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Critique: New York Public Library

graphic with text of new york public library digital collection

The New York Public Library has just released a Mecca for graphic designers, artists, researchers, designers, digital artists, fabric printers, scrapbookers, students, visual browsers and many, many, more.. The no holds barred online publication of over 180,000 digitized public domain images, that include manuscripts, maps, photographs, sheet music, lithographs, postcards, etc.

     All these images are available as high-resolution downloads, copyright free, to be reused and recreated as anyone sees fit. This is an incredible achievement for the NYPL. Copyright being such a thorny issue online, with usually a dozen or more restrictions put on images. Many collections online are available to view but getting a getting a high-resolution download requires a processing feed and contacting the permissions office.

The NYPL says it hopes this recent release of public domain images serves as a starting point for future creative reuses

Libraries, Museums and Galleries have amassed huge collections of art for society’s benefit. However, with most of these collections in sitting in storage. So who actually benefits when museums collect so much of the world’s best art? With huge restrictions on the usage of publicly owned images, this act of positive digital action will make the NYPL a forerunner for advocating open source usage of public material.

      Instead of hoarding, they want people to use and reuse their collection, to be inspired and creative. The images can be sorted by century, colour, genre, or library collection. To inspire the public even more, the library has also created a number of digital games and tools, such as a “mansion builder” game, where users control a little blue Pac-man-like figure through the floor plans of grand turn-of-the-century New York apartments.

      They have also started the new Remix Residencies, “designed to spur transformative, interesting, beautiful new uses of our digital collections” where people can apply for residencies to work on projects involving gaming, mapping, visualization, and other interactive features.

Labs combines core digital library operations (digitization, metadata, permissions/reproductions, etc.) 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.

NYPL Labs, a section of the Library, are responsible for this incredible digital collection. They are, surprisingly just a staff of five. All their projects, however have a crowdsourcing component. They have already worked on a few digital projects that use crowdsourcing; Map Division on the Map Warper suite, which will eventually produce a virtual atlas of New York City, through which researchers will be able to geospatially explore photographs, newspapers, manuscripts, and other holdings from the library’s collections. What’s on the Menu? is the worlds largest culinary archive, with menus dating back to 1850’s. Volunteer crowdsourced users help by transcribing and geotagging the menus, speeding up the whole process.

graphic design featuring antique menu

      The NYPL Digital Collection uses quite an array of digital technology. They use Fedora Commons software for the repository, metadata is handled by a Ruby on Rails app. The Digital Collection platform also runs on a Rails application but also uses JavaScript. The data is machine-readable, with a big set of API’s (application programming interfaces).

      As in mentioned earlier, the images are available in high resolution format, JPG with derivative sizes and TIFFs. Full metadata output is available via API, and simplified metadata for the public domain portion of Digital Collections on Github, is available in CSV and JSON formats. A data visualization tool was made by visualization guru Brian Foo (do check out his other projects, they are amazing!), in conjunction with the Lab, will keep you captivated for hours.

 Free to Share & Reuse

     The user interface for the images is impressive. Using Foo’s data visualization tool, I was able to pick several different images from different collections, eras, colour type, etc with ease. When I clicked on an image I was taken to a page that had information available on the title, date, origin, maker, library division, physical location and other locations to view the item, most of which were hyperlinked for further reading. Also, available was the location permalink, download options, and every college students favourite, ready made citation formats.

     New York Public Library and their NYPL Labs are becoming the leaders in digital social innovation. With one foot in the Humanities corner, and the other in collaboration and open source, they are perfecting digital archiving techniques, that other public collections should aspire to. Universal public access for publicly owned material. 

It is inspiring.

 

GIF made with the NYPL Labs Stereogranimator - view more at http://stereo.nypl.org/gallery/index
GIF made with the NYPL Labs Stereogranimator

Try it yourself, its great fun.

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