Preservation vs. Access at the NYPL

By theo_walther

In her article “W(H)ITHER Preservation?,” Michele Valerie Cloonan states that “several major libraries have recently dismantled their preservation programs and replaced them with digital initiative departments.”[1] She characterizes this as “shortsighted, narrow-minded, and, ultimately, counterproductive.”[2] While the Conservation Lab at the New York Public Library might not be as large or well-funded as it once was, as a member of the Prints & Photographs departments, I can attest to the crucial role they play. We work in close collaboration with their staff, particularly the specialized conservators for both prints and photographs, preparing for both in-house and external loan exhibitions, undertaking conservation as needed, and preserving our collections as a whole.

That said, while the library hasn’t dismantled its preservation program, the digital initiatives Cloonan mentions are among the areas of the library that have seen the most growth in my almost seven years at the library. Some of the most visible initiatives are products of the interdisciplinary NYPL Labs. Map Warper and Surveyor allow the public to align historical maps (Map Warper) and photographs (Surveyor) to the digital maps of today.[3] Emigrant City, Building Inspector, and What’s on the Menu?, allow the public to aid the library in transcribing 19th and 20th-century bank records, New York City insurance atlases, and restaurant menus, respectively.[4] Other notable initiatives include the NYPL Digital Collections, a database of objects digitized from the library’s collections, and individual department catalogs, including Manuscripts & Archives and Prints & Photographs. However, no matter what initiative it’s used for, whether it’s a periodical, book, manuscript, map, piece of ephemera, print, or photograph, if an object from the library’s collection is photographed and digitized, it’s done by the Digital Imaging Unit (DIU). As such, the DIU is the sine qua non of all digital initiatives at the NYPL.

To see exactly how the physical is converted to the digital and how the library’s digital initiatives are being realized, I took a 15-minute subway ride from the main Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (SASB) at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street to the Library Services Center (LSC) in Long Island City, Queens. The DIU was formerly located on the ground floor of SASB and still maintains a single camera set-up there to digitize objects that are often too fragile or valuable to make the trip to Queens. However, in 2010 the DIU, along with Conservation, Special Formats Processing, Exhibitions, and several other departments relocated to a former warehouse building in Long Island City, extensively renovated into a state-of-the-art library preservation and distribution facility.[5]

From the outside, the three-story LSC maintains its appearance as a nondescript, former warehouse. However, immediately upon entering, it’s readily apparent how much time, effort, and money was put into making it the most advanced facility possible. It was there I met with Peter Riesett, Head Photographer at the DIU. We proceeded to the second floor of the building where the DIU is located. Upon entering the studio, one first sees a large, light gray room with expansive staging tables along the right side of the room, staff offices along the left, and a currently unused book copy stand in the back. It was in this room I met several of the ten people who staff the DIU, eight of whom are photographers.

In an adjacent dark gray space are six digital capture stations. Each station is partitioned by walls on the left and right with a sliding black curtain in the back. Four of the six set-ups have a copy stand with a 30 x 40-inch table and a motorized column holding a medium format camera with a digital back overhead. There is also a similar set-up with a much larger table to allow for the photography of oversized objects. The last set-up features a book scanner system with a book cradle and two cameras mounted opposite each other at an angle. All of the digital capture stations have strobe lighting mounted on stands with soft boxes to diffuse them, as well as standing desks with Mac Pro tower computers to process the images captured. While the equipment seems brand-new, Riesett informs me that they recently received approval of a city capital planning allocation to upgrade all of the cameras to 100-megapixel digital backs and the computers to the latest Mac Pro model.

As digital preservation and initiatives are relatively new to libraries, often resulting in regularly changing criteria and policies of which objects from the library’s collection should be selected for digitization and why, Riesett points to three relatively consistent circumstances in which objects are digitized at the DIU. The first is grant funded projects. Second are objects and collections from the library’s various departments, selected by department curators in collaboration with the Digital Oversight Committee. Last is the digitization of objects to be displayed in exhibitions at the research libraries. Although each of these situations is unique, they all tend to share the initial requirements of funding, complete object metadata, and consideration of copyright issues.

