn like?

 Brooklyn is constantly changing. That’s perhaps the only conclusion we can draw from our hundreds of interviews collected over the years. Our archive is full of stories about gentrification, community activism, people digging into their roots, or lamenting neighborhoods that no longer exist because of forces outside their control. Brooklynites care deeply about their communities. They help each other in times of need, and they disagree with each other about the best way to move a community forward. Brooklyn is change, and we are here to witness it all.

The illustration above is done by Latvian artist Laura Lukeviča. Find her work on Instagram @lauracmyk

Interviewed by:
Anna Iltnere
Editor of Library Portal
Library Development Centre
The National Library of Latvia

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