What Big Media Can Learn From the New York Public Library

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At a time when traditional news organizations are struggling to reinvent themselves in a new world, the century-old library is emerging as a digital leader.

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NEW YORK -- Two massive lions flank the steps of the New York Public Library's flagship building on Fifth Avenue. Crafted out of pink Tennessee marble, Patience and Fortitude, as they became known in the 1930s, are the library's tangible link to the ancient history of libraries. Across the world, sculptures of lions had stood watch over sacred spaces for thousands of years. During the library's construction, people including Teddy Roosevelt suggested using a bison because the new-world animal had "the advantage of being our own." But he and everyone else was rebuffed. These lions, and this library, were part of the long tradition of knowledge, passed down from one elite to the next from Alexandria to Rome to London and finally to New York. Information was not just an idea, but the set of physical objects that contained it. And that stuff had to be protected by the powerful, lest their precious atoms be lost and the wisdom into which they could be distilled lost as well.

The lions guarded the doors when the main branch of the New York Public Library was dedicated in May of 1911 and they watch over it still, rather haughtily looking over the heads of visitors to one of the world's great libraries. Yet over the last 100 years, and particularly over the last 10, everything about the storage and dissemination of knowledge has changed. The lions still guard the building, but the information's gone out the back door, metastasizing in the new chemistry of the Internet.

With all this change -- not to mention a possible $40 million budget cut looming -- it would be no surprise if the library was floundering like the music industry, newspapers, or travel agents. (Hey, man, we all get disintermediated sooner or later.) But that's the wild thing. The library isn't floundering. Rather, it's flourishing, putting out some of the most innovative online projects in the country. On the stuff you can measure -- library visitors, website visitors, digital gallery images viewed -- the numbers are up across the board compared with five years ago. On the stuff you can't, like conceptual leadership, the NYPL is killing it.

The library clearly has reevaluated its role within the Internet information ecosystem and found a set of new identities. Let's start from here: One, the New York Public Library is a social network with three million active users and two, the New York Public Library is a media outfit.

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The library still lends books, but over the past year, the NYPL has established itself as a beacon in the carcass-strewn content landscape with smart e-publications, crowdsourcing projects, and an overall digital strategy that shows a far greater understanding of the power of the Internet than most traditional media companies show.

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Biblion, a storytelling app whose iPad icon features the lion head, is the flashiest of these efforts. It presents a slice of the library's 1939 World Fair Collection in a format that, while controversial, pushes the traditional boundaries of the e-publication. Moving around the app doesn't feel like flipping through the pages of a museum catalog or crawling around a website. To me, it feels like a native application for the tablet era, a new form for the more spatial experience afforded by the tablet's touchiness. Even for those who don't like the interface, the question has to be asked: this thing came out of a library?

Then there is the library's slick crowdsourcing projects, which allow users to digitize beautiful old menus from New York's restaurants and plot historical maps of the city onto the GPS-enabled digital maps of today. Both projects are useful and feature user interfaces that best most commercial crowdsourcing applications.

The library is even improving its basic infrastructure to keep pace with the big social networks, announcing this week that they are launching a new log-in system through Bibliocommons that will bring simplified and more powerful catalog and account services to the library's users. 

Everywhere you look within the New York Public Library, it's clear that the institution has realized that its mission has changed. It's no longer only a place where people take out books and scholars dig through archives. The library has become a social network with physical and digital nodes. 

How did this happen? An institution as old and august as the NYPL is not supposed to react nimbly to new developments, let alone lead the media companies producing the books and magazines it preserves.

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The NYPL has 50 million items in its collections spread out over 90 research libraries and branches. It's quite unusual in that it serves as both a world-class research institution for scholars and a regular-old city library system kids use to check out Harry Potter books. The system's got $1.2 billion in assets. In 2010, the library pulled in about $245 million in operating revenue and spent about $255 million. Outside operations, the NYPL brought in an extra $80 million in donations, "capital appropriations" from various government entities, and investment income from the library's $680 million worth of investments in hedge funds and the like. In a very real sense, that is to say, the library made money last year. However, while there is a lot of money floating around, it turns out that donors restrict various amounts of it, as do the government entities, so the whole situation is more complex than the average media company's. The main point to take from all this: The people working at the library are working with many of the restraints that would be familiar to anyone running a magazine or website.

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.

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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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