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A Poetic Twitter Bot Is Rescuing Public Library Images—with Emojis

@NYPLEmoji is a quick and addictive way to connect to our visual past.

by Beckett Mufson
Aug 23 2016, 6:20pm
 Chimpanzee in tuxedo with ballot box, Frank Buck's Jungleland. The result for the ballot emoji, via

A new Twitter bot from the New York Public Library acts as a bridge between modern visual culture and the vast archive of old drawings and photos at their disposal.

Tweet the alien emoji at @NYPLEmoji and it uses javascript to access a database of hand-selected pairings before firing back a vintage Harper's Bazaar cover illustration announcing George du Maurier's serial, The Martian. The "two hearts" emoji summons a Two of Hearts playing card from the George Arents Collection's impressive display of cigarette cards. The "tongue sticking out" pulls an amazing C. M. Martin snapshot of a chameleon in the act of catching a butterfly. The poop emoji, embedded at the bottom of this post, is surprisingly creative. But the most difficult one to match, the bot's creator and curator Lauren Lampasone tells The Creators Project, was the Space Invader, which yields a delicious-looking illustration of a jelly trifle. Close enough.

Aside from exposing visitors to types of media they might not be used to consuming, the Twitter bot has a satisfying way of connecting the current collective visual imagination to that of generations past. The heart emoji is a great example: now shorthand for love expressed, @NYPLEmoji reminds us of a time when people largely encountered the symbol as a card suit, rather than an assertion of adoration. These bursts of knowledge are addicting, as you can't help but cycle through your favorite symbols to see how they might be interpreted in another time period.

Lampasone, also a reference librarian at the NYPL, has a different theory about why @NYPLEmoji has been so successful, firing off nearly 8,000 auto-generated tweets since it's inception in mid-July. "I think people really like getting replies on Twitter," she says wryly. On top of that, she believes an emoji-centric bot is bound to deliver users pictures of stuff they like. Only a small portion of the NYPL archives are emoji-compatable so far. Says Lampasone, "This is just the tip of the iceberg. If you like the images you're seeing, come down to the library and check out more."

Check out the New York Public Library's digital collection fromt the comfort of your computer here, and send @NYPLEmoji your own favorites on Twitter.

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