Tony Ageh on the Convergence of Cultural Institutions and Taking the Art Home

On April 11, Tony Ageh became New York Public Library’s (NYPL) chief digital officer, responsible for developing strategy for the ongoing digital transformation of the institution, which includes making its collections and services as accessible as possible both locally and globally. Ageh most recently held a variety of leadership positions at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in London, beginning in 2002. There he created and implemented the BBC iPlayer, an Internet television and radio streaming service, which has delivered over 10 billion programs to British users, and acted as controller of the BBC’s Archive Strategy, partnering with such organizations as the British Library and the Open Data Institute on the Digital Public Space, an open access approach to learning and cultural resources.
Tony Ageh Photo credit: Ania Boardman

Tony Ageh
Photo credit: Ania Boardman

On April 11, Tony Ageh became New York Public Library’s (NYPL) chief digital officer, responsible for developing strategy for the ongoing digital transformation of the institution, which includes making its collections and services as accessible as possible both locally and globally. Ageh most recently held a variety of leadership positions at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in London, beginning in 2002. There he created and implemented the BBC iPlayer, an Internet television and radio streaming service, which has delivered over 10 billion programs to British users, and acted as controller of the BBC’s Archive Strategy, partnering with such organizations as the British Library and the Open Data Institute on the Digital Public Space, an open access approach to learning and cultural resources. LJ caught up with Ageh two months into his tenure at NYPL to talk about his work, the overlaps between libraries and media, and the energy New York brings to his work. LJ: What are your first priorities as you settle into the new position? Tony Ageh: I'm not a librarian, so the number one issue for me is to understand the business of libraries. It's fascinating, it's exciting, but in many respects it's a very foreign land. At the BBC it took me the best part of five years to understand the archive business, and of course there are some similarities, but not many. So that's my first significant challenge, to genuinely understand the business I'm in now. As you explore that, what do you see as some of the most important challenges libraries are currently facing? One of those would be the concept of the ILS, because that is so fundamental and central—not only to the day-to-day operation of a library, but it is the source of any potential 21st century innovation. NYPL is in some ways different to many libraries because it's both a very large research library and a very large collection of circulating libraries. We have one ILS that is trying to support two operations, and at the same time meet the growing expectations of our patrons, as well as the level of ambition of the people who work for the library. That is a not insignificant challenge. There are quite a lot of challenges coming from [outside the library].… Google is attempting, and in many respects succeeding, in organizing all of the world's knowledge, even filling the roles that traditionally curators and librarians were responsible for. So that aspect of it [involves] working out where is the value that libraries add that other organizations, particularly commercial organizations, don't? Somebody did say to me, “How do you feel about competing with Amazon?” And of course I didn't know the answer. But in thinking about it—and I may be wrong here—I don't think we compete with Amazon. I think it's the other way around. First you had monks with illuminated manuscripts, and then you had libraries where people could get access to knowledge, many of which were [by] subscription. Then came along great people like [Andrew] Carnegie, who changed that to make it possible for anybody to be able to get to the libraries—they used the word "free," but I would say "affordably." Later on an opportunity arose, obviously driven by mass commercialization of print, for people to own their own versions of books, and bookshops emerged. Many years later, Amazon comes along and offers improved services to bookshops, and the libraries are still here. I think there may be an error in…thinking that a library is competing or trying to be Amazon. I don't think any library ever was. It's just working out what it is that [libraries] do that we continue to do, that we've always done, that Amazon doesn't do, never did, and has no intention of doing. As long as we can be very clear about that separation, then I think the future is easier to map towards. Your professional background is largely in media. What do you feel the missions of media companies and libraries have in common? I do come from the media world, but most of the organizations that I've worked for have always had a very clear public purpose. They all have a very strong sense of where they fit into the community and the value they offer. I'd say that the BBC and NYPL probably have more in common than they think. At BBC the unit of delivery is a radio or television program, and a NYPL unit of delivery is a book or a document. But they both have the same core mission—to inform, to educate, and to entertain; to give universal access to shared culture; to ensure that nobody is left behind and focus on the end of society that would otherwise not be best catered to by purely commercial organizations. Once you're in a digital format and they're delivered primarily through the same kind of interface, then it’s not quite a merging or a converging but more [about] delivering wisdom and enlightenment and knowledge and culture through a screen, whether it originated from a page or from a microphone—in particular, where the user can start to determine how they actually might be delivered. [NYPL is] beginning to think about how we create speech-driven audiobooks. At the same time the BBC is turning its words into text, allowing people to read words that came from the spoken word in the first place. I'm not suggesting that the two will cross over, but it is now common for the BBC to add closed-captioning to everything that it does, so not only can you read what is being said, you can use it to search. And in fact, [audiobooks are] probably growing faster than ebooks. So somewhere between these two institutions there's a common meeting point, which is: what is the most apposite way to make culture and knowledge and wisdom accessible and reusable by people today and people of the future. In a nutshell, you can almost feel that the organizations like the BBC are becoming a little bit library-like, and organizations like NYPL are becoming a little bit broadcaster-like. I think the one difference between a library and any other cultural memory institution is it's the one place that they encourage you to take the art home with you. That's often overlooked—that you can go and get great value from the Met, you can go to the Louvre, you can go to the Tate, and they're encouraging—they're welcoming—but they don't really want you to take the Mona Lisa home. The postcards they give you make it really obvious you haven't got the actual Mona Lisa, whereas a library is going to do everything it can to get you to take [the materials] with you. Are you finding cultural differences between the work you’ve done in the UK and the United States? It's much more global at the technological level than the people outside the institutions may be aware. We all use Facebook and Google and eBay and Twitter as our common standards and language. We have a huge crossover between development teams from both sides. It would be fair to say that America has contributed significantly more than Europe has, but you know—Tim Berners-Lee made a significant contribution as well. It's clearly true that we are two nations divided by a common language, and I do struggle to [place] an order at Starbucks sometimes. As do we all. But I would say that culturally there isn't a huge amount of difference, particularly when you apply new media sensibilities. You’re on record as having said that you had to push hard for projects at the BBC. Do you feel the reception to new ideas is different at NYPL? It's very early days, and I'm in what I suppose they call the honeymoon period. But the difference, I think, is that there was inherent in the DNA of the BBC a resistance—maybe it's because we're British, maybe it's because of the very specific way that the BBC is funded—but it was not the case that the BBC ever fully embraced digital and Internet. And by the way, it has put huge amounts of resources in, so it's never been resistant, it's never said it doesn't want to do it. But when television first emerged, it was not received with open arms by the radio community, who still kind of think television's a bit tacky. Digital technology, the Internet, was received in much the same way. If you're the new kid on the block you have to earn your stripes and fight for your own survival. I think at NYPL it's very much not like that. There's a real drive, a real desire, a real appetite to use these technologies to break new ground, to do new things, to do things better, to imagine things we couldn't have imagined before. I think a lot of that actually comes from just being in and around New York. The energy in New York—that's probably the single biggest thing I've been affected by. The energy, the optimism, the drive, the positivity in New York as a city feeds everything. So you can have half an idea at NYPL and four people are on a whiteboard trying to see how to make it work. But I think the values of both organizations are aligned. It has not been difficult for me to join the NYPL and feel immediately at home with the ethics and the values and the ambition of the library.

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