What Big Media Can Learn From the New York Public Library

This is the domain of Deanna Lee, an energetic and playfully aggressive former television news producer (below). She's justifiably proud that her small team put together Biblion in just five months working with a CMS that consisted of a few pieces of paper taped to her wall. "I was sick of hearing people saying e-readers are killing libraries," Lee said, and she set about creating an app to put the lie to the idea.

She maybe wanted to prove something else, too. "PR and content are all tied together now," she maintained. Everyone is just telling stories on the Internet, so if you want to succeed in PR, you need to be a storyteller. Take a look at the NYPL's Tumblr. Conversant with current memeology and drawing on common news hooks (Father's Day, Bloomsday, the library's budget woes), the Tumblr provides a flow of tiny stories from and about their collections. Press releases are no longer where the communications action is.

Lee proudly notes that the Tumblr's run by her head of PR, Angela Montefinise, who used to work for the New York Post. And who, I note with appreciation, has an office that looks just like a daily reporter's, her desk and shelves covered with every kind of paper, and topped with a mock Post page one showing her inside Oscar the Grouch's trash can. If you are familiar with most public relations firms, this is not exactly how they are set up.


Lee, especially, seems to enjoy all the blurring of the lines. She left network news in a huff after having an enterprise report on China canned in favor of a story about the guy who faked killing Jon Benet Ramsey. After a stint at the Asia Society, she landed at the library, where she's been pushing to create new things that are not press releases. "We can all do this," Lee said. "We are all storytellers."

Biblion is quite obviously her baby, perhaps because she had to push it past many skeptical people before it came out. "This was a nightmare for the curators, essentially," she said. They had to give up control of the collections to outsiders, outsiders who would put something out in months, not the years that they themselves might spend creating a similar project. 

On the other hand, the curators had already left quite a trail to follow in the form of a nearly 700-page "finding aid," which described the 1,183 linear feet of documents scattered across 2,508 boxes. In other words, she did not exactly pull the first Biblion release out of thin air, but rather carved it from the archival materials already assembled. Next, she hired the design firm Potion, staffed by former MIT Media Lab types who wanted to make a splash, and they were off to the races.

Internally, Biblion has been a hit. What began as a curator's nightmare has become a hot date. Now, everyone wants their collection to be the next to get the Biblion treatment. Lee, for her part, isn't content to just cut-and-paste together another finding aid. She wants to explore her notion of building "living archives" in a couple of different ways.

First, she wants the next Biblion collection to be drawn from an unconventional source. Something like Paul Holdengraber's Live from the NYPL series will be transformed into a Biblion collection, Lee said. He's interviewed everyone from Jay-Z to Harold Bloom and the videos are all available online. "I want to show that anything can be a collection," she said.

Lee's team's also hard at work on another initiative to create a living archive of the avant garde musician John Cage's sheet music. His collection is particularly in need of innovative digital treatment because the notation that he used for his work doesn't fit into the standards we have for such things. How would one know that certain seeming doodles mean, "play the cactus like this"? Lee imagines making Cage's sheet music available on the Internet, but pairing it with video master's classes from people like Kronos Quartet and Sonic Youth, extending the information available in the New York Public Library's collection with knowledge from its users. 

I left Lee's office thinking about how the library uses its assets to drive, in the argot of my industry, user engagement. This was the specialty of my next stop, a meeting with the heads of NYPL Labs and the digital team. 


Take What's On the Menu?, a slick project to crowdsource the transcription of tens of thousands of menus that, by virtue of their fonts and designs, are resistant to OCR, the way computers turned scans into text. Both the front end transcription and the back end output of the system are impressive. The New York Public Library's director of strategy, Micah May, told me within a year, all 40,000 menus in their collection will probably be done. Such a task would not have been possible without the help of thousands of networked volunteers. 

The project, like Lee's vision for the Cage archive, highlights they key change in the way the library thinks about itself.

"A library is not just a place that collects information and processes information," May said. "We create the tools and structure the information so that others can enhance the collections." Another NYPLer, Doug Reside, Digital Curator of Performing Arts, put it even more simply, "The public library can be used to organize people to organize information."

That is to say, the NYPL's collections can become more valuable to all of its users by tapping into the energy and expertise of some of its users. The role of the library is to create the right kinds of conduits for superusers to get involved. That job falls to Michael Lascarides, senior manager for web initiatives for the New York Public Library, and Ben Vershbow, manager of NYPL Labs, which Vershbow calls "more an idea than a real unit" but that is tasked with connecting curators and collections with digital experts.

If my reporter self felt right at home with Lee and her fist-banging love for narrative, my inner technologist swoons around Lascarides and Vershbow. Lascarides is an artist and Vershbow directs plays, but that's just the New York in them; both are tech nerds deep down. I can feel it, even if Vershbow is wearing a plunging v-neck and has an uncanny ability to present the same look to my camera, no matter how many photos I snap.


The first thing Lascarides says to me is, "Digital is becoming the horseless of our age." He's referring to the late nineteenth century time that produced publications like, "Horseless Age," the Wired of the early automobile era. His point is that the word "digital" is becoming unnecessary because "digital is woven into everything." You add the adjective when you need to differentiate it from the world's general expectations. After automobiles dominated the landscape, horselessness was assumed. Indeed, we all live in the horseless age, but very few of us feel the need to draw attention to that fact.

I dwell on this point not only because I like saying horseless age, but also because it's a key element of how the NYPL encourages its staff to think. As May puts it, "Our strategy starts and ends with users." They simply provide what the people want, and increasingly, that means combining brick-and-mortar offerings with digital collections and front-ends.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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