The story of the Center for Brooklyn History began in 1863 with the founding of the Long Island Historical Society (LIHS) during a time of tumultuous change. In only a few decades, Brooklyn had grown from a tiny agricultural backwater to the third largest city in the country. Civic pride was at an all-time high. Many of Brooklyn’s citizens believed they needed to commemorate their city’s rural past before it quickly faded from memory.
Founders also envisioned the LIHS as a center for dialogue about history. In the nineteenth century, the society’s roster of speakers included newspaper editor and reformer Horace Greeley, writer Arthur Conan Doyle and abolitionist and women’s rights activist Julia Ward Howe.
Over the next century, the fortune of LIHS mirrored that of Brooklyn: it navigated the consolidation into the City of Greater New York, played a part in historic conflicts such as its use as a Red Cross headquarters during World War I, and faced its own struggles as the city grappled with deindustrialization, economic decline and social change. By the 1970s and 1980s, the institution reestablished itself as a museum and education center. The institution, which changed its name to Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) in 1985, broke ground by embracing social history practices and exploring the diversity of Brooklyn’s narrative and people. It established a pioneering oral history program, reaching out to as yet unchronicled Brooklyn communities and capturing their experiences.
In 2020, BHS underwent another transformation by becoming a part of Brooklyn Public Library as the Center for Brooklyn History (CBH), combining the Library's Brooklyn centric, Brooklyn Collection archives, to its holdings. Founded in 1997 as a small book collection attached to the Library’s History Division, the Brooklyn Collection's "seed library" consists of the "morgue" of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper, the newspaper of note in Brooklyn, from 1841-1955. It includes images, full newspaper runs, ephemera, and clippings. As this new expanded institution, CBH aims to further democratize the study and experience of Brooklyn’s history to meet the needs of the borough’s many diverse communities through expanded collections and engaging programming that will broaden reach and impact throughout Brooklyn and beyond.
The Center for Brooklyn History houses a world-renowned special collections and archives library on the second floor of its landmark building on Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights. The Othmer Library’s magnificent reading room with its stained-glass windows and carved wooden columns transports the visitor to an earlier era, and connects them to over 33,000 books, 1,600 archival collections, 1,200 oral history interviews, 50,000 photographs, 2,000 maps, 8,000 artifacts, and 300 paintings that document the commercial, residential, community, and civic development of the borough. In combining these resources with BPL’s Brooklyn Collection, the Center for Brooklyn History collects, preserves and makes accessible the most comprehensive collection of materials related to Brooklyn’s history and culture in the world.