What Big Media can learn from the New York Public Library

By Alexis Madrigal , The Atlantic

At a time when traditional news organizations are struggling to reinvent themselves in a new world, the century-old library is emerging as a digital leader.

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NEW YORK — Two massive lions flank the steps of the New York Public Library’s flagship building on Fifth Avenue. Crafted out of pink Tennessee marble, Patience and Fortitude, as they became known in the 1930s, are the library’s tangible link to the ancient history of libraries. Across the world, sculptures of lions had stood watch over sacred spaces for thousands of years. During the library’s construction, people including Teddy Roosevelt suggested using a bison because the new-world animal had “the advantage of being our own.” But he and everyone else was rebuffed. These lions, and this library, were part of the long tradition of knowledge, passed down from one elite to the next from Alexandria to Rome to London and finally to New York. Information was not just an idea, but the set of physical objects that contained it. And that stuff had to be protected by the powerful, lest their precious atoms be lost and the wisdom into which they could be distilled lost as well.

The lions guarded the doors when the main branch of the New York Public Library was dedicated in May of 1911 and they watch over it still, rather haughtily looking over the heads of visitors to one of the world’s great libraries. Yet over the last 100 years, and particularly over the last 10, everything about the storage and dissemination of knowledge has changed. The lions still guard the building, but the information’s gone out the back door, metastasizing in the new chemistry of the Internet.

With all this change — not to mention a possible $40 million budget cutlooming — it would be no surprise if the library was floundering like the music industry, newspapers, or travel agents. (Hey, man, we all get disintermediated sooner or later.) But that’s the wild thing. The library isn’t floundering. Rather, it’s flourishing, putting out some of the most innovative online projects in the country. On the stuff you can measure— library visitors, website visitors, digital gallery images viewed — the numbers are up across the board compared with five years ago. On the stuff you can’t, like conceptual leadership, the NYPL is killing it.

The library clearly has reevaluated its role within the Internet information ecosystem and found a set of new identities. Let’s start from here: One, the New York Public Library is a social network with three million active users and two, the New York Public Library is a media outfit.

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The library still lends books, but over the past year, the NYPL has established itself as a beacon in the carcass-strewn content landscape with smart e-publications, crowdsourcing projects, and an overall digital strategy that shows a far greater understanding of the power of the Internet than most traditional media companies show.

Biblion, a storytelling app whose iPad icon features the lion head, is the flashiest of these efforts. It presents a slice of the library’s 1939 World Fair Collection in a format that, while controversial, pushes the traditional boundaries of the e-publication. Moving around the app doesn’t feel like flipping through the pages of a museum catalog or crawling around a website. To me, it feels like a native application for the tablet era, a new form for the more spatial experience afforded by the tablet’s touchiness. Even for those who don’t like the interface, the question has to be asked: this thing came out of a library?

Then there is the library’s slick crowdsourcing projects, which allow users to digitize beautiful old menus from New York’s restaurants andplot historical maps of the city onto the GPS-enabled digital maps of today. Both projects are useful and feature user interfaces that best most commercial crowdsourcing applications.

The library is even improving its basic infrastructure to keep pace with the big social networks, announcing this week that they are launching a new log-in system through Bibliocommons that will bring simplified and more powerful catalog and account services to the library’s users.

Everywhere you look within the New York Public Library, it’s clear that the institution has realized that its mission has changed. It’s no longer only a place where people take out books and scholars dig through archives. The library has become a social network with physical and digital nodes.

How did this happen? An institution as old and august as the NYPL is not supposed to react nimbly to new developments, let alone lead the media companies producing the books and magazines it preserves.

The NYPL has 50 million items in its collections spread out over 90 research libraries and branches. It’s quite unusual in that it serves as both a world-class research institution for scholars and a regular-old city library system kids use to check out Harry Potter books. The system’s got $1.2 billion in assets. In 2010, the library pulled in about $245 million in operating revenue and spent about $255 million. Outside operations, the NYPL brought in an extra $80 million in donations, “capital appropriations” from various government entities, and investment income from the library’s $680 million worth of investments in hedge funds and the like. In a very real sense, that is to say, the library made money last year. However, while there is a lot of money floating around, it turns out that donors restrict various amounts of it, as do the government entities, so the whole situation is more complex than the average media company’s. The main point to take from all this: The people working at the library are working with many of the restraints that would be familiar to anyone running a magazine or website.

