New York Public Library Labs

One of the things I’m really interested in is the idea of innovation and R&D labs within cultural institutions. Are they a good idea? Do they ring fence creativity? Are they good test beds? Can they influence wider institutional culture?

I’ve met with quite a few people running and working in a digital labs while I’ve been in New York. I thought I should share share some insights from at least one of these meetings on my blog. So for this post I’ve picked my meeting with Ben Vershbow, manager of NYPL Labs.

New York Public Library Labs is a small team of 5 people. The idea for the labs came about in April 2011, and the Labs team was officially created in Fall 2011. They might be a small, and relatively new team but you just need to look at the list of projects on their website to see the huge impact they have already made (I’ll talk more about impact in a minute).

A project that started before the Lab was put together, and indeed was instrumental in making a case for the Lab is ‘What’s on the Menu?‘. A crowd sourcing project that asks members of the public to help transcribe the 10,000 digitised menus from the Libraries collection. They library hoped that over a number of years the entire digital menu collection would be transcribed. It only took 3 months! such was the enthusiasm from the public.

Ephemeral projects, lasting legacy and immediate impact

The menu project made a splash, a big splash at that. It was timely, it seems everyone has a food blog these days, and you can’t meet  a friend for lunch with out one of you taking a photo of your food and instragramming it. Ben pointed out that the timely nature of this project is what made them know it would be successful when they started it, however even he admitted they were surprised by just how successful it had been. What’s on the Menu is what Ben describes as an ephemeral project, the website will come and go, we all lose interest in food blogging and taking photos of food some time in the not to distant future. However when have all moved on, and volunteers lost interest in menus, the meta data they created will be left behind – and it is this data that will stand the test of time.

‘The user facing layer is temporal and you need to embrace that, the menus website will have served its purpose, but the data will remain’ 

This is a really interesting way of thinking about digital projects. Engaging in contemporary trends and thinking ok so what’s ‘cool’ now and how can we utilise this to add long term value to our collection?

Another interesting project which Ben described as ‘super temporal’ is Direct Me NYC: 1940. This projects user interface was only really relevant for a couple of months, but its lasting legacy is strong external partnerships (with New York Times Labs), and increased curatorial participation and increased buy in, and interest in the work of the lab from across the library.

Direct Me NYC: 1940 was created to coincide with the April 2nd 2012 release of census data from 1940. The census data wasn’t searchable.  The project brought together phone records (which included names and addresses), census data and tied this information into headlines from the New York times. This approach filled a stop gap, when the census data was released it wasn’t searchable, NYPL Labs new that within a few months online paid sites such as and would have transcribed the census and made it available in searchable format.

So why bother with ‘Direct Me NYC: 1940’ ?

The project helped curators to think about their collections in new ways, it allowed curators to experiment with linked data using a language that they understood (genealogy). The hands on nature of the project facilitated an entry point into evolving curatorial practice, and changed curatorial thinking.

It allowed the Labs team to experiment with new digitisation tools.

A starting point for all of the labs work is:

Does this matter internally?

This project laid the foundation for developing new projects with new curators. A valuable legacy that will really shape how NYPL and NYPL Labs continues to develop its online offering and digital engagement opportunities for the public.

Does this matter externally?

For Direct Me NYC: 1940, their was a real hunger among the genealogy community for census data. They wanted it on its release date, but it wasn’t searchable. Their first point of call may have been paid for search sites, but with this project NYPL Labs has been able to raise the profile of the library as a key genealogical research centre.

‘The challenge is to get curators thinking like technologists and technologists thinking like curators.’

There are heaps of other really interesting projects on the NYPL Lab site, one of my favourites is the stereogranmator fans of gif’s will love this one, and after my meeting with Ben I am now the proud owner of some branded 3D glasses. Click here to go check out all the other things NYPL are up to.

When I first found out that I had been awarded a Churchill Fellowship  Anne Peoples tweeted me telling me I should visit NYPL Labs while I was in New York. So thanks Anne, it was a great tip! 

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