Libraries on the Digital Edge: NYPL Labs, eBook Wars & “Friendly Fire”

Few things are quite as delicious as a serendipity day in New York City (even minus snagging a lottery ticket for "Book of Mormon." Hasa Diga Eebowai…) 

I had flown in for a conference, unexpectedly arriving just in time for the start of Social Media Week—an annual celebration of the power and joy of digital connection—which this year took place in a dozen cities, from Hong Kong to Paris…to New York.

And it is how I came to be at the incomparable New York Public Library one sunny afternoon, learning all about NYPL Labs. Think MIT Media Lab meets librarians on a mission and you will begin to have an idea if what’s going on. It turns out the stacks are rife with geeks. 

The library’s vast and often quirky archives provide delicious fodder for creating free online tools that not only bring new functionality to collections, but also expand and redefine the library’s public. Anyone with a connection to the web can now be an NYPL patron.

"Patron"— that is how librarians refer to their customers and it sets the tone. Librarians are the original triple bottom line thinkers, measuring success in number of patrons served, ideas sparked and information shared. In the digital age, libraries are being re-imagined as information hubs and API platforms with profound and profoundly wonderful implications.

The NYPL panel highlighted three projects:  

  • The Map Warper: a tool to harmonize and create new maps from the library’s collection of over 10,000 scanned historical maps

… (U)sers both inside and outside the Library can virtually stretch old maps onto a digital model of the world à la Google Maps  or OpenStreetMap , thus creating a new copy that is not only aligned with spatial coordinates on the Earth, but normalized across the entire archive of old maps… All of this is done collaboratively, through the piecemeal efforts of staff, volunteers, and interns, a group of roughly 1,500 participants worldwide. 

—Matt Knutzen, geospatial librarian

The implications are literally mind-boggling. Imagine, for example, using these maps to chart industrial development over time, then pairing them with epidemiological maps of cancer clusters. To use my friend Robert Kirkpatrick’s term, suddenly you could begin to piece together the picture of a “slow crisis” unfolding. Dots that couldn’t before be connected, now can.

  • What’s On the Menu: a semantically searchable database based on over 40,000 NY restaurant menus from the 1840s to the present.

The New York Public Library’s restaurant menu collection is one of the largest in the world, used by historians, chefs, novelists and everyday food enthusiasts. Trouble is, the menus are very difficult to search for the greatest treasures they contain: specific information about dishes, prices, the organization of meals, and all the stories these things tell us about the history of food and culture.

To solve this, we’re working to improve the collection by transcribing the menus, dish by dish. Doing this will allow us to dramatically expand the ways in which the collection can be researched and accessed, opening the door to new kinds of discoveries. We’ve built a simple tool that makes the transcribing pretty easy to do, but it’s a big job, so we need your help.

As one librarian put it, “Imagine the historic Yelp.” Yum. 

  • The Stereogranimator: a tool that turns historic stereographs (stereo photographs) into 3D images on the web

I am told this remarkable application is directly inspired by Reaching for the Out of Reach, my project which ultimately amounts to a 21st century raid of the New York Public Library’s archive of 19th century treasure. That is to say, my project was inspired by the library’s collection first. This kind of mutually beneficial relationship between archivist & user would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago. How did we get here?

—Joshua Heineman

How indeed. Each of the projects relies on volunteers—lots of volunteers—to be fully realized, bringing a whole new level of public participation to public libraries. These are literally tools created by the people, for the people.


By contrast, some publishers, notably Penguin, are severely restricting sales of ebooks to libraries, casting public libraries as a Napster-ish villain threatening to undermine their business model. Nevermind that lending content has always been the library’s raison d’etre. The lightening fast transfer of electrons makes them nervous.

"Please don’t let the library patron be the victim of friendly fire in the ebook wars," pleaded Library Journal’s Barbara Genco at the recent Tools of Change conference in New York.

Friction. This is a word we are hearing more and more and more. Today’s theme is “Fast / Forward / Change.” If you are a public librarian today, the excuse, or concern, that we hear every day about more friction. Slow it down. It’s too easy to borrow ebooks from libraries. To us, that means “Change / Slowly / At a Glacial Rate” And if I can return to my misspent youth, it translates into "Forward into the Past." (Firesign Theater).

Not only is this approach wrong, it is wrong-headed. Genco, guns a’blazing with data, tore into publishers’ short-sighted policies. 

The “power patron”—defined as someone who visits the library at least once a week—reads on average 26 books per year: 16 from the library and 10 purchased.

Drilling down a bit further, about a third of them use the library to discover new genres and writers. Thirty-seven percent purchase books they have previously borrowed. And a stunning 61% buy books by authors whose works they have previously borrowed. This is “discoverability” gold—more valuable than ever given the number of bookstore closures. Nothing beats roaming the shelves, or the “hand-selling” of a librarian or fellow patron’s recommendation.

It is hard to fathom why an author would want to sign on with a publisher determined to restrict access. It’s not even a matter of penny-wise, pound-foolish. It’s just foolish.

"The public library market is possibly one of the largest sleeping giants in the publishing industry today," noted Genco. 

Let’s not kill the giant.

— J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews