Like most public institutions, the New York Public Library is chronically underfunded. However, shoestring staffing has not slowed the breakneck pace at which NYPL Labs releases new digital projects. NYPL Labs offers a model for public institutions around the country: Trust your patrons. Thanks to shrewd application of crowdsourcing initiatives, NYPL Labs has produced innovative online projects ranging from maps to menus.
NYPL Labs is perhaps best known for its work with the NYPL Map Division on theMap Warper suite. Eventually, the project will produce a virtual atlas of New York City, through which researchers will be able to geospatially explore photographs, newspapers, manuscripts, and other holdings from the library’s collections. Tens of thousands of maps and atlases from the past 500 years must be stitched together into historical layers that can be “rectified” (aligned) with contemporary digital maps. It’s an ambitious undertaking, and one NYPL wouldn’t finish this century if they relied upon their staff alone.
Instead, NYPL Labs opened the project to researchers. To begin “rectifying” maps, patrons create free accounts. (I signed in using my Twitter account.) There’s a four-minute tutorial on using the tool, though the process can be as simple as adding pins (Control Points) to maps. Patrons can also review one another’s work, crop maps, and post comments. At last check, more than 6,000 maps have been rectified.
The groups’ latest collaboration arose from a MAPHACK event, during which contributors developed a process that identified buildings in geo-rectified sheets from Map Warper. NYPL describes it as “OCR for maps.” Patrons can quality-control that OCR using Building Inspector.
If Map Warper caters to cartographers, Building Inspector is best for bite-sized contributions. Patrons don’t need accounts, desktop computers (the site is mobile-compatible), or more than a few minutes at a clip. Checking building footprints or entering addresses, colors, or place names can be accomplished in a lunch break, and patrons can take pride in the fact that they contributed to the NYC Space/Time Directory, which will serve as a searchable atlas of NYC history and a code base with which other libraries may launch similar initiatives.
With menus dating back to the 1850s, NYPL boasts one of the world’s largest culinary archives. The problem is that the lovely lettering that makes these menus objects of art also makes them illegible to computers. Once again, there’s no way for library staff to transcribe all of them. NYPL provides patrons with a tool, What’s on the Menu?, through which they can view and transcribe dishes and pricing.
Using the tool is as simple as following your nose. While there are more than 17,000 menus digitized, patrons can winnow options by decade. For example, there are 1,500 menus from the 1890s but just 21 from the 1860s. Menus and dishes can also be browsed by date, name, popularity, or obscurity. I would not have expected radishes to be more popular than apple pie (by a two-to-one margin across all menus), or that something called “Nesselrode Pudding” was all the rage in the 1890s (gracing 481 menus).
Remarkably, there weren’t any new menus available for review at last check, and the menus under review appeared accurately transcribed—a testament to the popularity and utility of NYPL’s crowdsourcing scheme. Moreover, all datagenerated via crowdsourcing is available for download (as a CSV file) and public API.
Maps and menus are just a couple of areas where the New York Public Library has produced digital projects that use crowdsourcing to expand the possibilities of the public library. (Theater lovers will hope that Ensemble, a collaborative transcription project with the Billy Rose Theatre Division, will do for playbills what Menu has done for dishes).
NYPL Lab’s approach to online projects is effective because it relies upon reciprocal trust. Library staff trust that visitors will contribute meaningfully to digital projects, which they encourage by scaffolding crowdsourcing with clear guidelines and peer review. Where possible, staff improve upon previous projects. While this approach results in heterogeneous design, it also means that each initiative assumes the form its function dictates. In return, patrons trust that contributing to NYPL projects will not be onerous—each tool will function as a complement to the research they conduct. Patrons expect that the data they contribute will be publically available and that it will be richer collectively than what they could achieve individually.
A philosophy that unites 21st century tools with a social contract has sparked something of a digital renaissance at the New York Public Library, and it could enable beleaguered public institutions elsewhere to expand electronic outreach and strengthen ties with patrons.
Texto original retirado do site PCMAG.
FENTON, William. How the NY Public Library Crowdsources Digital Innovation. PCMAG: 30 jul. 2015. Disponível em: <http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2488220,00.asp>. Acesso em: 29 jul. 2015.