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18 Conference Report #techonomy2018

Tony Marx on How Libraries Can Serve Everyone

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  • Anthony Marx at Techonomy 2018, Monday, November 12, 2018. (Photography by Paul Sakuma Photography)

Speaker

Dr. Anthony W. Marx
President, The New York Public Library


Description: Accessing the intellectual heritage of humankind should not be a privilege. Everyone should have access. Marx has made big changes at NYPL and spearheaded a global initiative to put the wealth of books and ideas within online reach of everyone.

 

The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading.

Speaker: Dr. Anthony Marx, The New York Public Library

Introduction: David Kirkpatrick, Techonomy

(Transcription by RA Fisher Ink)

Kirkpatrick: Tony Marx, president of the New York Public Library, is about to tell you some of the amazing things he’s doing to broaden the inclusion of—the inclusiveness of that institution’s work. So, Tony actually spoke at our New York conference and he was so good and people were really amazed to learn some of these things so we’ve asked him to come back. So, Tony, let’s hear it.

[APPLAUSE]

Marx: Thank you, David. Hey, everybody. Did you all grow up using your library? Keep using your library. That’s not working. There we go, can I get the next slide? Thanks so much for that. So, this is where I work, believe it or not. This is the main building but the New York Public Library is the largest library system in America, by some measures in the world. It combines the research libraries in which this is one of four and then the branch libraries. In fact, in New York City, there are about 216 branch libraries throughout the city in every neighborhood, by design. And the libraries get close to 40 million physical visits a year. That’s more than all the major cultural institutions and sporting teams in town combined. And business is up. For instance, just in the last few months we’ve seen a 20% increase in library cards. It’s fabulous, right? And if you come from anywhere in the world, we don’t need to see your credentials, and you come to 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, one of the great research collections of the world is available to anyone, to the public. We’re super proud of that.

But most people don’t live next to 42nd Street and 5th Avenue and most people in the world have a hard time getting physical access to this place, there’s real friction and inequalities in that access. So, they rely instead on their local libraries. And most libraries don’t look like this. Most of them look more like this. So, if that doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know what will. But whether it is funding decreases locally, I’m happy to say in New York we’ve seen funding increases both private and public, we’re half and half as an institution, quite unusual. But most local libraries are losing funding and that’s what it looks like. If you’re a techie, this should break your heart because of what it symbolizes about lack of access to quality information in a world that supposedly has it all at your fingertips. And if you care about inequality in America, which you’d best do, this is reinforcing that inequality in every possible way, combined with our educational disasters.

So, we need to do better than this. And we are. So, New York Public Library launched this app, you can download it now, you can get your library card if you’re a New York City resident or you can use your local library card, I’ll tell you about that. There are various versions of it. The first move was to get past what was a digital interface that took 25 clicks to get a book, it’s now two clicks. There are 100,000 titles there for free. Everything we do is free. And we don’t keep track of what you do and we don’t sell that information to anyone. We are the perfect revenue-negative institution.

[LAUGHTER]

It’s called the public good. So, we got down to two clicks, that’s great. We’re working closely with everyone from the Library of Congress to the Internet Archive, Mark is here somewhere, the Digital Public Library of America, all the libraries of America and eventually the world, and our job is to make this app as great as it can be. It’s open source, it’s available to anyone, to any library, anywhere in the world. And to go from 100,000 titles to every book ever written, that’s the Holy Grail as I used to call it, until my office said, “Stop calling it that,” and I said, “Why?” they said, “Because people died and they never found it.”

[LAUGHTER]

We’re finding it. We started with 100,000 books, we know that we can do the public domain books ever printed, we know that and have made deals with all the publishing houses to get the in-copyright, in-print books, the sort of fat end of the tail, if you will. The trick is in the middle. And you may say, “Why should we care?” And the answer is that’s where most of the books ever written are in the 20th century and you think you can get them if you have resources, but you can’t. That is a graph of the current availability of books by date of publication for sale at Amazon and what you will notice right away is during the public domain period, leading up to roughly 1925, as more books are printed, more books are available for purchase at Amazon. The best-sellers are doing just fine. Look at that trough called the 20th century, you can’t even buy the book. And you may say, “Well, okay, I can’t buy the book but I can go online and go to Google and read the book.” No, you can’t. You can read two sentences. That’s what the Supreme Court defined as an allowable snippet. It’s sort of a bad joke about the superficiality of the web, that the world’s quality information is reduced to access to two sentences. It’s not a bad joke if you need that information.

We have all those books. But you have to come and get them. Not anymore. We will put them all online, we will respect copyright as we go and the results will be truly historic. Here’s where we are now, we’re at about 600 libraries in the country at the moment that have adopted the app. We’re aiming for 1,000 libraries before the year is out. That is a serious number of folks and that’s just a good start. As more libraries adapt and as more titles are added, this will explode. And it will explode nationally, in part because the libraries are the perfect delivery system. We are everywhere, 17,000 of them. That’s why libraries are having a renaissance in the analog world right now. The New York Public Library, we’ve started educational programs from Pre-K literacy to computer coding and everything in-between, the largest free English language programs and we’re at about two million visits to those a year from practically zero, seven years ago.

We’re fixing up all the branches because they’re the most used civic space. But as outposts for doing what we need to do, we are in every neighborhood. Which is why we lend wi-fi through libraries in this country to get at the digital divide. Which is why we’re working with the MIT media lab to figure out whether we can connect libraries in Red states and Blue states to create some national productive conversation.

If we do this right, we will do what the digital or tech industry was born to do. The founding aspiration of the major companies is to take the little device that we keep in our pockets and make every book available to anyone in the world for free. That is our North Star. And we will achieve it. We will make the deals. We will work through the partnerships. We will get to this. And it will have a revolutionary impact on the world, on education because you’ve gotten rid of the constraint on access to quality information and the friction around it.

It will mean that everyone, that the person living in Bangladesh, has the same access as the person on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, maybe even faster and better. And the world’s corpus of information, of quality information, locked in books in libraries becomes available to everyone. To learn from, to learn about each other, to create from. Why do we care? For the same reason that the founding industries of the tech industry care. If we don’t find a way to tap into the knowledge and abilities of everybody on the planet, we will lose. And we can’t afford to lose.

The tech industry started with this aspiration. It has been largely diverted. Profits, I’m told, are distracting. I wouldn’t know, we don’t have any.

[LAUGHTER]

But there is an opportunity now and I’m here to ask the industry, join us. We can make possible what you aspired to. We, collectively, can make possible. And that will be an amazing achievement. Let us turn from a world that is dominated by thoughtlessness to a world dominated by thoughtfulness. The libraries, together with many of you here, can turn this around. We can take a tool of amazing power and turn it from its current too often uses of dividing us to instead bringing us together, teaching us and inspiring us towards a better place.

Thanks very much, everyone.

[APPLAUSE]

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