The Year of Opening Up the Library January 19, 2016 (Cross-posted from Medium.) For all the hopes heaped on it, 2016 hasn’t gotten off to a promising start. David Bowie left us. Alan Rickman left us. Crises at home and abroad threaten the geopolitical order. I could go on. If you need a shot of optimism to get you through the dark days, look to libraryland. “No permission required. No restrictions on use”: The happiest development of 2016 so far comes from the New York Public Library, calling attention to its awesome (in both the newfangled and OT senses) digital collection of more than 180,000 public-domain images. Here’s the NYT’s Jennifer Schuessler writing about what she called “a major redistribution of property, digitally speaking”: “Digitization has been all the rage over the past decade, as libraries, museums and other institutions have scanned millions of items and posted them online. But the library’s initiative … goes beyond the practical questions of how and what to digitize to the deeper one of what happens next.” What does happen next? The answer depends on the user — which is the point and the beauty of this arrangement. NYPL describes the open digital collection as “a living database” — a phrase that might not be new but is new to me, and one that opens up a world of possibilities. The database is living in the sense that the library promises “new materials added every day, featuring prints, photographs, maps, manuscripts, streaming video, and more.” To be handed ever-expanding possibility: That’s enough to excite both the digital deep-diver and those who just want to splash around in the shallows and look for passing wonders. That’s undeniably cool. More meaningful to me, and what I’ve been thinking about since the news broke, is how this digital database promises to be alive in another, more fluid sense. NYPL’s inviting users to make its collections their own — to take what it has to offer and make of them what we will. Make and remake. Mix and match and mash up. Repurpose and reuse. What’s theirs is ours to mess around with. I won’t call this a ludic move on NYPL’s part; “ludic” suggests something joyful but unplanned, and applying it here would do a disservice to the collective effort and strategizing required to bring something like this off. But to invite patrons (an old-fashioned word but one I like) to come play in the collections — there’s the ludic for you — sends a strong signal about where libraries are bound in 2016 and beyond. Big deal, you might say. Does the world really need more animated GIFs, more quirky craft projects, more choices of wallpaper for its desktops and laptops and mobile devices? How many people who go play in the NYPL’s open digital collections will do anything scholarly or substantial, field- or world-changing with what they discover there? Many won’t — though if they just have fun exploring, that’s already a win for special collections and historical sensibility and all kinds of greater-good things. But some users surely will add to the world’s knowledge and creative output because they have access to this abundance of material. Imagination requires input. Think about David Bowie, always repurposing sounds and styles in an ever-moving stream of reinvention. The NYPL’s move is a big deal because it isn’t acting alone. It counts some good company in its public-domain push. As the NYT’s Schuessler observes, lots of institutions have spent the last few years scanning and sharing at least some of what they can share. Digitizing alone doesn’t guarantee access, of course, but it’s a damn fine start. (Check out the National Library of Scotland’s digital offerings, to flag just one of thousands and thousands of collections; the Digital Public Library of America’s probably your best one-stop hub for an overview of the abundance that’s out there.) Back in 2013, Tyler Green over at Modern Art Notes posted a list of some museums and special collections that had set some of their best images free. The list included Yale’s Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library and the Victoria & Albert. Green wrote, “So many art museums have made the move toward placing their high-resolution images of art in their collections in the public domain that museums that fail to do so should now explain why they don’t.” I haven’t yet found an up-to-date list of institutions that make substantial portions of their holdings available as high-res, downloadable, free-to-use images. If such a list exists, I’d love to know about it. (Twitter served up a couple of helpful tidbits when I asked.) If it doesn’t and someone has the time and reach to create and maintain one (hint, hint), it would be a public service, like the work of sharing that NYPL and others have taken on. Beyond hoping that we don’t lose any more cultural icons or forces for good in 2016, I want to see this year be one of accelerating openness. This should be the year that we get a new Librarian of Congress; they* will have an exceptionally tough job — with a term limit, thank god — but also the best chance in a very long time to break the Library out of its internal dysfunction. Jessamyn West puts it well at the Librarian of Progress website (a handy overview of all the challenges — make that opportunities — the next Librarian will be asked to wrangle): “It’s difficult to be such a longstanding institution with many different mandates to preserve and share the intellectual content of this complex nation. However the LoC should consider moving on from being just a federal library supporting Congress and the Copyright office and treasured historical artifacts, and becoming part of the national conversation on preservation and access of all countries’ cultural heritage.” Amen to that. I’d love to see the Library join forces with NYPL and DPLA and HathiTrust and other forward-looking institutions, collective proof that libraries are both repositories of the work of the past and engines of present and future creativity. Academic libraries also need to step up — or get out of the way, as Rick Anderson of the University of Utah Libraries has been reminding us. Let’s be open to possibility in 2016. *For more on the singular use of “they,” see this writeup of the American Dialect Society’s 2015 word-of-the-year vote.