The word “library,” for some, conjures images of dusty shelves packed full of old books, all managed by an ill-tempered caricature with a beehive hairdo and horn-rimmed glasses. But the New York Public Library has been turning this tired stereotype on its head and rethinking how the world accesses its colossal collection online.
Since 2005, the New York Public Library has shared an impressive online offering of digitized items in high resolution. In January 2015, the institution released an updated iteration boasting more than 800,000 digitized texts and images in an easy-to-navigate format.
Most recently, on Jan. 6, the library took its long-running project a step further by adding nearly 200,000 copyright-free items for public consumption. From etchings and texts to photographic works and video, the ever-expanding collection is a potential model for the next generation of public libraries.
The institution admits that its previous efforts to share its staggering collection were not as successful as the latest attempt, which brings many rare and never-before-seen items to the public eye.
Library officials said the efforts to bring the collection to public has evolved from a simple website, known as the Digital Gallery, to an interactive, metadata-rich resource over the last decade and a half. The institution started digitizing material in 1999.
"The New York Public Library is committed to giving our users access to information and resources however possible," NYPL President Tony Marx said in a Jan. 6 press release. "Today, we are going beyond providing our users with digital facsimiles that give only an impression of something we have in our physical collection. By making our highest-quality assets freely available, we are truly giving our users the greatest access possible to our collections in the digital environment."
Despite the online repository housing hundreds of thousands of digitized items, the NYPL said in the press release that the items published through its Digital Collection portal represents a “small fraction of the NYPL’s entire collection.”
Other major municipal institutions have undertaken digitalization projects as well. The Boston Public Library boasts access to a great deal of information through its Digital Commonwealth platform, and the Birmingham, Ala., Public Library shares its wealth of localized collections with the public.