The New York Public Library’s Community Oral History Project is project guided by The New York Public Library’s profound effort to “document, celebrate, and make accessible” the history and culture that has shaped and developed New York City. The preservation of history and culture is accomplished through the interviewing of residents of given neighborhoods. The New York Public Library, which will be referred to as its acronym NYPL for the rest of this post, has organized the website into community projects so that each neighborhood has its own site that can be reached by hovering over the image and clicking on it. An example of the communities or groups represented in oral history projects are: “A People’s History of Harlem,” “Voices from East of Bronx Park,” “Visible Lives,” and “The New York City Veterans Oral History Project.” With a quick glance at the titles of the projects, it is clear that the project aims to be inclusive in its telling of the cultural history of New York City by featuring people regardless of their race, gender, class, and ability. The diversity of faces in the projects illustrates the cultural make-up of the metropolitan city.
It is evident that this oral history project is for the people of New York City, so they can listen to their neighbors speak about the changes and events in their neighborhood and, perhaps even, feel inspired to share their story as well. I will say… I am a bit surprised that there aren’t more Puerto Ricans in the oral history project focused on the the Lower East Side given the historicity of that neighborhood. Originally, this neighborhood was a slum and unattractive reserved for America’s second-class citizens, as one of the interviewees mentioned. However, the oral history project based in Harlem seems more accurate in their representations of the community, since Harlem was, until recently, a predominantly Black community.
The essence of the project merges both humanities scholarship and digital humanities since this study of culture is provided to us in a digital platform. Given that the platform is a free website, the digital humanities component allows for this scholarship to be accessible to anyone. The website was easy to navigate and read. The Featured Stories section was useful for me because it allowed me to see/read stories despite my biases to click solely on the communities I was interested in. After clicking a specific project, the visitor can click on a person’s image and hear their interview as an audio recording/podcast with a transcription of the interview below for easy following. I did hope the projects had less of a generic synopsis of oral history project in the given neighborhood. Instead, each project should highlight specific events, changes over time, or the make up of the neighborhood to give visitors who are not from New York the ability to visualize the feel of that community. I used my prior knowledge to discern how things may have changed or stayed the same as I listened to interviews. A little bit of information would have been fruitful for non-New Yorkers.
Studies on the cultural developments of New York City have been written about in academic texts and journals for quite some time, which is why I think this project is extremely important and valuable. I really appreciate that the project fosters community engagement through their ‘pitch in’ imitative that allows for visitors to edit the transcriptions for accuracy. Furthermore, website visitors are asked to comment and volunteer to share their story. This is an avenue for people who are not directly recruited to be able to participate and vocalize their experiences. Oral history as a method has really diversified the ways in which we can do scholarship and prioritizes the masses and non-elite folks, which in turn creates a more effective and authentic story. Because this method has been employed in an inclusive way, it also contributes to the public humanities discourse.
To visit the NYPL Oral History project: http://oralhistory.nypl.org/