Last week, we asked how digital projects are transforming our study of early American life and culture. Here’s the first in a series of interviews with historians who tell us what worked, how digital tools shaped the narrative, and where they want to go next on the digital frontier. This week, we asked the Brooklyn Historical Society for a peek at the making of a special digital exhibit on the Lefferts family of New York. As Breuckelen becomes Brooklyn, readers can link to local sites where the Lefferts family lived and worked, including the Lefferts Historic Homestead in Prospect Park (shown here: Historical re-enactors gathering on the front steps in 1938). The Leffertses were influential landowners, politicians, historians, financiers—and also one of the county’s biggest slaveholding families. Their letters, farm accounts, and recipe books offer a new and very personal window on New York’s development.Our thanks to Jacob Nadal, the Director of Library and Archives, and Julie Golia, Public Historian and Curator, who kindly took our questions on bringing nearly four centuries of Brooklyn to digital life.
JUNTO: The Lefferts Family Papers form a rich, multigenerational collection, and the website is an interesting new model of using family stories to tell local history. What choices did you make in organizing the archive for research?
NADAL: The finding aid is created according to the usual archivist’s practices. Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS) is the touchstone for the field right now, and for something like the Lefferts collection, we process to a pretty deep level. The collection has 8 series/fonds and most things get folder or item level description within those series. The collection contains many kinds of materials, and you can read all about it in the descriptive summary of the finding aid.
JUNTO: Why feature this family? How did you shape the narrative and aesthetics of the site? What kind of audience did you have in mind, and how have readers responded to it?
GOLIA: I spent some wonderful weeks just wallowing in the collection. One of the things that really struck me was how this family served as a lens to tell unknown stories about Brooklyn’s rural past. What the site illustrates really well is that Brooklyn has an alternative urban history. We’ve been hearing the mainstream urban history of New York’s development for some time now—that’s what’s in the public’s mind and the historian’s mind. The idea that Brooklyn was also this important rural center needed to be brought back in, that was my meta-goal.
We always wanted to reach a diverse audience with the exhibit. We have a beautiful landmarked 1881 building but exhibit space is limited. We saw the web as a wonderful, limitless extension of display space. The primary audience is a virtual museum-goer. Also, teachers and advanced students. The voice I used to write the content was with a high school audience in mind, as well as researchers looking to gain access to the collection. The exciting part for me was I’ve seen evidence of all these audiences. Our tracking on Google Analytics shows that on average, people stay on the site for more than a few minutes, and they click around to more than one page. Before the launch, I tweeted on a different topic each day, and from that, I got some great feedback. I heard from dissertation-writers here and in England.
NADAL: We have had reference inquiries come from the site, and those questions have come from all over the world. We’ve also had a few researchers (both local and international) who saw the site, developed an appetite to work on Brooklyn history, and did extended research. In that sense, it’s been a great promotion and communications tool, helping researchers imagine what kind of work they could do here.
JUNTO: How did you select family members to feature?
GOLIA: That’s a great question. I chose the family members who spoke the most to salient themes in American history. It was a tricky family to research, since not a lot had been done. I spent a lot of time with 19th-century genealogy notes…I figured out what materials I had on people so I could tell their stories. One person I really struggled with was Gertude Lefferts Vanderbilt, who was so interesting to me, but no images of her exist, and it’s so heartbreaking.
JUNTO: What Lefferts sources didn’t make the cut online, but are really worth a look for researchers visiting the society? And how can we bring this collection into the classroom?
NADAL: The whole collection is 14 linear feet, so there is plenty more to see, and there are several related collections. On the Leffertses themselves, the DeWitt Clinton papers (collection ARC.021) contain correspondence regarding Leffert Lefferts and his desire to resign as judge from the Kings County Court in 1826. Leffert Lefferts is also mentioned in 1824 correspondence from Gabriel Furman to his father, a state assemblyman (Gabriel Furman papers, collection ARC.190; Furman himself has research potential) and a deed conveying property in Flatbush to Leffert Lefferts is found in the Nehemiah Denton papers (collection 1977.171). The Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbilt collection (collection 1974.168) contains an assortment of legal and business records related to the Vanderbilt family in Flatbush, Kings County, New York, from 1737 to 1818. John Lefferts, Peter Lefferts, Cornelius Van Der Veer, and Jeremiah Lott appear in some of the documents in the collection as witnesses and members of various local appointments. Materials related to Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbilt can also be found in BHS’s Collection of Brooklyn, N.Y., Civil War relief associations records, ephemera and other material (ARC.245) in which Vanderbilt had a role. In addition, similar work could be imagined for several of our big family papers collections—the Bergen and Pierrepont families, for instance.
GOLIA: In the collection, there are hundreds of slave bills and indentures. You could put together a fascinating database of who owned how many slaves, and track the experience of the slave, rather than just the slaveowner.
JUNTO: What digital initiatives are next for the Society? Can you offer some thoughts on how the digital humanities are changing the way we practice public history?
NADAL: We’re doing a lot to create metadata and make it widely reusable. We recently did a “reimagine the finding aid” project with a New School professor, Zannah Marsh, and her data visualization class and this is just the starting line for digital activities. The big hurdle for us is digitization —some of our richest resources are manuscript materials, so we need to actually transcribe and mark them up to create data that can support digital humanities.
We can do Brooklyn sewer-to-rooftop, but only in paper. The first step is geo-referencing things; I’m pretty confident that GIS is the glue that will pull together our collections, and from there, we’re developing plans to create RDF from our metadata so that we can hold up our part of the semantic web. As we do this, we’re having a lively discussion about accessibility and authority. It’s integral to our mission that the public engages with history and does history, but we’re also aware of the value of having BHS be a center of gravity for public engagement and the need for us to provide a reliable source of information. I don’t have any big insights or straight answers about what that looks like, but it’s one of the most fruitful questions confronting libraries and archives right now in every field, and I think that public history is one of the best places to put those questions to the test.
JUNTO: What kind of digital training should the beginning historian seek out?
GOLIA: I fall into the camp of learning by doing. I worked with a designer and came up with the text to populate. As a digital historian, the more important skill to acquire is thinking about how to reframe a narrative for the web, which I found incredibly challenging—in a good way.
JUNTO: How so?
GOLIA: You’re moving away from linear to multi-linear in terms of the narrative. And you’re taking advantage of hyperlinks to tell a story, thinking about the most efficient way to tell stories to a wider audience.… With the direction that web tools are going, I think the experience of doing digital history is becoming less and less intimidating. I’d encourage people to give it a shot; go onto WordPress or Omeka and play around with it. There’s a level of creativity there, and it’s certainly challenged me for the better, in the way that I analyze and tell history.