Sunday, May 6, 2007

Greetings Josh Greenberg, NYPL Digital Guru

As the previous entry indicates, Joshua M. Greenberg was named Director of Digital Strategy and Scholarship in The New York Public Library’s internal staff newsletter, which was issued on Thursday, May 3. On Friday May 4, Josh came to the Library for the Performing Arts to talk to division chiefs and curators. Here are my notes from that discussion, after which I’ll make a few remarks.

It should be remembered that this should in no way be taken as a transcript and are just my selective and subjective memories.


During the forum, we got to learn about Josh (who has been unofficially nicknamed “The Digital Guru”) and heard about our own diverse thinking from different staff members.

Josh’s interests lie in the history of science, culture, media, their relationship to one another, and how they are used. He described his dissertation From Betamax to Blockbuster: Mediation in the Consumption Junction (Cornell Univ., 2004) as part part business and part cultural, dealing with how the social experience of movies was transformed from a communal theater experience to a personalized one in the comfort of one’s personal space. (It is to be published by MIT Press in 2008.)

Josh (who started his job on April 30) pointed out that his job description is as yet amorphous. But he brought up some of the questions that has occupied him which are pertinent to his new job:

  • How people use information
  • What are the digital tools that scholars need to do their work?
  • What are the digital tools that scholars need to disseminate their work?
  • How are people using digital resources?
  • How will be people be using digital resources in the future?
  • What are the new capabilities available?

He observed that NYPL has lacked one administrative structure that brings all digital interactions together. Digital materials are fun stuff, but what does one do with them? In the humanities computing world, people dream about creative interfaces, but few tangible results are accomplished. Josh is interested in building stuff that people use as opposed to being a pathbreaker. Echoing the head of NYPL’s research library (David Ferriero), Josh stated we need to foster and build a culture of experimentation (he quoted the web 2.0 adage “beta is forever”). He was surprised to find that, generally, libraries do not have R&D (research and development) departments as do many corporations. This must change so there can be a way to realize beta projects, or small scale pilot projects. In embracing this flexibility, Josh hopes NYPL can become an institution more responsive to user needs.

One of the topics that arose was rights issues when dealing with web-based content. Traditionally, legal departments want to avoid litigious issues and therefore tend to articulate a very conservative policy, usually to the detriment of experimentation. For the purposes of balance, Josh hopes to engage our legal department so that they have additional voices to consider. He put forth the metaphor of how the ever-moving border of fair use is dealt with, and that there needs to be a balance on both sides of the issue so that one side will not overtake the other.

Josh’s ideas on digital strategy are still being informed by conversations throughout NYPL. As he sees it, there’s a hole in the institution’s infrastructure. In fact, there is no infrastructure to support presentation of materials. When images are created through public orders, they go into a database—which is essentially forgetting about them. They should be considered part of the digital library, but are not.

In Josh’s mind, there are three big issues to wrestle with:

  • The new ILS (integrated library system) that will merge NYPL’s two public catalogs (branch and research) into one, and portends major changes for the institution;
  • NYPL’s Digital Library;
  • NYPL’s website

Much of NYPL is really divided into two organizational units, one overseeing branch library operations, and the other the research library. Then there’s the Digital Library unit, which is kind of a third entity. Unfortunately our Digital Library unit is project-driven (most of their funding coming from grants or donors), rather than built into the institutional infrastructure. Thus far we’ve not been able to build the resources to support this infrastructure.

But when people visit the library’s website, they don’t think of or even realize these three units – they just think that it’s one big “” So the user experience should drive how we re-invision our website and the underlying digital infrastructure.


Those are the end of my notes on the informal introduction of chiefs an curators with Josh. After comparing what I heard with looking at his resume, I realized that he’ll not be an administrator, but rather like a salaried consultant. He’ll be advising David Ferriero on how to go forward and implement digital ideas by formulating a strategy. (When David was first hired away from Duke University, I knew this topic would be of importance from merely looking at Duke’s digital site.)

Josh is very steeped in the academic world, but many of our users have nothing to do with that world. They’re just ordinary people – consumers, if you will – who want to consult or copy materials. Since Josh’s dissertation dealt with popular consumer culture, that sounds a hopeful note that he will be sensitive to these users.

If Josh’s mandate is to design (or even implement) a digital strategy, then it sounds like he’ll have a project with a fixed date of completion. Indeed, another look at his CV suggests that he’s always keen on moving to good opportunities, never staying in any one position for long. In my cynical thinking, I recognize that he would probably not stay more than about three years at NYPL (ok, maybe five years). Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing what he has to say, and hopefully particpate in conversations and discussions with him.

So welcome Josh.


Josh Greenberg said...

Thanks! I appreciate the extensive notes (I should've guessed that someone would've blogged this!), and would offer just a few clarifications:

1) While I'm definitely coming out of an academic context (and have a habit of slipping into that language as a default position), I'm coming from three years of working at GMU's Center for History and New Media, which has a long(ish) tradition of reaching well beyond traditional scholarly communities toward more general audiences (with a particular strength in dealing with K-12 and higher education contexts). I spent a good amount of today, for example, with Bob McBrien and the Collections and Services crew, and I'm very eager to think about digital work across the library as a whole, including all its audiences and users.

2) While nobody knows what the future holds, it's worth being explicit that I'm planning to be at NYPL as long as it'll have me; it's true that my role is still a bit amorphous, but the Library's approach to digital practices is more generally in flux. From my perspective right now, 3-5 years would be a big underestimation of the time it'll take to really get our digital infrastructure and culture in order, and I'm planning to be in it for the long haul - when it comes down to it, I'm deeply interested in the changing ways that people work with information, both technically and socioculturally, and I honestly believe that NYPL offers a truly unique space in which to tackle this topic headlong. Plus, once we get the infrastructure in place, the real fun begins!

Susan said...

hey Bob, how are you? Your report is very useful to me--I'm meeting with Josh next week to discuss the role the Picture Collection can play in NYPL's digital strategy. As you can imagine, I was delighted when he had a MacBook Pro under his arm at the Innovative ILS presentation. Here's hopes for a productive discussion--you know how much I like to be included. And it seems, after all our work with the LPG at LPA, the landscape at NYPL is rapidly shifting. --Susan C.