Patience and Fortitude are the names of the two lions standing guard in front of the New York Public Library. Among the 88-miles of shelf space in this labyrinthine marble structure are countless treasures, one of which is a room tucked away in the basement, known as the Bindery.
Last week the room that has a 100-year old history restoring traditional books hosted a digital laboratory to explore the future of the way we learn—and hopefully, the way we read literature.
“This stems from a project that one of the guys here today started in the mid-2000s, Schuyler Erle. Schuyler was at a company called Metacarta that built a contemporary gazetteer that links the names of places to the points on maps,” said David Riordan, product manager at NYPL Labs, an experimental team of the New York Public Library.
Metacarta took books from the Project Gutenberg, a collection of over 42,000 free ebooks, and looked for places to “visualize” in digital form. Unfortunately, said Riordon, “GutenKarte,” as he called it, is no more, “But it proved what was possible with geocoding literature.”
For the past year, The New York Public Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities have collaborated with Topomancy, “opensource geospacial superheros,” as Riordan called them, to build an experimental historical gazetteer, or geographical dictionary, called The New York City Chronology of Place (NYC-CoP).
Now that the project is almost done, between 40 and 50 people attended the event last week: Mobilizing Historic Geodata: Hack NYC’s Past With NYPL Labs, in search of what happens next. But with over a half million physical maps in the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division of the library, it’s no small task.
“We would love for anybody who’s interested in the history, the geography of New York, their ancestors in New York, the literature of New York, the creative life of New York, to come to us to want to work with us and to drive us to create and to work with the data that we publish,” said Riordan. “To create not simply new scholarship, but new ways of experiencing knowledge.”
And it’s not just computer coders and librarians helping out. Anyone with basic computer knowledge can get involved. Deb Boyer, works at Azavea, a Philadelphia-based geospacial software firm that, among other things, creates new technology for studying traditional humanities. But Boyer isn’t a coder, she’s a project manager who with about a half-hour training was hard at work “georectifying” or connecting locations on old maps with new ones, using a tool called Warper, that anyone can use from home.
With Literary Manhattan’s mission to transform words on the page into experiences in the street we could hardly be more excited about the work going on at NYPL Labs and Topomancy. Last week two volunteers at Literary Manhattan demoed an app called Library Atlas, at the Book Expo of America. The app, a finalist at the first Publishing Hackathon hosted by Perseus Books, will send users quotes from their favorite authors, books, genres, and cities, as their real life location intersects with the literature.