Building New York Public Library’s Community Oral History Project

Kate Cordes, Assistant Director of Maps, Local History, and Genealogy at The New York Public Library (NYPL) recently published Together We Listen: Generating Accessible Oral Histories of NYC through Community Participatory Projects, a descriptive overview of the origins, processes, and progress of the NYPL’s Community Oral History Project.

NYPL has mobilized local communities and stakeholders in an ongoing attempt to create one of the city’s richest collections of oral histories. The Community Oral History Project has given rise to Together We Listen, an accessible repository of unique personal accounts of city life from the mid-20th century to the present. Apart from being a celebration of community history and a valuable addition to existing historical records, it is also part of a broader attempt to nurture and grow community engagement at local libraries.

Launched in 2013, the Community Oral History Project is a convergence of community participation, crowdsourcing and the capabilities of a number of branches and research divisions of the library. The project trains local volunteers to interview residents on their experiences of their neighborhood’s history, people, and places. These collected local memories are then digitally archived and made accessible as part of the local history collection of the research library. The Library created a crowdsourced transcription verification tool, which further allows a thorough exploration of the interviews. The project uses social media platforms to share the resources, spread word of the project, and encourage and sustain participation from local stakeholders.

Cordes’ paper provides a context to the project by way of the broader role and objectives of the NYPL in the community. It also highlights the departments and divisions that have stewarded the project, and the ways in which these stakeholders have both enriched and benefited from the project. Cordes outlines the execution of the project in a stage-by-stage breakdown of the planning and implementation, including challenges and opportunities that have unfolded throughout these stages. The paper illustrates a working example of a collaborative effort built across community, institution, and shared knowledge, enabled by digital technology.   

Photo: Alex Proimos/Flickr/CC

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