Archives Alive: Democratizing Public Library Archives through Oral History

Archives Alive:  Democratizing Public Library Archives through Oral History

Diantha Dow Schull, DDSchull Associates

Archivists and special collections librarians across the country are employing myriad approaches to community documentation, ranging from crowdsourcing and scanning events to social archives, digital memory projects and documentary films. Among these approaches, oral history is especially effective, enabling archivists to animate and expand local history collections.  According to Elizabeth Sargent, Manager of the Houston (TX) Public Library’s Metropolitan History Center: “Oral histories are so powerful because it is often the everyday person that is the source of information, exactly the kind of source that is not usually found in an archival collection.”

Sargent is one of 77 public library archivists I interviewed during research for Archives Alive:  Expanding Engagement with Public Library Archives and Special Collections (ALA Editions; 2015), a book designed to highlight emerging trends in archival programming in the public library setting.  Those interviews revealed the extent to which archivists are using oral history to build collections and community connections; they also revealed current trends in current oral history work, including the following. 

Outreach to newcomers and other groups under-represented in local history collections 

Public libraries have been long-time participants in national oral history projects such as the Veterans History Project, StoryCorps, and the Civil Right History Project.  Beyond these initiatives many local archivists are using oral history to broaden the scope of experiences represented in their collections, especially with respect to newer populations.   

  • The Latino Oral History Collection at the Newark (NJ) Public Library’s New Jersey Hispanic Research and Information Center was started as a result of outreach by the library’s Puerto Rican Community Archive. The collection documents significant issues, individuals and events in the Latino Community and is organized around themes such as “Justice” and “Latino Life Stories.”  
  • Forced Migration Refugees and Asylum Seekers are the focus of a Photovoice Project undertaken by Chicago (IL) Public Library’s Sulzer Regional Library in partnership with the Marjorie Kovler Refugee Center.  Participants were given cameras and asked to document their lives through images and stories. They donated their stories and favorite images to the library’s Northside Neighborhood History Collection which produced an exhibition that was featured at Chicago’s 2015 World Refugee Day.   
  • Our Streets, Our Stories is a project of the Brooklyn (NY) Public Library’s Brooklyn Collection that aims "to capture the history of our ever-changing neighborhoods through the voices of those who have lived there." A collaboration with the library’s Services to Older Adults, the project involves outreach via neighborhood libraries, training of citizen interviewers and development of community-produced archives in the local libraries.
  • The Community Archivist program of the Austin (TX) Public Library’s Austin History Center deploys dedicated outreach personnel to generate stronger connections with specific communities while building collections. The program emphasizes community-based documentation, including oral history.  The community archivist working with the Latino community, for example, carried out oral interviews and helped create an exhibit documenting Latina Artists of Austin.  

Documentation of contemporary events and disasters                                          

Oral history work takes on new immediacy and community value when archivists document local events such as festivals, commemorations or catastrophic events. Some archivists involved with events documentation have found themselves in the position of “first responders,” helping people to process their experiences while creating a record for all community members.  Angela Blackman, manager of Special Collections at the Nashville (TN) Public Library, sees her staff functioning as “the eyes and ears of the community during important events…capturing residents’ responses in real time.”

  • The Flood History Project, organized by Special Collections at the Nashville (TN) Public Library, documented the effects of a devastating 2010 flood that affected large sections of Nashville.  By training volunteers to help residents record their memories and recovery stories the library was able to create a repository and digital portal for researchers and community members.
  • The Hurricane Sandy Oral History Project was undertaken by archivists at two New York City library systems, Queens Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library, in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 storm.  Brooklyn Collections staff conducted interviews at branch libraries and local businesses affected by the storm. The resulting Sandy Stories may be viewed on the Collection’s Blog, Brooklynology, and on YouTube.  Queens Memory Project staff recorded residents’ reactions to the storm and added the interviews to their large and growing digital collection documenting the lives of Queens residents.   
  • The Waldo Canyon Fire Project, a special initiative of the Pikes Peak (CO) Public Library’s Special Collections, involved video-recorded interviews of people directly impacted by the fire and of firefighters and police officers managing the blaze.  The library’s video production studio helped Special Collections create a documentary film based on the interviews, In Our Own Backyard: Reflections on the Waldo Canyon Fire.  Tim Blevins, Director of Special Collections, states: “The unanticipated impact of the project was the near immediate sharing of personal stories and documentary evidence that positively contributed to the healing of a community that loudly declared ‘Community Does Not Burn.’”

These examples, and others discussed in Archives Alive reflect public library archivists’ commitment to oral history, a commitment best expressed by Natalie Milbrodt, manager of the Queens Memory Project:  “Oral History is a great way to democratize archives and to make the public library the place that gathers and presents community memories.”


Sample Images 

Image 1. Pedalos, taken by Duvin, a refugee from Central America who participated in Chicago Public Library’s Sulzer Regional Library Forced Migration Photovoice Project. Duvin is employed as a truckdriver. He states:  

I like this picture a lot because somehow it makes me see how life can change from one moment to the next, without sometimes giving us the option to choose one way or the other. When I was in my country which is in Central America, I wanted to be a lawyer and now here I am working as a truck driver. It isn't the job I thought it would be, but I have learned to enjoy it. It also makes me think that everyone has the power to make the necessary changes for a better life.


Image 2. Both Sides of the Lens: Photographs by the Shackelford Family, Fayette County, Alabama (1900-1935), Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts. 


Image 3. Luke Herbst of Nashville Public Library’s Special Collections Division training oral history volunteer Jocelyn Lopez