GLAMi nomination: Brooklyn Historical Society Oral History Portal

nominated by: Julie May, Brooklyn Historical Society, USA
institution: Brooklyn Historical Society
category: Exhibition and Collection Extension

As a medium-sized institution with a large virtual audience of over 250,000 people, Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) must be on the cutting edge of creative delivery of digital assets in order to meet the needs of our growing constituency. To that end, BHS developed a web-based portal for interview-level access to audio and transcripts from BHS’s legacy oral history collections and corresponding finding aids. The portal culminates a project initiated by a 2015 National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant, with additional support from The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, to digitize, process, catalog, and make accessible interviews that comprise nine previously unavailable oral history collections. Additional funding from New York Community Trust made it possible to build a web interface. Project staff built the portal as a WordPress-based website with a custom PastPerfect-WordPress plugin to bridge digital assets living on the BHS web server with corresponding metadata generated in PastPerfect, displaying them together online. Launched in April 2017, the user-friendly portal functions as the primary point of entry for users who want to search BHS’s oral history collections, listen to interviews, read transcripts (where available), and access metadata.

Featuring almost 300 interviews (and growing), the Oral History Portal grants users access to a wealth of historical evidence from Brooklynites, New Yorkers, and Americans. With narrators originating from over twenty-five nations, and living in as many Brooklyn neighborhoods, some highlights include:

  • The Puerto Rican Oral History Project, initiated by John D. Vasquez, a founder of Puerto Rican Studies at City University of New York (CUNY) focuses on Brooklyn’s Latino/a history. The interviews feature Brooklyn residents who arrived from Puerto Rico via steam ships between 1917 and 1940, a time when Brooklyn was the center of Puerto Rican life, politics, and culture.
  • Three collections describe the rich cultural, political, and social history of Crown Heights: Organizers and participants talk about the history of the West Indian Carnival—now one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere; members of the Lubavitch Jewish community discuss their faith-based commitment to the neighborhood; and community organizers and residents talk about the aftermath of the 1991 neighborhood unrest known as the “Crown Heights riot.”
  • Interviews with activists, founders, workers, and residents reveal the history of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the nation’s first community development corporation that is marking its 50th year in 2017.
  • The AIDS/Brooklyn Oral History Project collection contains interviews conducted for Brooklyn Historical Society’s 1992 historical exhibition, one of the first in the nation. The ethnic, gender, sexuality, and class diversity of narrators in this collection challenges any singular narrative of the disease and its impact.

The Oral History Portal marked a considerable advancement in BHS’s approach to providing digital access to its collections. Prior to this solution, BHS was faced with the following challenges: 1) our primary content management system lacked an API, which limits the flexible deployment of collection assets and metadata to an online audience; 2) as a medium-sized institution, the existing solutions were either too simplistic for BHS’s needs and ambitions or too complicated and expensive given the institution’s technical and financial resources; and 3) the solutions that are available offered only a single-audience interface that are not controlled/customizable by BHS. Flexible deployment of collections allows BHS to cater to scholarly researchers seeking a straightforward and robust catalog while also fulfilling the needs of curators and museum-goers seeking an interpretive interaction with a curated narrative without necessitating duplicative work.

BHS’s solution was to commission a WordPress environment with a foundation of descriptive metadata imported as XML into a WordPress “storehouse” plugin that is retrieved and displayed using the associated WordPress Client plugin. This three-part process allows BHS to make collections available in a variety of dynamic WordPress page templates.

Powered by the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) developed by the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries, one of the portal’s central features is its audio player that allows users to jump to specific moments in the recording using time-codes in searchable transcripts or indexed segments. BHS’s implementation of OHMS adds additional functionality to the standard OHMS interface, including the ability to search across all the portal’s collections, allowing users to compare and connect oral histories from disparate collections across time and place. Additionally, its frame-free responsive web design is mobile-friendly providing even greater access to a diversity of users.

Working with PastPerfect developer Brian Gomez, web developer Boone Gorges, and design firm CHIPS, BHS commissioned the development of the WordPress-based “storehouse” plugin that serves as an API (application programming interface) to enable the retrieval and display of descriptive metadata exported from PastPerfect as XML (extensible markup language)—a text-based encoding of data in a format that is widely used and recognized across many software platforms and web interfaces. Specifically, Gomez created a custom XML report for item-level interview records. Gorges created the custom PastPerfect-WordPress plugin to ingest the records and bridge digital assets (OHMS.xml, MP3s, and transcript pdfs) with corresponding descriptive metadata in PastPerfect. CHIPS designed the client website that retrieves and displays the descriptive metadata and OHMS player in a user-friendly interface. While BHS’s methodology generates XML from PastPerfect, it is not strictly required; only validated XML is required in order to be ingested and displayed properly in the storehouse.  

As Boone Gorges of HardG is a longtime leader in the WordPress community devoted to giving back to the public, the plugins created to ingest Dublin Core into the WordPress Storehouse and the Client Plugin to access that data for display are freely available on Github at BHS project staff presented at several conferences and individual meetings with colleagues to advertise that availability and facilitate adoption of this workflow for their own collections.

Now, with rich descriptive metadata in a WordPress-friendly format, BHS is able to make collections available in a variety of dynamic WordPress page templates. Utilizing WordPress, an open-source platform, was a deliberate decision in order to benefit from large developer and designer communities and the minimal cost to implement it on already established web servers. WordPress also minimizes or eliminates the need for an outside consultant to add to the portal over time. Once page templates are created, processing archivists are able to create new “posts” or, in this case, catalog entries, without specialized knowledge of the platform.

The Oral History Program at BHS, exemplified by the Oral History Portal, represents an impactful effect on the research and professional archival communities in two ways: 1) Oral histories are meant to be listened to, and BHS’s new Oral History Portal invites the public to explore Brooklyn’s history by listening to the actual voices of hundreds of narrators who lived it. Whether someone is a humanist, a scholar or student of history, an oral history practitioner, or even a novice user curious about Brooklyn’s past, the Oral History Portal provides them with access to voices of the past in a user-friendly design; and 2) The tools BHS incorporated and commissioned: Dublin Core XML, OHMS, and WordPress plugins are agnostically generated, open source, and freely available on Github.