The Librarian as Digital Scholarship Therapist

New York City and The Labs – day 4: NYPL Labs

Thursday morning in New York City pleased us with sunshine and bird singing and promises of another great day in lab-land – it was time to visit The New York Public Library Labs (NYPL Labs) and you could almost here Bill Withers sing “A lovely Day” as we walked down 8th Avenue towards the great library.

After saying hello to the library lions in front of NYPL we meet with Shana Kimball inside. Shana is manager of public programs and outreach at NYPL Labs and works to engage the public in new uses of the Library’s digital collections and data sources, and to host conversations and incubate experimental projects that explore the future of public knowledge.

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New York Public Library

New ways of looking at data

At The Library we were pleased with one of the coolest meeting rooms I have seen in a while – solid old wooden furniture and books books books – it was like stepping into a 18th century scene. Luckily we were also pleased with meeting a very nice crew of talented and engaged people: Besides Shana, Lab Director Ben Vershbow were there along with Deputy Drector Josh Hadro, Head of Semantic Applications and Data Research Matthew Miller and Manager of Metadata Services Shawn Averkamp.

NYPL Labs is an interdisciplinary team working to reformat and reposition the Library’s knowledge for the Internet age. Labs combines core digital library operations (digitization, metadata, permissions/reproductions, etc.) with a publicly engaged tech, design, and outreach team focused on enabling new uses of collections and data, collaborating with users on the creation of digital resources, and applying new technologies to library problem-solving.

A key thing for Labs is to make new and more active use of “the collection” of the library to serve the public. This happens by connecting the collection with the public: “We try to look at data in a whole new way and connect it to people and projects instead of just looking it as something that should be stored” Ben says.

Ben states that Labs takes the “public” in public library very seriously and that the work they do shall be meaningful to the public. Examples on projects from Labs is The Community Oral History Project and What’s on the Menu? The Community Oral History Project is an initiative that aims to document, preserve, and celebrate the rich history of NYC’s many unique neighborhoods by collecting the stories of people who have experienced it firsthand. The project is currently focusing on Greenwich Village and Harlem and the project site presents audio from interviews with people form the community along with an early prototype of a crowd-powered audio logging tool. Check out the community story of Harlem – very cool public interaction and facilitation of city history. What’s on the Menu? is connecting the largest culinary archives in the world with the people of New York. To open up the collection online, the library enlisted the public’s help in transcribing the actual contents of the menus: e.g. dishes, prices and other information of that could be of great value to researchers that, due to handwritten lettering, typography and layouts, has been difficult to extract mechanically. The result is a database that provides a powerful tool for researching the tastes, appetites and social fabric of the past.

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Labs engaged with the public to build a valuable tool for the research of taste and social fabric of the past.

Two awesome projects that – along with many others – connects collections and data to the public in order to create value, metadata and new content.

Collaboration with academic institutions 

From connecting content with the public the discussion moves on to collaboration with various academic institutions of New York – among other CUNY with we visited just the day before. You could call us “the faculty for everybody” Josh says and tells how Labs supports academia with learning students to work with technology and data and Shana tells how she often find herself in a position of a digital scholarship therapist towards the work with scholars of today which outlines the importance of bridging academia and digital tools. I find this connection between the public and academic institutions very valuable for both sides and hopefully it can open up to a merge of both skills and content of these two kinds of institutions. Something to look more into between The National Library of Denmark and The Copenhagen University Library.

We ended the day with a great tour in old library and a look at current research exhibition at the library: Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography which takes a look a the history of platforms and networks for sharing photos – from a black and white poster on a wall in Brooklyn to Instagram. Photography has always been social.

Thanks for a great day good people at NYPL Labs!


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The Fellowship hooking up with Labs in a very cool meeting room

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The difference between Norway and Denmark can be seen by there library delegations taste in gifts: Shana with the traditional Munch-book from the Norwegian delegation and chocolate covered licorice from The Fellowship.

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