Empire state of mind

After the conference in Denver and adventures in Indianapolis I moved onwards to New York City to make some presentations for Columbia university law school (discussed in the next blog post), meetings at various GLAMs (the subsequent blog post) and a couple of strange events…

I met up with Multichill who was stuck in town due to ash, meanwhile our local contact Pharos was stuck over in Europe for the same reason!


[Strange event 1: Skylarking with Richard Belzer whom we met whilst having a beer with Peter Kaufman from the Open Video Alliance. Note especially the HHG2G tattoo – too awesome!]

We took the opportunity to visit one of the best GLAM partners in the wikiverse – notably with their nascent “Wikipedia embassy” and their “how to edit Wikipedia” public lecture series  – the New York Public Library (NYPL). Thanks to Josh Greenberg and Joe Dalton especially!

[One of the famous lions guarding the entrance to the NYPL]

[One of the stone lions guarding the entrance to the NYPL. (Ktylerconk, cc-BY)]

The Alicia Keys song that I borrowed for the title of this blogpost is actually quite pertinent to our visit to the NYPL. I’ve never been to New York before and it really does exude a sense of being the “centre of the universe”:

There’s nothing you can’t do,
Now you’re in New York!
These streets will make you feel brand new,
the lights will inspire you…
(Audio Clip of the chorus)

But it does make you wonder – since the State of New York is officially nicknamed “the empire state” to what empire are they actually referring!?

The most famous manifestation of this is the Empire state building but that in reference to the nickname not the other way around. If you’ve read Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Big Country you might recall he poses the same question when he noticed a New York car’s number-plate.

So, I asked the NYPL reference librarians if they could give me an answer whilst I tried at the same time using my reference source of choice…


[We also met up with Noam Cohen – the Wikipedia journalist ‘ne plus ultra’ – who showed us around the beautiful NY Times building. Strange event 2: He gave us a copy of Sunday’s paper, on Friday.]

Wikipedia has two potential places where the answer to “the empire question” might be found,
[[New York]] or [[List of U.S. state nicknames]]. Unfortunately, both refer to the name but give no indication as to its origins. WikipediaFail.

The NYPL reference desk can receive requests in-person, by twitter, email, phone SMS, live-chat and carrier pigeon. They fared somewhat better, coming up with a couple of potential answers. However, most explanations online try to lump them together. There’s one ascribing it to a quote from George Washington (here) and another that refers to NY’s “wealth and resources” and that at the time the word “empire” could also be used to refer to progress (here or here).

Whilst the reference-desk staff were searching, I mentioned to them the recent research that has been done comparing Wikipedia’s own reference desk with the professionals – “The paradox of expertise: is the Wikipedia Reference Desk as good as your library?.” Journal of Documentation, 65:6 (2009) by Pnina Shachaf with the conclusion that,

“The quality of answers on the Wikipedia Reference Desk is similar to that of traditional reference service. Wikipedia volunteers outperformed librarians or performed at the same level on most quality measures” (pp. 989).

The Wikipedia “Singpost” article about it is here. Ironically, the original cannot be seen online.

Incidentally – the NYPL is currently running a campaign to raise awareness of the attempt by the authorities to drastically cut their funding. Find out more here:

Don't Close the Book on Libraries

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