Urban Memory Infrastructure

Urban memory infrastructure
The Croton Reservoir fronted Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, and provided the city’s drinking water in the 19th century

In 2011, the New York Public Library established an official unit for digital experimentation — NYPL Labs. Over the six years that followed, what began as a small research and development outfit for special digital projects grew into a visionary think-and-do tank for making the library’s two centuries of collections digital and usable for the years to come. A hybrid team of technologists, librarians, and designers would start to assemble the building blocks of an urban memory infrastructure. Turning vast collections into usable data, connecting maps, photographs, menus and community memories, NYPL Labs created a series of multilayered projects that point the way to a new information ecosystem. As currents efforts in civic tech and open government promote public access to municipal statistics, systems, and services, so does NYPL Labs’ work provide a new, and deeper, understanding of city streets, buildings, and society, over centuries of change.

NYPL ended the Labs’ run late last year. Here, former director Ben Vershbow sits down with Shannon Mattern, expert on all things library, media, and infrastructure, to debrief on the Labs’ work and the library as a critical urban infrastructure and resource. How do the library and its collections adapt to the age of Google Maps? How do people connect and contribute to the work of memory creation and collection in the city? Who can build and maintain an infrastructure that preserves our memories and prepares, in the age of Instagram, for “the glut of today and tomorrow”?

Shannon Mattern: The New York Public Library has a layered material history in the city. It arose on the site of the old Croton Reservoir, a critical infrastructure for the city. Its shelves were initially stocked with the layered, or consolidated, collections of the Astor and Lenox libraries and the Tilden Trust. Over the years, as media have evolved, as the city has evolved, its collection has come to embrace different media forms, to accommodate different populations and encompass different languages. So I’m wondering how your work at the labs extended the New York Public Library’s history of layered or entangled infrastructures.

Ben Vershbow: We were always reminded of these layers just by being in the building. You could actually see the old reservoir’s foundation in our office. Our work at NYPL Labs was focused on digitizing the library’s rare and unique research holdings and developing new modes of access and engagement around them. You could say that, in doing that, we were contributing to another layer of infrastructure. Or connecting the library to the broader internet infrastructure that had arisen around it.

When the library was established, it was built on a reservoir model. It was meant to serve as a comprehensive repository of knowledge. But there is a conceptual shift happening today moving away from libraries as catch-all repositories toward libraries as nodes in a larger network. Each institution has to figure out the unique role it can play in strengthening that network: through technical and financial contributions, community participation, and their particular collecting, preservation, and outreach strategies — the unique work they do as libraries. Working at the New York Public Library (NYPL) made me only more convinced that pre-digital age institutions have a critical role to play in building the modern information ecosystem: because of the unique assets they hold, but also their values and perspective. […]