GLAMi nomination: Building a Web-Based Oral History Portal with Integrated Metadata

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

Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) is the only cultural institution in Brooklyn that maintains a permanent oral history program.  Begun in 1973, BHS’s oral history collections now include over 1,200 interviews. While the collections provide a wealth of historical evidence about the lives of twentieth-century and twenty-first-century Brooklyn residents, and reveal how diverse individuals and communities have sought to preserve vital social, political, religious, and cultural traditions as Brooklynites, New Yorkers, and Americans, they have been inaccessible due to their original recording media or accessible only by visiting BHS’s Othmer Library.

In 2015, BHS received a grant to digitize and make accessible its legacy oral history collections.  BHS Project Staff created the concept of the portal to fulfill the grant obligations and to overcome several obstacles that challenged the institution’s capability to make collections accessible: BHS’s content management systems does not have an API to dynamically feed to a website interface, the solutions that already exist were either too simplistic for its ambitions or too complicated given BHS’s IT support and financial resources, or the solution created a siloed website/online resource.
The custom solution created by Project staff is the Oral History Portal’s foundation utilizing descriptive metadata imported as XML into a WordPress Storehouse plugin where the metadata 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.  Not only does this provide a process for making oral histories available, but all collection formats held and described by BHS.  In addition, WordPress’s flexibility allows for websites that are straightforward catalogs with comprehensive metadata and interpretive websites combining narrative text with curated images and select metadata.  By increasing the records in the Storehouse, BHS is able to create a single digital repository through which all its future websites can populate content.  The plugins are freely available via github for other medium-sized institutions to implement into their plans for online access to collections.
Online access to Brooklyn Historical Society’s oral history collections is made possible through generous grants by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) for Voices of Generations: Investigating Brooklyn’s Cultural Identity and the New York Community Trust for Voices of Crown Heights.  The portal was created through the commissioned work of Brian Gomez of PastPerfect Museum Software, Boone Gorges of Hard G LLC, and Adam Squires and Dan Shields of CHIPS.  BHS Project Staff include Zaheer Ali, Oral Historian & Project Co-Director; Julie I. May, Managing Director of Library & Archives & Project Co-Director; Brett Dion, Oral History Project Archivist; and several processing interns.