The most complete collection of Brooklyn history in the world reopened with a gala reception and ribbon-cutting on Thursday, as Brooklyn Public Library swung open the doors of the Center for Brooklyn History at its elegant building at 128 Pierrepont St.
The Center for Brooklyn History was formed in 2020 by merging the Brooklyn Historical Society and Brooklyn Public Library, combining the irreplaceable materials collected over the past 142 years by the Historical Society with BPL’s Brooklyn Collection.
“Now 142 years later, we remain true to the founders’ mission to preserve that history for future generations,” BPL president and CEO Linda Johnson said at Thursday’s celebration. The landmarked building “has become part of Brooklyn’s historical record, and today we introduce a new generation to both the building and its collection of books, maps, manuscripts, letters, diaries and photographs.”
CBH aims to make accessible the experience of Brooklyn’s history to meet the needs of the borough’s many diverse communities, Johnson said.
“This building is a fully free, public space that will democratize an astounding archive of our collective past, help us understand our present, and shape the borough’s and the city’s future. Anyone who is curious can enter to read, to gather, to learn about our borough, no appointment necessary,” she said.
An array of public officials, educators and luminaries spoke at the dedication, including Chaplin Ingrid Lewis-Martin, chief advisor to Mayor Eric Adams, who said that libraries equalize the playing field for city residents. “I can’t wait to bring my granddaughter,” she said.
Several speakers had themselves been librarians in the past, including Deputy BP Rev. Kim Council — “I’ve been a librarian over 25 years,” she said. Council added that preserving history was particularly important “at a time when people want to rewrite history.”
Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon also spent time as a librarian.
“My first job was in the reference room at a public library in Yonkers,” she said. Simon celebrated BPL’s program, Books Unbanned, which puts books into the hands of teens living in areas where some books are forbidden. “We make sure people get books, we don’t ban books,” she said to applause.
While state Sen. Andrew Gounardes was not a librarian, he served two terms as the president of the Bay Ridge Historical Society, he said. He claimed that one seventh of all people in the U.S. can trace their roots back to Brooklyn.
“It’s incredible, and let’s pretend it’s true,” he said, setting off a round of debate among the officials as to whether it was actually one ninth of all the people in the U.S. or one sixth. Someone Googled the issue and came up with one seventh.
“If it’s on the internet it must be true,” Johnson said.
Councilmember Lincoln Restler recalled his hundreds of visits to the original Brooklyn Historical Society throughout his life in Brooklyn Heights, calling it “one of Brooklyn’s most cherished institutions.” CBH brought together “the two greatest collections about Brooklyn. The future is strong,” he said.
Also speaking were NYC Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs Manuel Castro; CBH architect Karen Fairbanks of Marble Fairbanks; novelist and Hunter College Distinguished Professor Elizabeth Nunez; and Heather Malin, director of CBH.
A class from P.S. 8 elementary school eagerly joined Johnson and other officials in wielding the large scissors to snip the blue ribbon, to a big round of applause.
The renovations included opening the first floor up to create a welcoming space with comfortable couches where visitors can read or study. (The first floor also includes a gift shop, with proceeds going to benefit BPL.)
In another change, the spectacular, two-story Othmer Library reading room — with its tens of thousands of books and hundreds of thousands of photos, plus maps, oral history interviews, artifacts and other documents — will now welcome patrons without an appointment (though appointments are recommended to use items in the collection). Onsite and remote guidance is available to help people research neighborhood history and genealogy.
The opening exhibition, “Brooklyn Is,” contains stories and photos crowd-sourced from the public and from BPL’s own collection. One long-time Brooklynite who contributed material was Alan Rosen, proprietor of Junior’s Restaurant — which also provided delicious treats for the guests to eat.
“I’m in the exhibit and they asked me to cater it, so how could I say no?” Rosen laughed. “We’ve been in Brooklyn since 1950, but actually my grandfather Harry Rosen started here in the ‘20s with his first restaurant at the same location. It was called Enduro. And then election day 1950 it opened as Junior’s.”
Rosen said Junior’s famous cheesecake recipe was developed by his grandfather and his grandfather’s baker Eigel Peterson. Peterson “was there side-by-side with my grandfather,” he said.
CBH is open Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and closed on Sundays.