The People’s Institution: Crowdsourcing and The New York Public Library

dkaizer    February 27, 2017

The New York Public Library (NYPL) was founded in 1895 and is the United States’ largest public library system. Today, the NYPL consists of four scholarly research centres and 88 public branches, located between Manhattan, Staten Island and The Bronx. The NYPL holds more than 51 million items within it’s collection and serves more than 17 million patrons annually; from scholars to public school students, to seniors and toddlers.

The NYPL is a centre of educational innovation and a community hub that is vital to New York culture. Statistically, one in three New Yorkers do not have at home internet access and the NYPL works tirelessly to close this digital divide. In the rapidly advancing digital age, the NYPL provides patrons (not only at their physical locations in New York), but also individuals worldwide, with powerful online tools to discover their resources and services. Through their website, visitors can browse the NYPL collections that include 800,000 digitized items. The NYPL also offers online librarian support to answer visitor’s questions online at any time. To further customer engagement, the NYPL offers 67,000 free programs annually. To quote the NYPL President & CEO, Tony Marx:

“The New York Public Library has provided essential access to books and information for more than a century. Today, we are building on that legacy by increasing access to our collections physically and online, and by transforming our libraries into proactive centers of education and opportunity for all New Yorkers. ”


One of the most significant ways in which the NYPL is building on their legacy in the digital age is through crowdsourcing via social media.

In November of 2015, the NYPL launched Emigrant City. Emigrant City was born out of the need to transcribe over 6000 handwritten real estate records from the Emigrant Savings Bank, which dated between the 19th and early 20th centuries. The documents held crucial information regarding the lives of the many immigrants who helped to build and create the foundation for New York as we know it today.

To aid in this project, the NYPL turned to crowdsourcing to engage the public and to unlock this crucial information. To do so, the NYPL created a digital platform (in the form of a microsite) where individuals could log in and help to transcribe these crucial bond and mortgage records. Once logged in, individuals could choose one of three tasks to help transcribe the records, based on where their interests lied. This was to ensure accuracy and to help divide the labour; thus ensuring the success of the program. In the introduction to Emigrant City, participants were encouraged that “You may find you prefer one task over another, so try them all! All tasks are essential steps in the greater effort to unlock the history of land ownership in 19th century NYC!” The NYPL not only used crowdsourcing for product development, but also to promote a positive brand/customer relationship, by assuring participants that they were contributing to something of great historical significance.

To further aid in the project, the NYPL also created an online discussion forum for Emigrant City. The purpose of the forum was to create a positive digital space that encourged participants to ask questions about, and contribute to discussions regarding the Emigrant City project.

As of July 2016, the participants of the crowdsourced Emigrant City project have made 651,257 contributions through marking, transcribing and verifying the Emigrant Savings Bank records. Completed work to date may be viewed here.


Lessons for Others

Crowdsourcing, as defined by Crowdsourcing Week is:

“the practice of engaging a ‘crowd’ or group for a common goal – often innovation, problem solving, or efficiency. Crowdsourcing can take place on many different levels and across various industries. Thanks to our growing connectivity, it is now easier than ever for individuals to collectively contribute – whether with ideas, time, expertise, or funds – to a project or cause. This collective mobilisation is crowdsourcing.”

The NYPL has been a crucial learning institution for individuals of all ages and interests for 122 years and their Emigrant City project is a prime example of crowdsourcing in the digital age. The NYPL and their crowdsourcing project demonstrates how storied institutions can propel themselves into the digital age; all while establishing a stronger foundation with the public and remaining true to their mission.

The lesson that can be taken away from the NYPL example of crowdsourcing is simple: it just makes sense. Participants of the Emigrant City project helped to make the task of processing thousands of historical documents manageable in a timely and effective manner. As Crowd Consortium notes:

“For many institutions, the desire to crowdsource is entirely consistent with a dedication to serving the public. Technology is just making the possibilities increasingly more accessible.

Considering the goal of many learning institutions, (such as the NYPL), is to educate and serve the public through their collections, crowdsourcing is a natural and critical component to the continued success of such learning centres.

Organization: New York Public Library
Industry: Museums & Institutions
Name of Organization Contact: Anthony Marx, President & CEO

Authored by: dkaizer

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