The Impact of Digital Media on the NYPL – Rebecca Federman

Rebecca Federman

Traditionally, libraries are places where information — books, periodicals — is made freely available to patrons. Local libraries provide materials to communities based around a neighborhood or location, while research centers bring a geographically diverse group of users together around materials that cater to a community of scholars. The needs, goals, and collections are different, but the mission is largely the same: to make materials available in a specific location, free of charge, to those who want them.

In a digital landscape, the traditional role of the library — indeed even the designation “library” — is challenged by an increasing reliance on, and demand for, online content and a deeper engagement with collections.

For the New York Public Library, digitized content offers a level of distribution unforeseen by our founders. Take, for example, the card catalog. Not many years ago, it was exactly that: index cards, with use limited to within the walls of the building, cataloging printed materials within that building. Today, the Library’s online catalog, (which one could consider the first digital initiative) has opened up the collections to a much wider community of users not bound b¬y location. Instead of going to a brick and mortar branch to browse the books or films on the shelf, the online catalog allows patrons, from the comfort of their living rooms, to place a hold on a book “owned” by a branch miles away, and have that book delivered to their local library. Indeed, NYPL’s community has grown far beyond the New York area: in a one-month period, July–August 2010, the online catalog saw over 1 million visits from 157 countries and territories.
And as our communities increasingly prefer browsing the Library’s physical holdings electronically, they are also gravitating toward full-text digital content. For example, if our eNYPL collection of ebooks and audiobooks were a local branch, it would be the third highest circulating library in the system partially stemming from the fact that eNYPL is also our first 24/7 “branch”.

The same holds true for research. While roughly only five percent of the NYPL’s research collection is on Google Books, those items are accessed ten times more than all physical materials in the research libraries. And the research libraries’ electronic database content of historical newspapers and digitized scholarly materials have seen a steady increase over the years as well, while our general collection physical holdings see less and less use.
On the surface, it may appear that digital materials allow a more “DIY” approach to library content. Can’t users now find all the information they need on their own? As any librarian knows, it’s not as easy as that. Even for the most seasoned researchers, and for the “digital natives” who are familiar with search tools such as Google and Wikipedia (but perhaps not much else), discovering the online content and achieving fluency with the myriad digital resources requires the help of a librarian.
The role of the librarian has always been, and remains, to promote the collections, to facilitate use of the collections, and to act as an ambassador to the collections. Negotiating our digital content is not necessarily intuitive to a user familiar with consumer search tools. Many users are unaware that not all content is online, or at least accessible without costly subscriptions (paid for by your friendly local library). Google is a household word (even a verb in the OED), but ProQuest, EBSCO, and JSTOR are virtually unheard of outside academia.

Yet even while librarians can help patrons download an Eighteenth Century Collections Online title, there remains a larger and more urgent emphasis on leveraging staff expertise of the physical collections through digital initiatives. NYPL has increasingly reached out to digital communities through blogging and social media. We know that patrons who engage with our staff blogs spend more than three times as long on nypl.org, look at more than twice as many pages, and are 50% more likely to be new visitors to the website. This digital outreach appears to be sparking interest in the Library’s onsite materials as well. NYPL’s special collections, which represent only about 20% of the total physical (or onsite) collections, have seen an increase in use of about 5% a year since 2006.

It also helps that we’re open later. President Paul LeClerc has made longer hours a priority throughout our system, understanding that the Library is not only a place to house collections, but also a space to convene communities around the resources and services that the Library provides. A crucial example of such convention is the branch libraries’ additional role of mitigating the “digital divide”, offering access to digital materials to a significant percentage of New Yorkers without personal access to computer hardware or the Internet, while also extending online “research collections” to a larger audience of users. With more and more digitized newspapers, for example, there should be no reason for a user in the Bronx to have to head to midtown Manhattan to check the latest online news. New and refurbished branch locations have stressed both computer rooms and learning centers for new users.
The flagship building on 42nd Street is a year away from celebrating its centennial, and is in the midst of strategic planning to enhance research and discourse within the physical space. Our focus groups and user interviews have emphasized an increased demand for both extremely quiet spaces and collaborative workspaces; neither is easy to accommodate in a large reading room, so we are attempting to find creative alternatives within our landmarked structure. There is discussion of opening a coffee shop within the building; that idea alone marks a seismic shift in our approach to the wants and needs of our patrons.
While the use of the building and the role of the librarian continue to evolve, one of the most fundamental challenges we face at a library in the digital era is the transition from ownership to access.
Ownership of materials has historically played a large role in a library’s success. For the New York Public Library, for example, two large contributions of unique materials established the research library as one of the greatest in the world. The collections of John Jacob Astor, (who at his death was the wealthiest man in America), and James Lenox (whose collection of rare books included the first Gutenberg Bible to come to the New World) combined to form the foundation of the new institution, and for the past 100 years, those riches have been built upon to solidify the Library’s reputation as a world premier research institution. The special collections, in general, are still the treasures of the Library and are in no danger of disappearing. But increasingly relevant and in-demand electronic content is changing the way we’ve viewed our materials.

With technical and legal hurdles, “ownership” of digitized content of the Library’s collections is increasingly being transferred into the data vaults of 3rd party vendors who specialize in digitizing content for greater discoverability.

The Library is also in talks with neighboring academic institutions, such as New York University and Columbia University, to explore shared ownership of electronic and physical content so that the costs and space are shared among trusted partners. Our participation in Hathi Trust, a shared digital repository of 28 U.S. libraries, is one example of that larger philosophy.
However, the Library continues its interest in retaining and delivering its own content to patrons online so that it can be used to advance knowledge and research. Through our Digitize-on-Demand program, we’ve partnered with Kirtas Technologies to make 500,000 public domain works from the Library’s collections available (to anyone in the world). The content of the digital work is public domain, yet the NYPL retains the rights to the digital file.

That same model of delivery of content is true for the Library’s Digital Gallery. Launched in 2005, the Gallery provides free and open access to over 800,000 images from the NYPL’s collections. Now some of those images have been made available on Flickr: The Commons, where users can add comments, tag and interact with the collections, which has led to exciting new initiatives for interactivity with our patrons, wherever they are located. However, not all items from the Library’s online gallery have been put on Flickr. Images with questionable dates or authorship have been kept on the Library’s website to avoid any legal questions.
In addition to the interactivity seen through the material on The Commons, NYPL has been exploring crowd-sourcing projects. The Library’s Map Rectifier is one such example. Patrons can enhance historic maps from the Library’s collection with modern data. And “What’s on the Menu” a new project using the Library’s digitized historic restaurant menu collection, encourages patrons to transcribe bills of fare (such as dishes, location and guest lists) that aren’t easily machine-readable.

Digital efforts such as these align perfectly with the Library’s stated mission — “to advance knowledge, inspire lifelong learning, and strengthen our communities,”– increasing the value of these documents for greater use by scholars and convening communities throughout New York City and the world.

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