NYPL Biblion: World’s Fair

Is this how all archives will look in the future? Produced by the New York Public Library, the Biblion: World’s Fair iPad app presents “the World of Tomorrow,” that is, the 1939-40 World’s Fair Collection in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the library. That collection includes documents, images, films, audio, and essays from and about the famous forward-looking fair, which the app calls a “living, breathing version of today’s unbounded digital landscape, where you could meet foreign people, see exotic locales, experience the world, and find the future.” Forgiving such hyperbole, Biblion: World’s Fair is indeed an impressive experience.

How It Works

The app begins with a menu of six rather nebulous themes to explore: “A Moment In Time,” “Enter The World Of Tomorrow,” “Beacon of Idealism,” “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” “Fashion, Food and Famous Faces,” and “From The Stacks.” Within each theme are a number of stories, essays, and galleries, each of which pair a certain amount of text, broken into selections, with corresponding photos, documents, images, and the occasional video and audio file interspersed.

The navigation is novel. When the iPad is held on its side, the user can swipe through each page of media, one at a time, from left to right. Turn the iPad for book view, and the same information can be scrolled down through as one large chunk with the option to expand an embedded image or video to full size.

When there is a related story or essay in one of the other themes, the user can follow the “connection” to bring up a blurb about that story and, if they want, read the full story. To browse all the stories, essays, and galleries at once, there is a larger menu with every story listed in which different types of media – audio & video, featured images, document, and connection – are colour coded for easy recognition.

What Works, What Doesn’t

As an historic record, Biblion: World’s Fair is a great resource, touching on a wide variety of topics under the umbrella of the fair and drawing out common historical themes to connect them.

There is a good balance between primary and secondary sources. The essays and stories provide context and understanding while the images and documents help connect the written parts to the time and place. The user doesn’t just read an essay about “Einstein, the Fair, and the Bomb,” they also see photographs of Einstein at the fair and bombshells being moved into the exhibition of the British Pavilion.

The NYPL wisely did not overload the app with either text or archival material. Too much of the first would be far too didactic. Too much of the second would be far too ponderous.

The balance is not as well kept in the mix of media. The vast majority of primary sources are images and documents with only a relative handful of videos and audio clips (although this could be just the source material available). And more often than not, the video and audio content is paired with a short bit of text rather than being integrated into a larger essay.

The navigation works better. When content is organized in a non-linear way as it is done here, the overall experience can easily become fragmented because the user is left to find the common themes on their own. By adding direct connections between essays and stories in different sections that have similar themes, Biblion: Word’s Fair helps the user do this.

This, however, makes much of the content of Biblion: World’s Fair more akin to what you would find in a book than something really innovative.

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