The NY Public Library's Digital Gallery

By , csmonitor.com

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.

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.

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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.

Available in both Flash-enhanced and HTML-only versions (both requiring JavaScript), the Gallery Home Page greets the visitor with a Keyword Search, options to browse the collection by Name, Subject or Library Division, a Curator's Choice feature, and a handful of Explore categories (Arts and Literature, Nature and Science, etc.) for those who simply want to immerse themselves in the material. (The home page also provides links to such useful information as how to make best use of the site, a FAQ page, and details about the legalities of using any of the Gallery's images.)

Once you've descended a level or two into the site, you'll be presented with a grid of thumbnail images, each with a cataloging ID number (the most direct way to get back to that specific item at a later date) and a link to "View Image Details." This next step opens a mid-sized copy of the selected artifact along with detailed information (much of which contains links to related items elsewhere on the site), and a very nice "Search For More Images"drop box." (I don't know if such a term exists in the web design lexicon, but you'll see what I mean at the site.)

Below each thumbnail, a varying collection of links displays the options available for each file - options which will always include a "Printer Friendly" version of the page, and an enlarged (760 pixels on the longer side) copy of the image which opens into a new window. (You won't be making any 16 x 20s out of these free files, but they're large enough for a good on-screen perusal or a small print.)

Other options may or may not appear on a given page depending on the artifact being viewed. Two-sided items (such as Baseball cards) will have a "View Verso" button, while single pages of larger publications (e.g., restaurant menus) will include the chance to view the entire set in a single frame. A few items (well, "a few" when compared to a collection of 275,000), such as the Japanese woodcut featured on the site's home page, will also offer a "Pan and Zoom" option for detailed inspection of the artifact.

Finally, there is the invitation with every image to "Add to Selections." In this case, Selections is a personal catalog of images which is stored in your browser's Cookie file for future reference. Once added, all your selections can be accessed at once, and revised as you see fit. Meanwhile, "Search History" uses Cookies to track your current visit in case you need to quickly backtrack to a previous file.

The only complaint that comes to mind (other than my admittedly unreasonable desire for free and instant access to high-resolution files) centers on the fact that the title bar - and corresponding browser tab - of every page in the site is identical, i.e., "NYPL Digital Gallery."

When you've got a half dozen or more Tabs open in your browser, and every one of them says NYPL Digital Gallery (even those for the About and FAQ pages), it leads to a lot of unnecessary flipping through windows to find the image you know you've got open there somewhere. Even substituting the first few words of every page's "Source" description in the title bar would be of enormous help.

That criticism aside, this is a staggering collection with navigational options that are more than up to the task. Once again the web makes accessible to millions artifacts that previously were only available to a relative handful, and with the strengths of this production, it's not even remotely surprising that the Library was forced to enhance the site's serving capacity.

The NYPL Digital Gallery can be found at http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/.

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