Future Tense

How the New York Public Library Is Reinventing Itself

The purpose is the same—but the technology is different.

The New York Public Library building, 1910.

The New York Public Library building, 1910.

Photo by Detroit Publishing Co./Library of Congress

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. On Thursday, Nov. 12, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on the future of the library. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

The future of libraries now has a very long history. Like all futures, it’s a moving target, changing as new experiences, expectations, and technologies change our sense of what’s possible. When the main branch of the New York Public Library opened on Fifth Avenue in 1911, it was a state-of-the-art futurist landmark, with pneumatic tubes zipping call slips to librarians who retrieved bound titles from enormous steel stacks and placed them on Ferris-wheel conveyor belts. Today, the building has been a historical landmark for 50 years, the tubes retired, the stacks empty. Yesterday’s futures become today’s nostalgic baseline.

Even in this century, you can track visions of the future of libraries year by year, like archeological layers that tell you as much or more about the circumstances in which they were created as they do the years to come. Let’s stay with the New York Public Library as an example. In 2004, the NYPL was one of the initial partners in the massive book-scanning project that became Google Books. In 2005, the library launched a site called Digital Gallery, with 275,000 images from its archives.

Both of these initiatives served classic, relatively conservative library needs: preserving materials to be consulted by scholars. But they also reflected the state of the Web at that time, before Twitter or Instagram, when Facebook was still limited to college students and sites like Google and Flickr were among the leading online services. Take a collection, take pictures of it, add keywords, and stick it online. In the case of Google Books, there was also a relatively strict division of labor: The libraries held the source material, but the software company did the scanning and built the software and its interface. This was the heavy-lifting, moon-shot phase of digital humanism, when the purpose of digital objects was still being sorted out and arguably less important than getting them digitized, period. Google Books turned out to be a 10-year legal fight over copyright that’s only now beginning to resolve itself in favor of a fair-use exception but with some of the wilder ideas about a universal bookstore or new, infinitely browsable Library of Babel substantially rolled back.

These days, digitization of the NYPL collections falls under the aegis of NYPL Labs—which began as a catchall name for a range of digital experiments, then became an in-house, prototype-building research and development group, and now is a full-fledged department that’s broadly responsible for both the digital and experimental sides of the library and its branches. And Labs thinks about digitization a little differently.

“There’s less of an emphasis on raw scale for scale’s sake,” says Ben Vershbow, NYPL Labs’ director. “The most exciting things are in the niches: smaller collections that have enormous amounts of data. It makes you ask: What are you talking about when you talk about scale?”

Consider maps. Maps have always been popular, and old maps perhaps especially so, for aesthetic, practical, and informational reasons. But the last 10 years have substantially transformed how we use digital maps. (If Google Books is much the same as it was in 2005, Google Maps is not.) Those expanded expectations and capabilities create new opportunities for working with historical maps.

“Pictures of old maps are nice,” says Vershbow, “but when we see how we use maps today in a contemporary context—that baseline digital literacy of understanding how to use maps and sophisticated querying of maps in a day-to-day urban context in a way we take for granted, there’s so much more to be done.” That culminates in the Space/Time Directory, “a searchable atlas of New York City’s past stitched together from the pages of old maps.”

The Space/Time Directory is notable for at least three reasons. The first is the emphasis on historical maps not as visual curios but as repositories of data. The plan is to extract information not just from the map collection but to link it to public and historical records, from photos and newspaper articles to Census data. The second is the emphasis on the consumer-grade nature of the final product. The data will be tied to backend application programming interfaces for researchers and companies to use but also to a slick, integrated, user-facing product. The project’s description is peppered with analogies from contemporary apps and services: “Think Google Maps with a time-slider …”, “Think historical FourSquare or Yelp!”, “vintage Big Data.” The third is the call for open partnerships: Instead of a single driving partner like Google, NYPL, with a grant from the Knight Foundation, is working with local museums, historians, tech communities, and its own patrons to augment the data and make it legible and turning over the tools it builds to other libraries to roll their own mapping projects. It’s a digital humanities project for the age of social media and open data.

The library builds its own software but also what the Labs team calls “human APIs”—workflows for managing collaborations and creative implementations of its tools and materials. “A lot of the stories about the future of libraries star very expensive technology,” says Shana Kimball, NYPL Labs’ manager of public programs and outreach. “Those stories can be useful and interesting, but they’re just the beginning.” What matters more, she says, is “libraries supporting creation, figuring out better ways to support downstream reuse of digitized materials.”

One of the early snapshots of what the Space/Time Directory hopes to accomplish is Old NYC, a project by software engineer Dan Vanderkam and the Labs that launched this summer, mapping part of the library’s image collection from 1870 to 1970 to a current map of the city. The collaboration with Vanderkam was relatively ad hoc—he’d worked on a similar project in San Francisco called “Old SF” and had just moved to New York—but Kimball says it’s a model for a range of creative uses of the library’s materials and the data therein. In the future, the library may support a number of “remix residencies,” similar to its current set of fellowships for writers, artists, and scholars. Think Creative Commons meets Kickstarter.

But if these projects reflect the wider world and culture of technology, what is their trajectory? Where are we headed? It’s tempting to look at new technologies like 3-D printing, virtual reality, or robotics—products that have a loud and obvious “this is the future” appeal—and match them up with libraries in a kind of word association game. Doubtlessly, all of these tools and experiences will play some part in our future and libraries’ as well. But Labs’ most successful and appealing projects suggest something more subtle: a fusion of the new with the old, the past and the future, the high-tech and the all-too-human.

In its own way, the mission is all very traditional. Collect and preserve original materials; make them available to researchers and the public; both serve and draw on your membership and community. And just as the Web has become increasingly not just mainstream but central to many of our lives, the projects by teams like NYPL Labs may still be experimental but less R&D than central to the basic proposition of what a library is in the 21st century. Every day, the future becomes the present, just before it disappears altogether.