One of the exciting things about working at the Library as Incubator Project is learning about library-based projects that make use of archival and research collections for creative projects. Today’s feature from Rebecca Rubenstein introduces the NYPL Labs, where the library’s extensive collections are put to new and innovative uses.  Don’t miss Rebecca’s other posts on library-as-incubator happenings in the NYC area! ~Erinn


by Rebecca Rubenstein

Ben Vershbow, David Riordan, and their dynamic staff work with the librarians and curators of The New York Public Library (NYPL) to create amazing technology projects that throw a new and brighter light on the library and its collections.

We look at digitization not as the end of a collection’s journey, but as the beginning of a new and often surprising story of use and transformation. Suddenly a public library becomes a community platform where our users can not only access, but also interpret, enhance, and compute our collections in new ways. ~Ben Vershbow

Library as Incubator Project (LAIP): What projects are you currently working on at NYPL Labs?

Ben: I’m very excited to announce that, as of very recently, our team is now part of a newly formed department (that I’ll have the great privilege of directing) that brings together NYPL Labs with our digitization, metadata, and content licensing units. Bringing these amazing teams together will enable us to more closely coordinate all aspects of digital library building: describing our collections, imaging (or otherwise reformatting) them, and turning them into first-class citizens of the web. First up? We’re rolling up our sleeves to get back to work with NYPL’s Repository team on our main Digital Collections website. We did some great work together last summer, laying the foundations of the new platform and launching version 1 of NYPL’s Digital Collections API. The goal now is to move it out of ‘beta’ and fully launch it some time this fall. We’re incredibly excited to be working with colleagues in our new expanded department to build one of the best digital collections services on the web.

David: With some of our local branches, we’ve been working on an oral history pilot. Many of the projects NYPL Labs works on deal with bringing historical materials into the digital world, but this project deals with “born digital” challenges.  Brian Foo has built a tool that’s not just about letting people listen to these histories, but also helps the library catalog, collect annotations, and connect them to other collections. It’s wild being able to listen to these stories, but then to be able to pull in photos and maps of the places they’re describing, plus see portraits of the storytellers. All in all, it makes the whole collection easier to search. It’s also becoming part of our Milstein Local History Division. We’re not only doing this for the communities, we’re doing this to collect snapshots of New Yorkers and New York City for the future.

Ben: Also worth mentioning, last month, two on our team, Paul Beaudoin and Leonard Richardson, embarked on a wonderful side project. Over two days, they turned an 1860 map of Inwood (the northernmost part of Manhattan) into a Minecraft World and documented the process here. We hope to do more of this before too long, and to put together some participatory programs that can get the public (of all ages) involved in historical Minecrafting.

LAIP: Do you have a favorite Labs project? If so, what makes it stand out in your mind?

David: Building Inspector started out of a historical geodata hackathon we did last summer as an outgrowth of our maps program led by NYPL’s geospatial librarian Matt Knutzen, and shows what happens when you pair talented technologists and designers with curators. We’ve been collecting historical geodata with the help of the public for several years with our Map Warper. Mauricio Giraldo, our interaction designer, built a tool that actually makes it fun and kind of addictive to help the library so we can understand our own past. I find myself passing the time with Building Inspector while waiting in line at the grocery store or before I go to bed. It’s really not healthy.

Our Archives Portal provides really incredible, deep access to so many of NYPL’s most important collections by making archival finding aids really native to the web. While most major archival repositories have finding aids online, we’ve pushed what it means for them to be native to the web. For some of our collections, yes you can see digitized assets, but Matt Miller, our lead developer on the project, has been trying to treat the archives as networks. If you see someone mentioned in one archival collection, let’s see all the other contexts and collections in which they’re mentioned.

Ben: Ditto David on everything. It’s impossible to choose, and I love so many of our projects for so many different reasons, but my personal favorite (in that it never ceases to delight me) would have to be the Stereogranimator. I love it because it was inspired directly by a library user’s art project. A playful dialog happens between late 19th century photographic culture and early Internet culture: stereo cards meet animated gifs; 1890s meets 1990s; it’s old timey and historical yet also totally web-native. It’s interesting and accessible from any number of angles: media theory, popular history, science, net art, etc. Yeah, I heart the Stereogranimator project. 😉

Click on the images to open a new window to watch the Stereogranimator action!

LAIP: What’s your favorite book?

David: In terms of the foundational stuff for me, I’d have to give it a split between Larry Lessig’s Free Culture and Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks. The first time I came to The New York Public Library I saw Lessig in conversation with Jeff Tweedy from Wilco discuss the concept of “Free Culture,” the notion that we can and should live in a society which builds on the past and supports remix as an extension of authorship. Those two books (and a lot of Doug Rushkoff) really helped shape how I see the world and are a big reason I started working for NYPL. And in the world of literary fiction, Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is basically the canonization of everything that NYPL Labs stands for and it is amazing and wonderful and I return to it time and time again.

The first time I came to The New York Public Library I saw Lessig in conversation with Jeff Tweedy from Wilco discuss the concept of “Free Culture,” the notion that we can and should live in a society which builds on the past and supports remix as an extension of authorship. ~David Riordan

Ben: Gosh, there are so many books I’ve read and loved, but when asked what is my favorite, I think of the books that I return to over and over again- Moby-Dick, Emily Dickinson’s poems, Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones. Or Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. I’m not much of a gamer, but I suppose I’m most drawn to return to books that are a bit like games, puzzles, or mazes. These books are gardens that I love to roam. It’s pretty typical for someone working in libraries to be drawn to Borges’ work, but that slim little volume of stories, Ficciones, gives us an incredible metaphorical toolbox for grappling with a world that is accelerating beyond our capacity to understand. Maybe my favorite, “Funes the Memorius”, gives a chilling glimpse of a life in which nothing is forgotten. Another book I read in recent years that made a big impression was Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows, which describes the birth of modern America through the story of photographer Eadweard Muybridge. (Oh, and I love stuff about space.)


Want More?

Check out more about the NYPL Labs here:


rebecca_rubensteinRebecca Rubenstein is an artist who earned her MFA from from Pratt Institute before enrolling as an MSLIS student at the Palmer School of Library and Information Science, Long Island University. She recently completed an internship with the Librarian for Fine Art at New York University’s Bobst Library. One of her projects there was to build a Lib Guide which includes online and print professional development resources for visual artists. She currently works in the eLibrary of an educational software company. Visit her website at

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