The New York Public Library's Animated GIF Maker


The animated GIF has been a mainstay of the Internet since web pages could only have gray backgrounds and Creed was a popular band. The way they work is simple: two or more images are superimposed on each other and they switch back and forth on a timed loop. This gives the impression of sputtering animation. For some reason, in those early days, torches like this were very popular:


In any case, the practice of GIF making has changed a lot over the years. Now people like to capture celebrities doing weird things. These loops somehow make almost anything funny, even Cameron Diaz feeding Alex Rodriguez popcorn.


But, a few highbrow exceptions aside, animated GIFs have been part of popular culture, bawdy, funny, grotesque. Now, the New York Public Library has created an animated GIF maker that lets users convert 19th-century stereographs into animated GIFs. This marries a very old form of popular culture with a new form of popular culture to great effect.

Stereographs presented two very similar images side-by-side. You looked at them through a special apparatus (the stereoscope) and it gave you a kind of 3D view of what you were looking at. They were so popular that Oliver Wendell Holmes (the more-famous Supreme Court justice's father) held in this very magazine that they -- not flat, 2D photographs -- were the true future of capturing images.

A stereoscope is an instrument which makes surfaces look solid. All pictures in which perspective and light and shade are properly managed, have more or less of the effect of solidity; but by this instrument that effect is so heightened as to produce an appearance of reality which cheats the senses with its seeming truth.

Because they appeared more solid, they were, therefore, more true.

The other thing you can do with these two side-by-side images is stack them atop one another and flip back and forth between them as in the classic animated GIF. And that is precisely what the new (still beta!) NYPL tool allows you to do.

I will warn you, though. There is something about the way stereographs animate that makes me a little sick to my stomach if I look at them for too long. For that reason, I'm not embedding any here, but you can take a look at a bunch of them at the NYPL site. And then you can try your hand at making one, perhaps of this "famous trotting ostrich," which has been hitched up for a jog around town.

And, of course, this is yet another very cool digital project form the NYPL, which we profiled last year for its innovative efforts online.


Images: 1. The Internet. 2. The Internet. 3. The New York Public Library.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of 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, 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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