Saturday, October 31, 2015

How the New York Public Library Is Reinventing Itself

The purpose is the same—but the technology is different.

The New York Public Library building, 1910.
The New York Public Library building, 1910.
Photo by Detroit Publishing Co./Library of Congress

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. On Thursday, Nov. 12, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on the future of the library. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

The future of libraries now has a very long history. Like all futures, it’s a moving target, changing as new experiences, expectations, and technologies change our sense of what’s possible. When the main branch of the New York Public Library opened on Fifth Avenue in 1911, it was a state-of-the-art futurist landmark, with pneumatic tubes zipping call slips to librarians who retrieved bound titles from enormous steel stacks and placed them on Ferris-wheel conveyor belts. Today, the building has been a historical landmark for 50 years, the tubes retired, the stacks empty. Yesterday’s futures become today’s nostalgic baseline


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