And yet there they are, launching an alternate reality game with Jane McGonigal played in the stacks of the library. Or getting 100 of their curators and employees to start blogs. Or posting a painstakingly reconstructed digital version of the pathbreaking proto-musicals, “The Black Crook.”

I visited the library to see who was behind the excellent work there to see how they thought about what they were doing. And maybe I was hoping to pinch some lessons for my own work on how to teach old animals new tricks. The Atlantic was founded in 1857, after all, making it 54 years older than Patience and Fortitude.

I’m going to give you the conclusion to his article here to solve the tl;dr problem. There are two things the library has done to create such cool projects. First, I’m convinced the NYPL is succeeding online because of desire. The library’s employees care about the digital aspects of their institution, and the institution supports their innovation. I mean this in the most fundamental way possible and as a damning critique of media companies. Second, the library sees its users as collaborators in improving the collections the library already has. While serving them online costs the library some money, they are creating value, too, by opening up conduits into the library for superusers.

The logic of protecting offline revenue pushed most media companies away from aggressively reevaluating their role in the information ecosystem. Something you hear a lot in the magazine business, for example, is that you “can’t trade print dollars for digital pennies.” That’s kept many of us (The Atlantic excepted, I would say) from innovating online. No such pressure exists at the NYPL. The whole point of the library is to be used by the various people who do so. And the logic of delivering what users want leads inexorably to trying to give them the best digital experiences in the world.

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My first stop was the Communications department, which produced Biblion. It is not at the main library location but rather at 34th Street at the Science, Industry, and Business Library. Entering via a side door, I signed in with the security guard and took the elevator to the fifth floor. I emerged into the familiar territory of fluorescent-lit cubicles and shared bathrooms that I trust you’re familiar with too. These places are like the landscapes of the Western. The setting, though it technically changes each movie, looks and functions precisely the same in the areas of fundamental importance. There will be red rocks; there will be beige carpet. It’s the office.

This is the domain of Deanna Lee, an energetic and playfully aggressive former television news producer (below). She’s justifiably proud that her small team put together Biblion in just five months working with a CMS that consisted of a few pieces of paper taped to her wall. “I was sick of hearing people saying e-readers are killing libraries,” Lee said, and she set about creating an app to put the lie to the idea.

She maybe wanted to prove something else, too. “PR and content are all tied together now,” she maintained. Everyone is just telling stories on the Internet, so if you want to succeed in PR, you need to be a storyteller. Take a look at the NYPL’s Tumblr. Conversant with current memeology and drawing on common news hooks (Father’s Day, Bloomsday, the library’s budget woes), the Tumblr provides a flow of tiny stories from and about their collections. Press releases are no longer where the communications action is.

Lee proudly notes that the Tumblr’s run by her head of PR, Angela Montefinise, who used to work for the New York Post. And who, I note with appreciation, has an office that looks just like a daily reporter’s, her desk and shelves covered with every kind of paper, and topped with a mock Post page one showing her inside Oscar the Grouch’s trash can. If you are familiar with most public relations firms, this is not exactly how they are set up.

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Lee, especially, seems to enjoy all the blurring of the lines. She left network news in a huff after having an enterprise report on China canned in favor of a story about the guy who faked killing Jon Benet Ramsey. After a stint at the Asia Society, she landed at the library, where she’s been pushing to create new things that are not press releases. “We can all do this,” Lee said. “We are all storytellers.”

Biblion is quite obviously her baby, perhaps because she had to push it past many skeptical people before it came out. “This was a nightmare for the curators, essentially,” she said. They had to give up control of the collections to outsiders, outsiders who would put something out in months, not the years that they themselves might spend creating a similar project.

On the other hand, the curators had already left quite a trail to follow in the form of a nearly 700-page “finding aid,” which described the 1,183 linear feet of documents scattered across 2,508 boxes. In other words, she did not exactly pull the first Biblion release out of thin air, but rather carved it from the archival materials already assembled. Next, she hired the design firm Potion, staffed by former MIT Media Lab types who wanted to make a splash, and they were off to the races.

