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With a Twist: Old Works Get a New Life at the NYPL

by on March 22, 2016

Digitization of archival materials has radically changed the way we search for and retrieve information. Gone are the days when one had to book a flight to examine documents in a foreign museum or spend hours reeling through microfilms at a library. The New York Public Library (NYPL) is one in a long list of major institutions, including the Vatican Apostolic Library, the Smithsonian, and the Thomas J Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that now offer their collections in digital format.

With a Twist

The NYPL archive is no ordinary collection. At 673,744 items strong, the NYPL now offers an amazing added value feature. Last month it released a Public Domain Collections initiative, giving users instant access to the collection’s 180,000 public domain items . All the works are available in high-resolution format, encouraging re-use. Repurposing the works is, in fact, the whole point. According to Greg Cram, NYPL’s associate director of copyright and information policy, “We are trying to make it so users can not only see things, but can make determinations about whether to use them in new ways”.[1]

Something for Everyone

The effort is spearheaded by in-house NYPL Labs and enables users of all skill levels to easily manipulate the collections. The more advanced users can take advantage of programming interfaces (APIs) to create their own tools for manipulating the collections. Recent projects include Urban Scratch-Off, in which users scratch an aerial photograph of New York, lottery-ticket style, to reveal aerial shots of the city in 1924, and Mapping Cholera which tracks the 1832 epidemic using geodata harvested from maps belonging to the library. [2]

For the rest of us, NYPL Labs offers some fun, ready-made apps for interactive use of the collections, including:

Mansion Maniac This app allows users to “explore the floor plans of some of the city’s most extravagant early-20th-century residences,”[3] sourced from the Apartment Houses of the Metropolis collection.

Navigating the Green Books This app enables users to map out trips they would take to places listed in the Green Books (hotels, restaurants, bars and gas stations where black travelers were welcome).[4]

Street View, Then & Now: New York City’s Fifth Avenue Here, users take a tour of Fifth Avenue past and present, and compare photos from the 1011 Fifth Avenue from start to finish with 2015’s Google Street view. [5]

Remix Residencies

And that’s not all! NYPL labs offers a “Remix Residency” to drive innovative use of the collection and to encourage the production of new tools for re-purposing the collection. Each residency includes a $2000 stipend, access to NYPL curators and staff, and a workspace. NYPL Labs seeks submissions for projects that provide “new ways of looking at or presenting public domain materials—or allow access to the information . . . currently locked within the static images”.[6] Submissions may include mappings, visualizations, generative art, games, bots, or other interactives.


The NYPL public domain collection and NYPL Labs initiative is a more information-oriented version of the Rijksmuseum’s artsy Rijksstudio initiative, where users can download high resolution copies of over 200,000 copyright-free masterpieces and using free online tools can tweak, crop, and otherwise manipulate them to create printed pieces like bracelets, bags, cards, lampshades, wallpaper, or even iPad covers. [7]

Information Consumption vs. Production

With the advent of the Internet and the proliferation of personal digital technology, we now consume information on an unrivaled scale. By empowering information consumers to also act as information producers, NYPL Labs and Rijksmuseum are doing their part to ensure the democratic balance of the information universe.


[1] Greg Cram. “New York Public Library Invites a Deep Digital Dive” by Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times, January 6, 2016.

[2] Jennifer Schuessler. “New York Public Library Invites a Deep Digital Dive,” New York Times, January 6, 2016.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6]NYPL Labs Remix Residency,” New York Public Library, accessed February 16, 2016.

[7] Peter Gorgels, “Rijksstudio: Make Your Own Masterpiece!” Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. January 28, 2013. Accessed February 16, 2016.

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