Treasure trove: New York Public Library Digital Collection

Miniature of annunciation, New York Public Library Digital Collection

Miniature of Annunciation, initials, linefillers, and border design, 15th century

The New York Public library holds many rare and valuable materials. The new New York Public Library Digital Collection makes them easily available.

Before the Internet, if you wanted to use them, provided you knew they existed, you would have had to travel to the library and consult them in person.

When the library first began to digitize them and put them online, you could have seen and downloaded a low-resolution images. You would have had to pay for, and wait for, a high-resolution image. Discovery and access were still difficult.

Perhaps its description of one of its major collection is representative of the library’s own concerns:

The New York Public Library possesses one of the largest and finest collections of medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts in North America, yet its manuscript holdings are scarcely known to scholars, much less to a wide public audience.

Modern libraries prefer for their holdings to be well known. Last January the library made 187,000 public domain images available for high-resolution download. It has also made it easier to discover individual items. From now on, everything in the public domain the library digitizes will be added to the New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Introducing the New York Public Library Digital Collection

Postcard from New York Public Library Digital Collection

Post card, 1909

Hardly anything more recent than 1923 is in public domain. ┬áMost movie posters or record album covers are still protected by copyright. Public domain materials represent only a fraction of the library’s entire digital holdings.

The entire digital collection comprises 680,000 items, with more added daily. The library has provided a single check box that makes it easy to specify public domain materials only

The library hasn’t simply digitized a bunch of stuff and put it out on the web. It has organized it to make it more easily accessible. For scholars and researchers, it has included correct citations for each image in MLA, APA, Chicago Manual of Style, and Wikipedia styles.

I notice, however, that someone neglected to enter the date of the map I considered using to illustrate this post. Such omissions are probably inevitable in a project of this scope. Fortunately, once someone finds it, it can easily be corrected.

You don’t even have to have a New York Public Library card to download and use any of the digital collection. Anyone can use the anything in public domain for any reason, without restriction. Anyone can also order art prints of anything.

Visualization of the New York Public Library Digital Collection

Brian Foo of NYPL Labs created a visualization of hundreds of items on a single screen. It’s row upon row of tiny images, individually too small to distinguish. Visitors can mouse over any one of them to see a thumbnail of it, although not all of them work.

The visualization amounts to about a quarter of the public domain materials in the New York Public Library Digital Collection, but it provides a stunning overview of its sheer scope. You can sort it in various ways: century created, genre, collection, or color.

Visualization of New York Public Library digital collection

A portion of the 20th-century materials using search by century created

If you sort it by century created, you can get an idea of the history of printing just by looking at the changing colors from top to bottom. Actually, since the oldest images come from the 11th century, you’ll see a lot more than printing.

Sorting by genre, I count 31 different genres in order of the number of images in each. They range from 42,198 stereoscopic views to 53 pamphlets.

Other genres include menus, postcards, sheet music, correspondence, etchings, manuscripts, correspondence, calling cards, and cigarette cards.

book cover from New York Public Library digital collection

Negro travelers’ green book, 1957

It is not possible to classify by genre with any precision. Many of the items in named genres could just as easily be classified in at least one other.

The 31 named genres do not include “other” (784) or “unknown” (58,950). I suspect “unknown” means that Foo and his team have not yet analyzed those items, or at least that they haven’t input all the metadata.

This project is intended to facilitate use and reuse of the New York Public Library Digital Collection by all kinds of Internet users.

Scholars, teachers, publishers, artists, and others can all benefit. Or for that matter, anyone who wants to find something classy and unusual to mount on a wall.

The library is actively encouraging people to find novel ways of reusing these items. Its Street View, Then and Now serves as an example. It makes it possible to compare photographs taken in 1911 with Google’s latest street view.

Take a look. And please share this article on social media.

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