Students Explore Brooklyn’s Past

St. Francis College Teams With B’klyn Historical Society

A student at St. Francis College examines documents at the Brooklyn Historical Society’s library.

BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — In the dark, wood-paneled library of the Brooklyn Historical Society, students in Eric Platt’s history class pulled on pristine white gloves and began to pore over delicate black-and-white photos laid out on long tables.

Some of the photographs — dating back to around 1900 — are grainy family portraits taken on the Coney Island boardwalk and printed on iron sheets. Later photos, taken in the 1980s in the same location, show graffiti-scarred, dilapidated buildings.

“How does this reflect the time when it was taken?” Platt, an assistant professor of history, recently asked a group of students as he pointed to one of the more current photos. “Is Coney Island in better shape today?”

It was the first of several class trips to examine the Brooklyn Historical Society’s archives. Platt’s survey of American history focuses on the history of Coney Island, and students work in groups to analyze film clips and images of the famous amusement park and neighborhood through the years.

In many ways, the area’s history mirrors the urbanization of America: the effects of the Great Depression, the subsequent decline of cities in the 1950s and ’60s, and Coney Island’s more recent renaissance.

Platt said he hoped to grab students’ attention by choosing a topic that’s close to home. “It’s a good lens for American history through the 20th century,” he said. “The goal of the program is to make history come alive for the students. The internet is a wonderful tool, but it’s really important for college students to use library resources.”

“It’s great to see how history changes through photography, and to compare and contrast. I hope every class has an opportunity to do this,” said Danielle Diniro ’13.

Throughout the semester, classes from St. Francis College have been regularly visiting the Brooklyn Historical Society to sort through the institution’s vast collection of “cultural ephemera” — the photos, posters, lithographs, old ferry tickets and myriad other items tracing Brooklyn’s 400-year history.

The new interdisciplinary program is funded by a three-year grant that the Brooklyn Historical Society received from the U.S. Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Secondary Education.

St. Francis College faculty collaborated with the Historical Society last summer to develop the curriculum, aimed at introducing first-year students to archival research. Classes are capped at 15 to ensure that all students get individual time in the archives.

“St. Francis College is connected to cultural resources and institutions around the city, and it’s really crucial for students to have access to these kinds of things,” said Athena Devlin, associate professor of English.

Ultimately, it’s about getting students into the archives and away from Googling, she said.

Each of the classes contributed to a website and blog documenting their work and experiences in the program. The students’ final projects are then culled into a digital exhibit.

Undergraduate students get a lot out of actually handling the photographs, pamphlets and other items from the archives, said Robin Katz, outreach and public services archivist at the Brooklyn Historical Society.

“It’s the kind of stuff that people never intended to keep, but the students piece together a better understanding of history through these objects,” she said. “Primary sources can speak to a wide variety of disciplines, and can be used in innovative ways.”

Several of the faculty members involved in the project said they also hope to give the students a better understanding of their heritage and, in many cases, their hometown. It seems to be working: “Not many people know the history of where they live. It’s good to see the evidence in front of you instead of a professor just telling you about [a subject],” said Leah Tribbett ’13.

Students in Professor Alexandria Egler’s religious studies class are working on producing their own family trees and oral histories. The goal, Egler said, is to demonstrate how information from 100 years ago can remain relevant in the 21st century. In the modern world, it’s easy for students to lose sight of the importance of the past.

“They have these moments while looking at the documents or listening to oral histories,” Egler said. “It opens them up to understanding the intellectual process. It makes it fun, and makes it real.”

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Filed under Brooklyn Heights, Community News, History, Kids & Education

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