What Big Media Can Learn From the New York Public Library

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. 

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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.

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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.

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

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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. 

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