This week, the New York Public Library (NYPL) announced the release of over 180,000 public domain images available in high resolution. In conjunction, NYPL Labs launched a data visualization by Brian Foo that enables easy navigation of the Digital Collections objects, allowing users to hover over blocks of images organized by category, color, medium, and other filters. To increase public interaction with the collections, NYPL is also starting new Remix Residencies, where people can apply to work on projects involving gaming, mapping, visualization, and other interactive features.
“I think of libraries as being full of many pieces of culture that are reassembled to create new forms of culture,” Shana Kimball, manager of public programs and outreach for NYPL Labs, told Hyperallergic, noting that the library has long been “a platform for creation” to inspire all forms of written, visual, performing, and now digital art. “I think that’s absolutely a trajectory of the library, we should be a set of resources that people can use for new forms of creation that are contemporary, and ones we haven’t even thought about yet.”
NYPL Labs has a few demonstrations of what these new creations can look like, such as a trip planner based on the Green Book — a travel guide for black travelers from the 1930s to 60s, and Mansion Maniac where you navigate floor plans from early 20th-century New York’s luxury apartments. People have already been experimenting with the NYPL resources, such as OldNYC that maps historic photographs, and this invites closer collaboration with the institution. There are also new crowd-made Twitter bots created since Wednesday’s release, with @NYPLpostcards sharing postcards, and @NYPLphotobot sharing photographs. NYPL is asking visitors to tag creations with #nyplremix to keep the sharing in an evolving dialogue.
“We do these things both because they’re extensions of what the library has always done,” Kimball said. “And we know that the forms of creativity and research in working with the library are changing. We’re extending the library’s mission in the digital context by creating these new residencies.” She added that the projects can encourage different experiences with the objects, and create something new with the historic collections.
Sifting through the more than 180,000 images, there are numerous collections to explore, with photographs from the Farm Security Administration, including hundreds by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange; manuscripts by Walt Whitman; letters and papers from Alexander Hamilton; photographs by Lewis Hine of Ellis Island immigrants; 19th and early 20th-century baseball cards; 1843 cyanotypes of algae by Anna Atkins, the first know photography by a woman; old illustrations of military uniforms; prints from John James Audubon’s Birds of America; and over 40,000 stereoscopic images of the United States. It’s an incredible archive of global history, although much of it focuses on the United States, with material dating back to the 11th century, and international archives like Renaissance and Medieval manuscripts, Babylonian cuneiform tablets, postcards from World War I Germany, and the first known map of Africa from 1460. Whether prints of dance, a collection exclusively of decorative bookbinding, or curious sub-collections like death masks (mostly of Napoleon), it’s an impressive overview of the diversity of NYPL’s collections on art and literature.
Many of these collections were previously available online, but getting a high-resolution download required a processing feed and contacting the permissions office. This release also includes their metadata and APIs to facilitate developer use. With copyright restrictions tight in the United States, having this user-friendly access to the public domain archives that are available is incredibly valuable.