Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The New York Public Library aims to engage data-lovers with a new public domain release.
Much of the New York Public Library’s collection of photographs, maps, drawings, postcards and other ephemera have been available online for some time. As of this week, those documents are now free for everyone’s use, as the library announced the release of more than 180,000 online archival items to the public domain.
Online visitors can download the library’s digitized, out-out-copyright holdings as high-resolution files to use as they please. Hankering for a wall-sized map of “The Brooklyn of the Future,” or some gorgeous botanical illustrations to plop on your website? The NYPL’s your one-stop shop. Even better, developers can draw on the public domain files as machine-readable data, using the library’s built-in software interfaces or their own tools. That’s where things really get interesting, as staffers of NYPL’s in-house technology department show with their interactive “public domain remixes,” released alongside this week’s announcement.
Mansion Maniac, for example, lets users build and explore early 20th-century apartment floor plans, Pac-Man-style. Built from the library’s Apartment Houses of the Metropolis collections, it’s a fun digital toy—as well as an entry-point to a time when wealthy Manhattanites needed to be persuaded to live in penthouses, rather than in private homes.
Another innovative “remix” is Navigating the Green Book, which assembles road-trip itineraries from addresses listed in mid-20th-century travel guides for African Americans. Enter in your start and end points, and the tool will spit out restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and sights that didn’t discriminate against blacks in an age of sundown towns and segregation.
And for those looking for a more holistic way to enter the library’s new offerings, the library has developed an impressive visualization of every single one of the 187,000 public domain documents. More than 42,000 stereoscopic views, 12,000 maps, 6,000 postcards, and much more are stitched together in vast digital quilt for visitors to explore.
What’s most exciting about the public domain release is what it indicates about where digitization is headed. With libraries, museums, and universities increasingly scanning in and uploading their historic collections, research is becoming easier and more democratic than ever. But not all of us learn by simply looking at yellowed texts and photos, online or in person. NYPL is helping forge a new phase in digitization where online explorers can engage with historic documents in novel, playful ways. The University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab is also spearheading this shift, particularly with its new historical atlas project.
But maps are only the beginning when it comes to bringing history to life in the digital sphere, as the NYPL “remixes” indicate. Will somebody build an online stereoscope for viewing those 42,000 antique images? It’s time they popped again.