In this post, current OHMA student Steve Fuchs (2016) explores the New York Public Library’s Community Oral History Project—directed by Alex Kelly—and the Library’s expanding role in the community.
Since 2013, the New York Public Library’s Outreach Services Department—under the auspices of the Paul and Irma Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy—has been leading a unique initiative in conducting community oral history interviews to record the personal narratives of New York City residents. So far, more than 1,250 personal oral history stories across various neighborhoods have been narrated all recorded by a small army of volunteer interviewers that are neighborhood residents themselves.
“They are our resources,” says Alex Kelly, Manager of Outreach Services and Adult Programming for the New York Public Library, referring to the Library’s patrons.
All the community oral history stories are housed within the Paul and Irma Milstein Division, further adding to that library’s already highly regarded and extensive collection documenting New York City history. This includes family histories and other genealogical works long used by researchers, scholars, and students.
“This project strengthens the relationship between the services, programs, and collections we offer and the untapped resources of our patrons,” said Kelly. “It’s a unique, exciting model that encourages volunteerism, brings the community potentially into the more than eighty-eight branches, and makes them the resource,” she added.
Kelly further supported this idea during an interview recorded this past spring at a library conference in Kosovo. “It is interesting to think of the programs that connect the research collections with what’s happening in the physical space and that’s one reason I am excited about our oral history project,” Kelly said. “In the branch libraries, in the communities, there is the potential to collect these oral histories to build collections with patrons that are part of the digital collections—they don’t need to be separate. And this allows people to really share who they are, their personal identities and their community identities, and connect in person in a meaningful way.”
Community oral history projects are valuable because they bring together community, place, identity, and voice. For this particular project, the connection between the interviewer and narrator is the unique thread tying together the library and the community. The community member has been given a voice to share their story with a fellow community member. The library has provided the community access to these stories serving to further deepen the personal connection the library seeks with its patrons.
While relying on a network of volunteers instead of a handpicked group of professional interviewers might give the interviews a more uneven quality, the connection between two community members gives the conversations a more intimate dimension.
In order to prepare for conducting oral histories, every volunteer undergoes a two-hour training session. They also receive a handbook with a general guide to the steps required to seek a narrator, locate a place to record, use recording equipment, ask questions, and explain the narrator release form.
“You can’t ensure each interview will meet the ethical standards professional oral historians strive for and it’s somewhat difficult to control, but I’m happy that people are stepping up,” said Kelly. “And we do try to conduct quality check-ins to ensure the overall quality of the interview is acceptable. But ultimately, these oral histories provide a voice to the narrators allowing them to tell their stories and preserve their personal histories.”
As Kelly noted during her workshop presentation, “There are certainly rewards and challenges working with volunteers, including learning to work with them, motivate them. And of course there is attrition.” Of the 60-70 volunteers trained in a particular neighborhood, says Kelly, only 20-30 will conduct interviews.
“The number of oral histories conducted—averaging around 100 per neighborhood—on balance as a community project, still yields tremendous quality. And that personal connection to the neighborhood builds that sense of trust for this type of initiative,” Kelly added.
Kelly is excited about some of the upcoming neighborhoods in cooperation with the local branches that will soon launch community oral history projects, including Lower East Side/Chinatown and Kips Bay. These new oral history interviews will continue to build on the already impressive collection being amassed.
Kelly explained that the role of the library is changing. She cited a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, Libraries at the Crossroads, in which a majority of the respondents said they saw public libraries as an important part of the community. “How to use the library and how we want to use the library is a constant conversation. But ultimately, the library is an ideal space to promote community and perhaps a way to address challenges in the community,” Kelly concluded.
To learn more about the NYPL Community Oral History Project and to listen to the more than 1,250 oral history narratives visit: http://oralhistory.nypl.org.