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Browsing the virtual bookshelves

Molly Wood Mar 28, 2016
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A page from the 1889 manuscript of Theodore Roosevelt's "The Winning of the West," which is in the New York Public Library's digitized (and actual) collection.
The New York Public Library Digital Collections

The New York Public Library has digitized 679,145 of its objects, and in January, the library expanded the number of digitized items in the public domain to over 180,000 for people to use as they like.

But before anyone can play with that material, it all must be placed in the digital world. The process of capturing those books, pictures, maps — everything — is happening in black-curtained booths full of cameras at NYPL Labs in Long Island City, Queens.   

“We aren’t doing the old-fashioned microfilming of material in order to preserve it,” said digitization services manager Eric Shows. “One of our primary goals is to image this material that comes through this lab as naturalistically as possible. So if you are a researcher encountering this on the web, you are getting the clearest possible image of what it would be like to encounter that material in person.” 

That means they want to capture details such as the fingerprints on the back cover of Theodore Roosevelt’s 1889 manuscript of “Winning of the West” — and all his scribbled notes in the margins. 

One possible use of the digitized materials are projects like the library’s Space/Time Directory. It takes archival material from the library and attaches it to maps. The idea is that you may eventually be able to sort of travel around New York City in different time periods. 

Photographing just one book can take a few days, which mean the whole archiving process is time-consuming. But Shows said that is to be expected. “There are 51 million objects in the library, and it’s not even a drop in the bucket at this point. If we’re translating large bodies of human knowledge, then the track record for that translating process has been — it takes a long time.” 

Poke around in the library’s digital collection — which includes the ability to sort thousands of items by color — here.

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