New York Public Library Biblion: The Boundless Library iPad App – Review

By Paul Riegler on 5 July 2011
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In the “New Shimmer” skit from Saturday Night Live, a couple argue over whether a  household product is a floor wax or a dessert topping. By the same token, Biblion: The Boundless Library, the New York Public Library’s new iPad app, begs the question: is it a glossy magazine or a useful research tool?  And, like the skit, the answer is “both”— for better or for worse.

According to the library, the Biblion is designed to “open up hidden parts of the collections and the myriad storylines they hold and preserve.”  In some respects, it does this rather well.

The app offers a massive amount of information — on a connection that typicallly runs at 8-10 Mbps, it took a full twenty minutes to download and install. The first issue (the library plans multiple editions, each presenting a different part of the collection) focuses on the library’s archive, contained in over 2,500 boxes, relating to the 1939-40 World’s Fair.

Biblion led me through stories ranging from a look at the General Motors Futurama to the introduction of television for the masses to cuisine at the fair (each foreign pavilion operated its own restaurant). If you are curious about what is buried in the Westinghouse Time Capsule (which is not scheduled to be opened until the year 6939), you can read the original inventory list, correspondence relating to it, and even see a promotional video of a (fictional) family discussing the capsule at the fair.

Each topic has multiple stories: former New York Times food critic William Grimes writes about “Gastronomic Tales” from the fair, Henry Jenkins writes about technological utopianism, and Elliot Kalan writes about the introduction of television there.  Each article or essay typically includes related documents, images, films, videos, audio, and essays – all fully integrated into the article.

The archival material ranges from a letter from Howard Hughes discussing an airplane trip around the world (during which he dropped off invitations to the fair to foreign governments) to the front page of the March 4, 1937 New York Herald Tribune showing the headline “Hitler in ‘Hall of Horrors’ At the Fair Is Mayor’s Idea.” A clipping of an article indicating that the German Embassy had protested Mayor LaGuardia’s comment is also presented.

As a research tool and tour guide through the library’s immense collection, Biblion is in some ways an invaluable helper for the casual reader. If you’ve ever explored the stacks of a library or archive, you’ll appreciate the relative ease with which all of this information is presented.  Searching through thousands of documents in a library or archive is something I’ve done many times and is hard work.  However, the age old conflict between form and function is alive and well here, as Biblion’s interface, while attractive, lacks crucial functions and coherent organization.

Click here to continue to Page 2 – What Works and Doesn’t Work in Biblion

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