Saturday, March 10, 2012

Guest Blogger Ken Cleary on Ben Vershbow’s “Hacking the Library” Talk

Ken Cleary always posts interesting links and ideas on the Rutgers SOURCE (the Student Organization for Unique and Rare Collections Everywhere) Facebook page. For that reason, I thought he would be an excellent candidate for a guest blogger. Ken is working his way through the Master of Library and Information Science program and expects to graduate in May. He also is co-president of SOURCE and serves as the current Archives Assistant for the University Archives at Rutgers. Suffice to say, his time is tight. However, he managed to squeeze in an article on his experience attending the March 6 “Hacking the Library” talk at Rutgers.

Please welcome Ken to Here and There. The rest of this post is his (except my Editor's Note), including the accompanying photos.

“Hacking the Library”
I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk titled, “Hacking the Library,” given by Ben Vershbow, head of the Digital Labs at New York Public Library (NYPL). He spoke to a small crowd of graduate students and faculty at the School of Communication and Information on Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus. The phrase, “hacking the library” is certainly an attention-grabbing title for a talk, but Vershbow quickly clarified that his use of the term “hacking” is meant to convey a desire to make information more widely accessible.

Vershbow began his talk with a frank admission that he never expected to work at a library or as a “digital humanist.” However, after graduating from Yale with a B.A. in Theater Studies, he became the editorial director for The Institute for the Future of the Book. There, he immersed himself in an environment that experimented with how technology influences the ways people interact with information. This environment comprised a wide range of people, including new media gurus, literary scholars, gamers, writers, and philosophers. Their conversations and work explored such topics as the democratization of information, the book as a social object, the networked book, virtual environments, popular culture, blogs, and the future of reading and writing.

One of Vershbow’s notable examples was his customized blog for author and philosopher McKenzie Wark. The blog allowed for interactive, paragraph-by-paragraph public commentary of an early draft of his work “Gamer Theory.” Consequently, Wark’s online “editors” helped to refine his ideas and shaped revisions to the final text.

Below is a photo of Vershbow speaking at Rutgers.

From Guest Blogger Ken Cleary

NYPL Digital Labs
After spending four years within the eclectic and imaginative realm of The Institute for the Future of the Book, Vershbow joined the New York Public Library as part of a larger effort by NYPL to enhance their digital humanities services. At first, his work focused on overcoming cultural and technological barriers to implement a more open-source and decentralized information technology practice across NYPL. Finding new ways to bridge the gap between technology and collections is one of his top goals, and Vershbow said that his untraditional background helps him to more easily “work against the grain” to find innovative solutions. To support this ongoing process, NYPL created a digital labs unit where he and a small team could tinker with new ideas. Vershbow sees the lab functioning as a “hybrid space” that sits between the library technologists and the curators and archivists who care for collections, allowing his team to incorporate both points of view into their work.

According to NYPL Labs,

NYPL Labs is an experimental unit at the Library developing ideas and tools for digital research. A collaboration among curators, designers and technologists, NYPL Labs is dedicated to rethinking what a public research library can be and do in the new information commons. We develop everything from proof-of-concept pilots to fully realized web applications and digital archives, as well as hosting a variety of staff workshops and public talks.

Vershbow described the Labs’ recent work and how some of their successful projects were born. Many of the experiments began with an awareness that NYPL has a small, but growing, collection of digitized items that are displayed on their web site in much the same way as other libraries’ digital collections.

Vershbow could see information in the images of 19th century maps or century-old menus that was visible to the human eye, but which could not be discovered by searching the library’s catalog or Google. The digital versions of these objects only had a simple title and a very basic description, which limited the ways they could be searched. He then began to imagine how much more useful these images could be if all of the latent information could be transcribed into digital form, and thus become “findable” to a Google or library catalog search. The drawback was that accomplishing that task would be extremely labor intensive.

Even an institution as large and distinguished as NYPL does not have the resources to transcribe the information contained in tens of thousands of images. So Vershbow turned to a technique called “crowdsourcing.” This practice has been used by the scientific community (think bird counts during migration), as well as in libraries all over the world.

[Editor’s note: I’ve seen many examples of crowdsourcing, but most commonly, I see it in “tagging.” Instead of using uniform terms (such as those found in the Library of Congress authority terms), the user tags an item with terms familiar to them to describe objects. This method is intended to help other users familiar with the same terms to search for items in a more “natural” way.]

One way to explain crowdsourcing is to highlight an example of how the NYPL Digital Labs utilized it. The Library holds more than 40,000 restaurant menus dating back to the 1840s, making it one of the largest collections of its kind in the world. More than just an historical curiosity, the menus are a treasure trove of economic, social, and cultural history. As Vershbow explained, being able to search for the term “oyster” could be of great interest to scientists who are trying to connect the dots between culinary trends and data on the health of the oyster population. But the only way that the details on prices, ingredients, dishes, and more, can be transcribed is with a lot of help. So, the Digital Labs created a web site called, “What’s on the Menu?” that invited the public to help transcribe menus, one dish at a time. As of today, over 75,000 volunteers have helped transcribe 812,361 dishes from 12,796 menus, and the project is still going strong.

The Stereogranimator
The most recent project to emerge from NYPL Digital Labs takes crowdsourcing a step further by incorporating aspects of Vershbow’s previous work at The Institute for the Future of the Book. The Stereogranimator web site allows the public to choose from over 40,000 stereographs to create their own shareable animated gif or 3D anaglyph.

Below, Vershbow demonstrates examples of 3D anaglyphs created with the Stereogranimator.

From Guest Blogger Ken Cleary

Vershbow explained that the inspiration for the Stereogranimator grew from a patron who created their own animated gifs from NYPL stereographs and publicized them on the web. Vershbow emphasized that this is an important example of the library listening to its patrons and providing useful and creative tools for interacting with the collections.

The photo below shows Vershbow's audience learning how to use special glasses to appreciate the 3D anaglyphs created with the Sterogranimator.

From Guest Blogger Ken Cleary

Vershbow’s talk, including questions and answers, lasted for an hour and a half, but could easily have gone on much longer. Other projects that the NYPL Digital Labs have completed, or are working on, can be found on their web site. Many of the projects rely on public participation for their success, but if the response they have received so far is any indication, NYPL will be able to accomplish a great deal using this technique. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to hear Ben Vershbow speak and I will certainly be following his work more closely in future. I believe that the creative and thoughtful approach that the NYPL Digital Labs is taking towards the digital humanities is an excellent example of how technology can be harnessed to make collections more accessible and engaging to both researchers and the general public.


Ken Cleary is a graduate student in Library and Information Science at Rutgers University. His digital calling card is at:

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