We Are Asking For Your Help With Technology Challenges at NYPL

By David Riordan, NYPL Labs
May 10, 2013

Over a century ago, The New York Public Library was founded with a basic purpose: to provide free access to information, literature, and cultural resources for the enjoyment and enrichment of all New Yorkers.

In the late 19th century, this meant accumulating vast collections spanning all subjects and languages, erecting beautiful buildings to store these books, and hiring brilliant, dedicated librarians to serve them to the public. But what would it look like if we founded The New York Public Library today?

Look around you and you’ll notice that knowledge organizations of the early 21st century look radically different from their 19th and 20th century forebears. Twenty-first century institutions aren’t only marble sanctuaries, they’re also distributed networks. In addition to managing printed materials and catalogs, they compile big data and user relationships. Rather than only centralizing authority, they make it porous, and welcome collaboration.

At NYPL, we’re engaging the 21st century by reimagining the public in our name. Inspired by the accomplishments of the open source software movement and collective efforts like Wikipedia and OpenStreetMaps, NYPL wants to tackle some of its thorniest (and most interesting) challenges with your help. We began by building participatory websites and crowdsourcing apps to involve users more closely in the improvement of our collections. Now we're calling directly on engineers, hackers, tinkerers, designers, data scientists, new media artists and creators of all types to help find inspirational, yet functional solutions to some of our most future-oriented problems.

To test the waters, this summer we will be issuing a series of deadline-driven tech challenges. These will be open to all, with prizes for winning submissions. The winners may directly create or inspire new tools and services at NYPL, with the potential to impact libraries everywhere. There are a number of possible areas we could focus on, but in the spirit of the endeavor, we wanted to ask you first.

The advance of science., Digital ID 1103815, New York Public Library

Here are some challenge areas we’re thinking about:

Building apps with historical data: Create innovative educational apps with one-of-a-kind materials and datasets digitized from NYPL collections

  • Build a historical ‘check-in’ app using old New York City atlases and other scanned materials 

Hardware hacking: Build smarter tools for on-site use

  • Engineer an outdoor 24-hour book drop that checks library books on the way in, and keeps everything else out
  • Design lightweight scanning stations to digitize our legacy card catalogs

Data crunching/Machine learning: Process and analyze library data in creative ways

  • Consolidate records in our online catalog that describe versions of the same book (e.g. editions, formats)
  • Develop new methods to extract structured data from old card catalogs

Data visualization: Use library data to uncover new insights and tell new stories

  • Visualize the flow of physical books and ebooks as they're borrowed and read across the city
  • Map the flow of letters from Founding Fathers from archival collections

We want to hear from you about which of these challenges and challenge categories gets your wheels turning. We also would love to hear your specific ideas within these areas, or for entire new categories not mentioned here.

Leave feedback in the comments below or send along a note to challenges@nypl.org.

We’re very, very excited about these upcoming experiments and hope you are as well. Let’s think big and see what happens.