Please do talk in the library! Project seeks Village stories | East Villager & Lower East Sider

Please do talk in the library! Project seeks Village stories

The Jefferson Market Courthouse in 1938, in a photo by Berenice Abbott. Today it’s a library.   The New York Public Library

The Jefferson Market Courthouse in 1938, in a photo by Berenice Abbott. Today it’s a library. The New York Public Library

BY HEATHER DUBIN  |  Denizens of Greenwich Village, the Jefferson Market Library wants to talk to you.

Local residents, or anyone who has spent time in the area for work or fun, are welcome to share their stories from 20 years ago or more, to help document and preserve neighborhood lore. It’s all part of the “Your Village, Your Story: Greenwich Village Oral History Project.”

It was Frank Collerius, the library manager at the Jefferson Market Library, who came up with the idea for the undertaking.

After a lecture he gave to supporters of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation about the library’s history, including an introduction to its archive, Collerius was inspired to do an oral history project of the Village.

“I was talking to the group, and it was really a lot of fun,” Collerius said. “I brought out things from archives, and the G.V.S.H.P. members started telling stories from the photos they were seeing, and they were so truly interesting.”

To facilitate this ongoing project through the spring, more than 60 volunteers who enjoy the art of storytelling have been trained at the library in interview technique. They have learned basic interview tips, studied the background of oral histories and listened to examples.

Alexandra Kelly, outreach services assistant at the New York Public Library, has led the training sessions. Kelly noted the volunteers are diverse and that several are longtime Greenwich Village residents.

“I was amazed at the range of ages and professional backgrounds in the rooms at all of our trainings,” she said. “We have current and former teachers, photographers, historians and architects.”

Some local college students are also involved.

Kelly is experienced in conducting oral histories, and previously worked at StoryCorps for National Public Radio when she traveled the States to record conversations for the Library of Congress. She also developed two different oral history projects, one of which was in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. At N.Y.P.L., Kelly has contributed to the NYC Veterans Oral History Project.

“I’ve told all volunteers from the beginning that the training continues throughout the interviews,” she said. “Even after my several years recording stories, I’m still learning how to be a better listener. Listening is the key to a successful oral history interview.”

Rather than interrupt an interviewee to fill in a lull in conversation, Kelly advises volunteers to let the narrator set the pace and allow the story to naturally unfold.

Collerius noted that during training sessions, volunteers discussed how to make both the subject and the interviewer feel comfortable. They also reviewed good preliminary interview questions, how to maintain momentum and when to remain silent.

“Once the interviewer is assured there’s some method to it, the process is demystified a bit,” Collerius said. “They’re all passionate about interviewing these people, and there is no right or wrong. It’s asking someone to tell the story and go with their gut.”

The project’s goal is ultimately to collect 30 stories from the neighborhood for the library’s archives. Interviewees are encouraged to bring memorabilia or artifacts, which serve as memory triggers.

“It’s like ‘Antiques Roadshow.’ People would bring something, and then we can ask a person about the objects,” he explained.

The interviewers are ready to go for the project’s kickoff on Jan. 16, and a few stories have already been recorded. According to Kelly, one man interviewed is a cellist who used to live in Greenwich Village. He played his instrument during the interview between reminiscing about changes in the neighborhood.

Another interview includes dialogue between the storyteller and the interviewer as they reflect together on places they frequented that no longer exist. The interviewer also spoke about street games he played in the Village growing up, and his fondness for cars.

“The Village could be almost a state of mind as well as a geographical place,” Collerius said. “If anyone has a relationship to Greenwich Village, we want to hear it.”


Contact the library manager at FrankCollerius@nypl.or or 212-243-4334 if you have a story to tell.