Riesett mentions two current projects as examples of grant funded projects at the library, the first circumstance in which objects are digitized at the DIU. “Mapping the Nation, 1565-1899” is a project of the Lionel Pincus & Princess Firyal Map Division. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, they will catalog, conserve, and digitize roughly 4,000 maps from the 16th to the 19th century documenting the United States from the national level all the way down to counties, towns, and localities.[6] The Manuscripts & Archives Division received a grant from the Polonsky Foundation to digitize and make accessible 50,000 pages documenting life in the early United States, including papers from many of the Founding Fathers.[7] Riesett mentions that the grant from the Polonsky Foundation was sizeable enough to allow them to hire a photographer dedicated to working on just the one project.

In the second circumstance in which objects are digitized, library departments and curators are asked to come up with groups of objects for digitization in collaboration with the Digital Oversight Committee. Again, this is primarily done to provide the public access to objects and collections from the library. However, the departments themselves often see this as an opportunity to digitally preserve objects in their collections, for which there wouldn’t otherwise be funding. In the Prints Department, we recently used just such an opportunity to begin digitizing our collections of 15th and 16th century German and Italian old master prints. In the Photography Department, we recently digitized a collection of nearly 9,300 negatives by the photographer Morris Huberland.

It’s a situation similar to what occurred at the Library of Congress during the National Digital Library Initiative of the late 90s as described by Dalbello in her article “Digital Cultural Heritage: Concepts, Projects, and Emerging Constructions of Heritage.” The Manuscripts Division was one of three departments upon which the project primarily drew. Knowing their collection was heavily used by researchers, the curators “wanted to preserve it for the future.”[8] As digitized items would be served before any original objects, the project provided researchers with access to the collection, while allowing curators to minimize further risk to the collection.[9]

The last circumstance Riesett describes in which objects are regularly digitized at the DIU is in preparation for in-house exhibitions. These exhibitions take place at the research libraries of the NYPL, including SASB, the Library for Performing Arts, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Although primarily done for the purpose of access, curators and librarians also see this as another way to digitally preserve objects in their collections. In the Prints Department, the digitization of objects bound for exhibition has allowed us to preserve and provide access to a significant portion of prints by Henri Guerard, J.M.W. Turner, and Mary Cassatt from the Samuel Putnam Avery Collection. In the Photography Department, the exhibition Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography allowed us to preserve and provide access to over 150 photographs from 1849 to the present day.

On the subway ride back from the DIU, I had a chance to reflect on the question of preservation vs. access at the NYPL. While it must be acknowledged that digital initiatives currently receive more resources and enthusiasm than preservation at the NYPL, fortunately, the library hasn’t abandoned preservation, either. The situation instead seems closer to Paul Conway’s proposed “bridge” between traditional and digital preservation, as described by Cloonan. Conway lists three “distinct but not mutually exclusive applications of digital technology: protect originals, represent originals, and transcend originals.”[10] Rather than a decision of one or the other, Conway’s “bridge” appealingly takes into consideration both the requirements of preservationists and “the purposes that digital technologies may serve for end users.”[11]


[1] Michèle Valerie Cloonan. “W(H)ITHER Preservation?” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 71, no. 2 (2001): 231-42.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “NYPL Labs.” The New York Public Library. Accessed October 11, 2016.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “New York Public Library’s New Library Services Center Features World’s Largest Automated Sorter of Library Materials.” The New York Public Library. April 22, 2010. Accessed October 11, 2016.

[6] NEH Grant Details: Mapping the Nation, 1565-1899. Accessed October 11, 2016.

[7] “The New York Public Library Receives Grant To Digitize 50,000 Pages of Historic Early American Manuscript Material For Public Use.” January 21, 2015. Accessed October 11, 2016.

[8] Dalbello, Marija. (2009) “Digital Cultural Heritage: Concepts, Projects, and Emerging Constructions of Heritage.” Proceedings in the Libraries in the Digital Age (LIDA) conference, 25-30 May, 2009.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Michèle Valerie Cloonan. “W(H)ITHER Preservation?” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 71, no. 2 (2001): 231-42.

[11] Ibid.

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