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The NY Public Library's Digital Gallery

By Jim / March 21, 2005


You may have heard that the New York Public Library recently put a substantial portion of its collections online in the form of a Web-based gallery. You may have also heard that the response was so overwhelming that the Library was forced to briefly take the site down in order to beef up its ability to respond to a phenomenal number of visitors.

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Well, back in operation and now equal to the challenges of high traffic, the NYPL Digital Gallery is open for business once again - you can see what everyone else has been looking at.

Officially launched on March 3rd, the NYPL DIgital Gallery is presently offering 275,000 images (stored on a 57-terabyte, a thousand billion bytes of data, network of servers) for public perusal and free personal use ("...individual private study, scholarship and research..."). Most of the contents of the Gallery is in the public domain, and if you can obtain your own reproduction of any image you find here, you can probably use it as you see fit.

The digitized copies on the NYPL website, however, are protected by copyright, and the Library charges a usage fee if an image is used in any "nonprofit or commercial publication, broadcast, web site, exhibition, promotional material, etc" contexts. (It's also possible - for a fee - to order high resolution digital files or hard copy prints of most images through the website.)

In terms of the territory covered by the collection, you can be excused for wondering if you've inadvertently linked your way into the British Museum or Library of Congress. In chronological terms, most of the artifacts range from the middle ages to the mid-20th century (though there are some items from outside these dates).

And while there is understandably an abundance of material directly related to New York, there are artifacts from around the globe as well, including Russian Civil War posters, Renaissance Manuscripts, and, "A Suite of Twenty Engravings of the Yuan Ming-Yuan Summer Palaces and Gardens of the Chinese Emperor Ch'ien Lung" (published in 1786).

The Gallery also boasts a bit of 'pre-NASA NASA' - with some early celestial maps and illustrations from the 1596 publication, "Prodromus dissertationum cosmographicarum continens mysterium cosmographicum, de admirabili proportione orbium coelestium, de que causis coelorum numeri, magnitudinis, motuum,que periodicorum genuinis & proprijs : demonstratum, per quinque regularia corpora geometrica" - which presumably translates to something roughly like, "Astronomy for Dummies."

A sampling of other collections includes historical maps, George Caitlin's North American Indian Portfolio, Goya's "Disasters of War" and the Miss Frank E. Buttolph American Menu Collection, 1856-1930. ("Menus?" you ask? Well let's see your hobby immortalized at the New York Public Library along with the works of Copernicus and Goya.)

If you still can't find what you're looking for, check back later - the Library's plan is to use twice monthly updates to increase the size of the collection to 500,000 items within the next few months.

And while even such an impressive collection might seem to be of little more than passing interest to most of us outside the scholarly community, the traffic-generated shutdown demonstrates that, in fact, most of us simply like looking at old stuff - especially if it's old stuff we don't usually have access to. Naturally, navigation needs to be efficient in order to keep us visitors on a site of this kind, and the Digital Gallery has a multitude of methods which allow us to wade through the collection or zero in on a specific image.