The New York Public Library’s Maps Project is a Time Machine for Your Neighborhood


While public library systems across the country flounder in the face of declining tax revenue and dwindling readership, the New York Public Library is somehow managing to survive. Rather than run away from digitization, NYPL has embraced it, and has recently produced a series of projects which are helping make information more open to the public.

The library just finished archiving its collection of public domain atlases, more than 10,000 in all, and has built a website to make them accessible online. Now you can look through maps of the city going back, in some cases, to the 1700s, and find out what Lower Manhattan looked like in 1854 compared to now. If you’re feeling generous or bored, you can also donate your time online to fix warped maps and add to the database.

It’s amazing how much an old map can tell you about where you live. Since these maps are also grounded in a specific time, they can tell you a lot about the past as well. Take, for example, this map of the East Village from 1885, when the city was still divided by “wards,” and train tracks ran above ground on Bowery and First Avenue. There were cemeteries on Second Street, which have long since been razed in favor of more buildings. 51 Astor Place, the future site of a “ribbed granite and glass” monstrosity, was the site of the Bible House, a publisher that thrived when Book Row still existed on Broadway. The plot of land across the street from the Village Voice where the new Cooper Union engineering building stands once housed an armory (an armory!), which housed a series of decorated New England militias until its demolition in 1911.

In addition to their maps and atlases project, the library has digitized a collection of more than 700,000 photographs, posters, and rare prints. They’ve also built something called the Stereogranimator, which not only explains the history of stereographic photography, but also lets you build your own magical gifs out of some pre-selected images.

Most of these projects are the brainchildren of NYPL Labs, a program explicitly designed to “rethinking what a public research library can be and do in the new information commons.”

Of course, change has its detractors, and certain NYPL projects have proved to be controversial. Perhaps the most contested one is the drastic proposed re-design of the historical mid-Manhattan branch from a typical stacks-based library into a more open communal, computer-based space. Called the Central Library Plan, the proposal requires gutting the main Schwarzman library building near Bryant Park and removing most of the physical books from the building. Books will be housed off-site, still available for borrowing, but with delays. The space where the books used to be will be repopulated with computers and other media centers.

Despite resistance from hard-line library traditionalists, there is still hope that the NYPL can continue to evolve in the face of an increasingly digital-driven age.