The New York Public Library

Established in 1895, the New York Public Library is not only the largest public library system in the United States – it’s made up of eighty-eight branches spread throughout the City – but, too, boasts a Digital Collections division (with 819,123 photographs), a Manuscripts and Archives division, a Rare Book division, a Theater on Film and Tape archive, a Moving Image and Recorded Sound division, and more. In all: “the collections of the New York Public Library now exceed 50 million items” making it “the most comprehensive library collection ever brought together for the free use of the public.”

Though there were already libraries in place when the New York Public Library came to be, former governor Samuel J. Tilden (failed presidential candidate and fan of libraries), upon his death, donated his fortune to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the City of New York.” What evolved, from that point to today, was a long-standing, world-wide presence, influential in shaping our concept of what a great library should be and serve.

A map-view of every New York Public Library branch.
A map-view of every New York Public Library branch.

All together, the holdings of the New York Public Library don’t seem manageable by one person. Take the Manuscript and Archives division, which holds over 29,000 linear feet of manuscripts in over 5,500 collections. (That is, at least according to a conversion calculator I found Internet, about eighty football fields.) According to its website, the collection holds “700 cuneiform tablets; 160 medieval and renaissance manuscripts, and George Washington’s recipe for beer.” (In case you’re wondering: it comes from his notebook, and requires 3 gallons of molasses, a quart of yeast, and a blanket – if the weather is very cold.)

A little small, but important for sure.
Washington’s recipe for beer, courtesy of the New York Public Library. A little small, but important for sure.

It’s a collection that is centric to New York, focusing on the “papers of individuals, families, and organizations” from the area, “dating from the 18th through the 20th centuries.” And, though the Library itself has no collection development policy available to the public, one can and should infer that the holdings of the Manuscript and Archives division best represents the entire organization. It’s a uniquely-focused archival collection that tells our story – readers, researchers, and citizens – through the lens of New York and its people.

The Moving Image and Recorded Sound division is another interesting branch of the Public Library, which documents the experience of peoples of African descent, as they have been captured via audiovisual technology. “Since 1980 the Moving Image and Recorded Sound division has conducted oral history interviews through its Oral History / Video Documentation Program,” creating “one of the nation’s longest-running video oral history programs.”

Or, explore the Map Division, which was established early – in 1898 – and is home to “more than 433,000 sheet maps and 20,000 books and atlases published between the 15th and 21st centuries.”

Each collection – even the ones not mentioned – come together in support of the New York Public Library’s mission, which is threefold: “(1) We inspire lifelong learning by creating more able learners and researchers; (2) We advance knowledge by providing free and open access to materials and information that reflect New York’s global perspective; and (3) We strengthen our communities by promoting full citizenship and participation in society.” Though it’s based in New York, the Public Library is not just a resource for New Yorkers – it’s a resource and learning tool that is accessible the public world-wide, and researchers all over. (To check out books, of course, you need to have a Public Library card, so you need to have a New York address. Otherwise, the holdings are free game.) In fact: many of the Public Library’s collections ask for citizen participation.

Take the New York Public Library Labs which, at least for my money, is the most interesting current project of the Library. Comprised of Data Scientists, Metadata Librarians, and Software Engineers, the Labs division works to “reformat and reposition the Library’s knowledge for the Internet Age” by “combing core digital library operations – digitization, metadata, permissions – with a publicly engaged tech, design, and outreach team focused on enabling new uses of collections and data, collaborating with users on the creation of digital resources, and applying new technologies to library problem-solving.”

One of Lab’s more recent projects – Building Inspector – is a shining example.

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 8.49.55 PM
Building Inspector’s front page.

It takes digitized data from historical maps, and asks citizens – you! your friends! your coworkers! – to go out into the world and confirm what these maps are telling us using their smartphones. Are old establishments, found on maps from the 19th century still there? Are the street names correct? Addresses? By linking current technology with library holdings, the New York Public Library is making resources usable, searchable, and interactive. It’s bringing people back into the library for research, and grounding us in their holdings, which reflects back on their general mission: “by promoting full citizenship and participation in society.”

It’s an innovative – and refreshing – way to use library holdings: one that seems entirely unique to the New York Public Library, due to its wide-reaching nature, and the depths of its collections. In all, the New York Public Library is a library that reaches its roots back to the origins of our country, yet finds itself firmly planted on the edge of the future.

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