Most of us Open Culture writers and readers surely grew up thinking of the local public library as an endless source of fascinating things. But the New York Public Library’s collections take that to a whole other level, and, so far, they’ve spent the age of the internet taking it to a level beyond that, digitizing ever more of their fascinating things and making them freely available for all of our perusal (and even for use in our own work). Just in the past couple of years, we’ve featured their release of 20,000 high-resolution maps, 17,000 restaurant menus, and lots of theater ephemera.
This week, The New York Public Library (NYPL) announced not only that their digital collection now contains over 180,000 items, but that they’ve made it possible, “no permission required, no hoops to jump through,” to download and use high-resolution images of all of them.
You’ll find on their site “more prominent download links and filters highlighting restriction-free content,” and, if you have techier interests, “updates to the Digital Collections API enabling bulk use and analysis, as well as data exports and utilities posted to NYPL’s GitHub account.” You might also consider applying for the NYPL’s Remix Residency program, designed to foster “transformative and creative uses of digital collections and data, and the public domain assets in particular.”
And what do those assets include? Enduring pieces of American documentary art like the Farm Security Administration photographs taken during the Great Depression by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks. Lange’s shot of the Midway Dairy Cooperative near Santa Ana, California appears at the top of the post. Artifacts from the creative processes of such icons of American literature as Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman, whose handwritten preface to Specimen Days you’ll find second from the top. The letters and other papers of the Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson’s list of books for a private library just above. And, of course, all those maps, like the 1868 Plan of New York and Brooklyn just below.
These selections make the NYPL’s digital collection seem strongly America-focused, and to an extent it is, but apart from hosting a rich repository of the history, art, and letters of the United States, it also contains such fascinating international materials as medieval European illuminated manuscripts; 16th-century handscrolls illustrating The Tale of Genji, the first novel; and 19th-century cyanotypes of British algae by botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, the first person to publish a book illustrated with photos. You can start your own browsing on the NYPL Digital Collections front page, and if you do, you’ll soon find that something else we knew about the library growing up — what good places they make in which to get lost — holds even truer on the internet.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.