Internally, Biblion has been a hit. What began as a curator’s nightmare has become a hot date. Now, everyone wants their collection to be the next to get the Biblion treatment. Lee, for her part, isn’t content to just cut-and-paste together another finding aid. She wants to explore her notion of building “living archives” in a couple of different ways.

First, she wants the next Biblion collection to be drawn from an unconventional source. Something like Paul Holdengraber’s Live from the NYPL series will be transformed into a Biblion collection, Lee said. He’s interviewed everyone from Jay-Z to Harold Bloom and the videos are all available online. “I want to show that anything can be a collection,” she said.

Lee’s team’s also hard at work on another initiative to create a living archive of the avant garde musician John Cage’s sheet music. His collection is particularly in need of innovative digital treatment because the notation that he used for his work doesn’t fit into the standards we have for such things. How would one know that certain seeming doodles mean, “play the cactus like this”? Lee imagines making Cage’s sheet music available on the Internet, but pairing it with video master’s classes from people like Kronos Quartet and Sonic Youth, extending the information available in the New York Public Library’s collection with knowledge from its users.

I left Lee’s office thinking about how the library uses its assets to drive, in the argot of my industry, user engagement. This was the specialty of my next stop, a meeting with the heads of NYPL Labs and the digital team.

Take What’s On the Menu?, a slick project to crowdsource the transcription of tens of thousands of menus that, by virtue of their fonts and designs, are resistant to OCR, the way computers turned scans into text. Both the front end transcription and the back end output of the system are impressive. The New York Public Library’s director of strategy, Micah May, told me within a year, all 40,000 menus in their collection will probably be done. Such a task would not have been possible without the help of thousands of networked volunteers.

The project, like Lee’s vision for the Cage archive, highlights they key change in the way the library thinks about itself.

“A library is not just a place that collects information and processes information,” May said. “We create the tools and structure the information so that others can enhance the collections.” Another NYPLer, Doug Reside, Digital Curator of Performing Arts, put it even more simply, “The public library can be used to organize people to organize information.”

That is to say, the NYPL’s collections can become more valuable to all of its users by tapping into the energy and expertise of some of its users. The role of the library is to create the right kinds of conduits for superusers to get involved. That job falls to Michael Lascarides, senior manager for web initiatives for the New York Public Library, and Ben Vershbow, manager of NYPL Labs, which Vershbow calls “more an idea than a real unit” but that is tasked with connecting curators and collections with digital experts.

If my reporter self felt right at home with Lee and her fist-banging love for narrative, my inner technologist swoons around Lascarides and Vershbow. Lascarides is an artist and Vershbow directs plays, but that’s just the New York in them; both are tech nerds deep down. I can feel it, even if Vershbow is wearing a plunging v-neck and has an uncanny ability to present the same look to my camera, no matter how many photos I snap.

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The first thing Lascarides says to me is, “Digital is becoming the horseless of our age.” He’s referring to the late nineteenth century time that produced publications like, “Horseless Age,” the Wired of the early automobile era. His point is that the word “digital” is becoming unnecessary because “digital is woven into everything.” You add the adjective when you need to differentiate it from the world’s general expectations. After automobiles dominated the landscape, horselessness was assumed. Indeed, we all live in the horseless age, but very few of us feel the need to draw attention to that fact.

I dwell on this point not only because I like saying horseless age, but also because it’s a key element of how the NYPL encourages its staff to think. As May puts it, “Our strategy starts and ends with users.” They simply provide what the people want, and increasingly, that means combining brick-and-mortar offerings with digital collections and front-ends.

Vershbow describes the library as a “massive collection of niches,” not unlike the web itself. Getting collections online and weaving them into the extant communities is “a very natural place for us to be in the knowledge commons,” he said. Take the menu project. When you click on a menu item, say, “rum punch,” it brings up a fact sheet about that dish. On the page, there are links within the menu collection — to other menus that have rum punch — as well as off-the-site to Epicurious, Google Images, Hathi Trust, Flickr, Twitter, and others. The original menu has become another node on the living web. It leaves the realm of the archival and becomes something you can make, maybe even from this 2001 recipe in Bon Appetit for Rum Punch Granita. Or another example: you can see “Tutti Frutti” on a menu from 1900 and then make it with a recipe from 1906 or 1962.

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