From Maps to Menus: NYPL Crowdsources Research

NYPL building

NYPL is a leader in technological innovation, working with patrons to organize collections.
Image: Bokic Bojan /

The New York Public Library often leads the pack when it comes to library innovation, and their newest trend is no different. NYPL is redefining library services by digitally crowdsourcing the research for their many and varied collections. Staff, stacks, and patrons all come together to provide data that overcomes NYPL’s significant lack of funding.

The NYPL Labs division is a huge force behind the library’s support of innovative technology and research. Backed by the NYPL Board of Trustees, including William Ford of General Atlantic and Chairman Evan Chesler, NYPL Labs focuses on digitizing elements of the library in ways that engage the public. Their programs draw in library users to become part of the collections themselves.

Map Warper

The goal of the Map Warper program is to put together a virtual atlas of New York City by using photographs, newspapers, manuscripts, and other library holdings. Outside researchers are vital to the project, which involves putting together tens of thousands of maps and atlases from the last 500 years into historical layers that can be compared to modern maps of the area. Patrons can create free accounts to help with the process. Each user gets a four-minute tutorial on using the tool to “rectify” the maps in this way; then they’re let loose, with finalized work reviewed by staff. Whether it’s entering place names, colors, or building footprints, patrons can contribute as much or as little as they want (or as time allows).

What’s on the Menu?

NYPL has menus dating back to the 1850s, making it the curator of one of the world’s largest culinary archives. Because menus are often written in flowery handwriting, however, they can be hard to translate, particularly after a lot of time has passed. Enter NYPL Labs again with the What’s on the Menu program, which allows patrons to help view and transcribe dishes and pricing. The tool lets users to choose from over 17,000 menus by decade.

By relying on trust and a social contract of wanting to support community resources, NYPL is able to effectively crowdsource its research needs to keep its collections fresh and relevant. The process also gives patrons a feeling of ownership, since their work becomes publically available and far more in depth than anything either the patron or the library could manage on their own. It’s a reciprocal relationship that uses technology in a new, exciting way that gives back to the community and could signal great strides for technology and crowdsourcing in libraries of the future.


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