New York City Public Library: A Digital Treasure



When I was a little girl, I used to sit on the floor of my family home and read the World Book Encyclopedia. Yes, I know, today that would be considered a very “nerd” thing to do. Maybe it was then, too, but not among my friends. When I was bored, I’d pull a random volume and just see what might be interesting.

Recently I had a similar experience with an amazing resource that has just become available online—the digital collections of the New York Public Library. What a treasure! I don’t have words to describe the expanse of what it there, but you can get a sense using the Visualization Tool. Give it a minute to load, and 187,000 images are laid out before you, organized by century. Scroll your mouse over the top for thumbnails, just as I might have flipped through the pages of the encyclopedia. As a tool for sparking curiosity, you can’t get much better.

Of course, the images are useful for more than random browsing. There are collections of all kinds: maps, nature images, theater photographs, fashion, and New York History, for a start. You can view photographs of WPA projects and the Farm Security Administration activities. Imagine sharing with students the images of the “Green Book” collection, resources that helped African American travelers in the mid 20th century find hotels, restaurants, and gas stations where they would be welcomed. And, of course, there is a search function on the digital collections home page. I imagined I was teaching about the Civil War and entered that in the search engine, limiting the search to public domain. There were over 600 results, mostly newspaper sketches and photographs. Next I tried the Revolutionary War. I found over 100 maps, drawings, and documents, including the facsimile of the Marquis de Lafayette’s original certificate commending James Armistead for his revolutionary war service you can see at the beginning of this post. If your students don’t know who James Armistead was, wouldn’t this make them curious?

For anyone teaching history, ready access to primary sources beginning in the 12th century is an amazing gift. You can put them in your students’ hands to spark questions, allow them to seek answers, and get a sense of the way historical understandings evolve. And one day, when they have nothing to do, perhaps they, too, will sit on the floor and explore. I hope so.

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