New York Public Library: Integrating the Past into the Future

Nikisha Roberts, November 2018

The New York City Public Library (NYPL) is a haven for independent researchers, containing centuries of history and miles of books— all at your disposal free of charge. However, as the world digitizes and the demand for these literally material resources dwindles, the NYPL has innovated a Digital Collection to serve researchers on and off site.

In March 2005, the library debuted a site called Digital Gallery, an early iteration of the Digital Collection site, which was later developed in 2015. The Digital Collection provides public access to images, video, audio, and text from the library’s vast collection. Sometimes I find myself browsing through various pieces of art and photographs during my free time. With a database of 754,059 items (as of November 8) and growing every week, the library provides researchers the resources they need for free. The library allows researchers to use any of their public domain items from their extensive digital collection without needing special permission. On the site, users can also download images for their own use and are only asked to credit the New York Public Library for the item. Each item is fully catalogued, making research less stressful and tedious.

My first experience using the library’s Digital Collections was when I had to create a mood board for my fashion design class. I needed reference images of 1920s fashion trends and my teacher recommended NYPL’s website. I was shocked by the array of illustrations, dating as far back as the 1770’s. I had a lot of options to choose from and downloading the photos was a breeze. I love how accessible these primary resources are to the average student whose college doesn’t have an archive, while also catering to researchers who don’t belong to an institution.

If viewing the collections online doesn’t suffice, researchers can take advantage of the New York system’s four research libraries, comprising the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the Science, Industry and Business Library. All told, these research libraries hold a staggering forty-four million items, ranging in books, photographs, prints, articles, etc. Since the research libraries are scattered throughout Manhattan, traveling between libraries took me into different neighborhoods that I wouldn’t have been to otherwise.

The main branch on 42nd Street is known as the Schwarzman Building, and holds nine divisions which encompass all of the content within the archive. Researchers can find a range of topics to satisfy their research on from genealogy to photography. Three divisions out of the nine, (General Research Division, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, and Rare Book Division) include subdivisions, which simplifies the process of searching for appropriate resources. Each subdivision has a dedicated reading room and reference staff.

The library gives individual researchers direct access to most of their collections, while some special collections require additional registration and a card of admission prior to visiting the library. The library recommends researchers a consultation with a curator or librarian to minimize time spent on looking for the right materials. Each division has a team of staff ready to answer any questions about the work and the history behind it. When I worked on a research paper on Harlem photographer James Van Der Zee, the librarian assisted me to find out more information about Van Der Zee, in addition to recommending other artists to look at—such as contemporary photographer Jamel Shabazz and Roy DeCarava, another Harlem photographer of the same generation—who were influenced by Van Der Zee. Working with the librarians made writing the paper a lot more enjoyable.
If you're a researcher, student, or curious about history, make sure to check out the Digital Collection as well as the physical research libraries. Don’t forget to bring your library card!