What Big Media Can Learn From the New York Public Library

And yet there they are, launching an alternate reality game with Jane McGonigal played in the stacks of the library. Or getting 100 of their curators and employees to start blogs. Or posting a painstakingly reconstructed digital version of the pathbreaking proto-musicals, "The Black Crook."

I visited the library to see who was behind the excellent work there to see how they thought about what they were doing. And maybe I was hoping to pinch some lessons for my own work on how to teach old animals new tricks. The Atlantic was founded in 1857, after all, making it 54 years older than Patience and Fortitude.

I'm going to give you the conclusion to his article here to solve the tl;dr problem. There are two things the library has done to create such cool projects. First, I'm convinced the NYPL is succeeding online because of desire. The library's employees care about the digital aspects of their institution, and the institution supports their innovation. I mean this in the most fundamental way possible and as a damning critique of media companies. Second, the library sees its users as collaborators in improving the collections the library already has. While serving them online costs the library some money, they are creating value, too, by opening up conduits into the library for superusers.

The logic of protecting offline revenue pushed most media companies away from aggressively reevaluating their role in the information ecosystem. Something you hear a lot in the magazine business, for example, is that you "can't trade print dollars for digital pennies." That's kept many of us (The Atlantic excepted, I would say) from innovating online. No such pressure exists at the NYPL. The whole point of the library is to be used by the various people who do so. And the logic of delivering what users want leads inexorably to trying to give them the best digital experiences in the world.

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My first stop was the Communications department, which produced Biblion. It is not at the main library location but rather at 34th Street at the Science, Industry, and Business Library. Entering via a side door, I signed in with the security guard and took the elevator to the fifth floor. I emerged into the familiar territory of fluorescent-lit cubicles and shared bathrooms that I trust you're familiar with too. These places are like the landscapes of the Western. The setting, though it technically changes each movie, looks and functions precisely the same in the areas of fundamental importance. There will be red rocks; there will be beige carpet. It's the office.

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.

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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.

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