The New York Public Library is looking beyond books and beyond New York to attract digitally savvy borrowers. And it's using classic photo collections and Apple's iBooks app to self-publish.
Drawing from its vast collection of images and using Apple’s iBooks Author app, the New York Public Library recently published Kenn Duncan’s "Male Photography" in the iBook store. The photo ebook has a plain aesthetic and now interactivity to match--basic touch-screen functions serve as unfussy frames for more than 100 portraits, including young Christopher Walken, Ian McKellan and Harvey Fierstein. The shots of actors, dancers, the famous-for-being-famous, and the now-vaguely-remembered once graced the pages of "Dance Magazine," "Opera News," and "After Dark."
[Click through and see if you can recognize them when they were young!]
This is the first of five proposed titles by the library’s Multimedia Content Department, which is looking beyond the borders of New York to attract users to the New York Public Library. Established last August, the five-person team has been busy, says department director, James Murdock, who's wearing the sleeves of his bright yellow oxford rolled up to his elbows.
“We’re trying to figure out ways to expose people to collections at the library, which are open to anyone to come see, but, realistically...," Murdock trails off. "Forget about it if you’re living in Kansas.”
Even New Yorkers who can make it to a physical branch, Murdock says, are easily overwhelmed by the sheer size of a mammoth system that includes 90 locations, four of which are research libraries, housing what he calls “museum-quality collections of stuff.”
Located blocks from the marble and oak-paneled rooms of the library’s landmark Schwartzman building, the multimedia department offices are housed in the same 34th Street building as its business library, sharing a floor with the accounting and human resources department. With its bright lights and bunkers of black file cabinets, the place looks like any other working office.
Though the digital gallery, with nearly 1 million images, has been online for nearly a decade, Murdock warns against throwing people into it. “You type in Kenn Duncan and you immediately get lost in six thousand items,” he says. Point titles will manage the overload with a downloadable book of selected material. “We want to curate a story for them. We feel that is our added value.”
The Kenn Duncan book draws from an archive of 600,000 images donated to the library in 2003. Five years later, an exhibition and a book, "Divas! The Fabulous Photography of Kenn Duncan," focused on iconic women such as Eartha Kitt, Angela Lansbury, and Bette Midler. The library finished digitizing the entire cache of Duncan photos this past spring with a grant from the Fred J. Brunner Foundation. Murdock says the book idea came about when he thought, “Since we’ve already done women, why don’t we do men?”
Compiled and edited by Richert Schnorr, the book took two months to put together. Since its release in the iBook store on July 9, there have been an average of 20 downloads a day and the number of searches for Kenn Duncan in the library’s digital gallery has increased 300% compared to the same month last year.
Their next book is a new look at "Heavens Above," a 2001 exhibition featuring the 19th century astronomical photographs of Etienne Leopold Trouvelot. Other books to follow will draw on previous library projects from "Frankenstein" to avant-garde composer John Cage.
Though Point will provide a new way of discovering the library’s holdings, Murdock says the project will uncover another message. “It’ll show that libraries are not extinct in this age of the ebook. We can be just as experimental, just as relevant.”
This first title is currently available for the iPad only, but Murdock says they’re working on making it accessible across a number of devices. Of course, they’ll also make the books available for check out from the library’s digital portal. For now you can download the book for free—without having to fret about overdue fines.
Born in New Jersey, Kenn Duncan had been a roller skating champ and ballet dancer in the '50s. An injury forced him to end his dance career. He continued expressing his love for dance and the theater by picking up a camera and trying to capture its energy through photographs. He died in 1986.