What Big Media Can Learn From the New York Public Library

Vershbow describes the library as a "massive collection of niches," not unlike the web itself. Getting collections online and weaving them into the extant communities is "a very natural place for us to be in the knowledge commons," he said. Take the menu project. When you click on a menu item, say, "rum punch," it brings up a fact sheet about that dish. On the page, there are links within the menu collection -- to other menus that have rum punch -- as well as off-the-site to Epicurious, Google Images, Hathi Trust, Flickr, Twitter, and others. The original menu has become another node on the living web. It leaves the realm of the archival and becomes something you can make, maybe even from this 2001 recipe in Bon Appetit for Rum Punch Granita. Or another example: you can see "Tutti Frutti" on a menu from 1900 and then make it with a recipe from 1906 or 1962

tuttifrutti.jpg

I think that's brilliant, but not because it's digital. Digital is merely the precondition. The web and search algorithms and crowdsourcing and all that make it possible, but to focus on them would miss the point. The point is: this project changes our relationship with time. When we weave history into the web, we weave the past into the present. And that is awesome and important. The archive takes on a life in our own, just as Lee hopes the Cage archives will. 

Every magazine, television network, or radio station with an archive is sitting on gold. Get that stuff out of the basement and put it online for free, where people can link to, remix, and use it. But don't just dump it there. Take advantage of what the web can do. Structure the work, as NYPL's strategy head says, so that people can improve on your collection. 

People love the texture of old stories and the odd solidity of old photos. If you let them use those things for their own purposes, they love them even more. Take the New York Public Library's stereogram collection. Stereograms were actually publicized by a key member of The Atlantic's staff at the end of the 19th century, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. Two images were taken from nearly the same angle that, when inserted into the proper viewer, gave something of a three-dimensional aspect to the scene. Most people have never looked through a stereoscope and in many respects, they are mostly just another indication that fake 3-D sucks. However, Joshua Heineman of the blog Cursive Buildings, struck on a brilliant idea a couple of years ago. He took the available stereograms, which are usually by archives and libraries side-by-side, and transformed them into animated GIFs. These flickering images do, in fact, give you the 3-D feel but within the web's vernacular.

That might not be the kind of collection improvement that a curator would imagine, but that's exactly the point. When you put information in the hands of people, they come up with all kinds of stuff that people within an institution might not think about.

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Now, the grand lions that once guarded the building, keeping knowledge in, and to a lesser extent, the rabble out, will serve a different role. The lion's head has become the New York Public Library's brand on the Internet. More people will see the library's logo than will ever see the sculptures themselves. The good news is that Patience and Fortitude do still mean something in the Internet age. But they are not the only values the library will need to cultivate to keep its title as the best social network that is also a library and a media company. Speed, openness, and adaptability may be as important as the more phlegmatic aspirations of the past.

Balancing between the library's old and new values will be the challenge for incoming library president Anthony Marx, who takes over for Paul LeClerc, the library's head for more than 17 years. Marx starts in a couple of weeks, moving to the library from Amherst, where he was a champion of socioeconomic diversity, who had an "out-sized impact on the national conversation about diversity in higher education." He seems like the kind of guy who will bless the library's push to serve more people through innovation online.

Of course, the thick library buildings will remain rooted in the streets of New York. Many collections, mostly because of copyright issues, will remain locked in basements and available only to pro researchers. But that probably won't be the only use for these beautiful, expensive buildings. Rather, the library would like to see them become hubs of conversation and collection improvement. Some of the Internet-sparked thinking about community building and the value of users is rubbing off on the physical space of the library. The New York Public Library is getting webbier by the day. Institutions famous for wanting people to be quiet now want you to speak up.

"I think we can become places of conversation," the curator Reside said, "Places where information is not only pulled off the shelf, but conversations can also happen around the contents of the library."

Users, even in a library, can no longer be shushed.
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Images: New York Public Library/Alexis Madrigal.

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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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