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NYPL Biblion: World's Fair iPad app a compelling look at yesterday's future

In 1939 and 1940, a world that was beginning to climb out of the Great Depression and about to descend into World War II had a brief glimpse of a bright future at the New York World's Fair. After the Fair shut its gates for the last time in 1940, the organizers took their meticulous records of the event and presented them to the New York Public Library for safekeeping. 70+ years later, the library has opened the Fair to the world again in the form of NYPL Biblion: World's Fair, an innovative and exhaustively detailed history of the Fair in an interactive iPad app. In this review, I'll discuss this amazing app -- the first in a hopefully long series exploring the NYPL's collection -- and show you some screen shots of the app in action.

User Interface and Navigation

The free app is huge -- 252 MB in size -- and contains essays, documents, photos, film, and audio from the Fair. With this much information on hand, the designers had to figure out a way to let users navigate the history of the New York World's Fair in their own way. Rather than guide users by the hand in a static timeline, the World's Fair app starts by displaying floating groups of pictures, each of which is labeled with a different title: Introduction, A Moment in Time, Enter the World of Tomorrow, Beacon of Idealism, Fashion Food and Famous Faces, From the Stacks, and You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet.

If you're new to the app and don't touch one of those groupings, the app quickly displays a magazine-like front page with suggestions of where to go next. There's a lot of animation involved in the app, which was produced for the library by Potion, and it makes great use of the standard gestures used on the iPad. Want to move between the "stacks?" Just flick between them. Tap on one of the stacks to read an introduction, and then tap on a bright blue and easy to see View Stories link to see a graphical representation of stories. Within the story groupings are colored bars: red for audio and video content, blue for featured images, orange for documents, and yellow for connections to related information from the NYPL stacks.

The user interface is everything in this app, since it's your way to browse the tremendous amount of content that's packed into it. I personally found the app to be easy to use and understand, and to give you an idea of how much I like the Biblion World's Fair app, it actually kept me entertained one evening for five straight hours. That's unprecedented for me, as I usually get bored and distracted by something else fairly quickly. I feel like the Biblion app literally takes me back in time to the late 1930's, and since I'm a history buff I can easily get sucked into wandering through the articles, photos, and other audiovisual content for hours.

Knowing how much I like this app, I was surprised by several tweets by a well-known blogger/author I know. He found the Biblion World's Fair app user interface to be "a mess." I personally think that linear thinkers might have a bit of an issue with the user interface, as it's really meant for exploration and wandering around the virtual library stacks. For me, a guy with an incredibly messy desk who is always working on about five things at once, the Biblion World's Fair app was a joy to use.

There is one complaint that I have -- there's no search function built into the app. While it's a lot of fun to zip around from subject to subject, it would be nice to be able to search for certain names or topics throughout the collected content.

Content

The Biblion World's Fair app truly brought not only the New York World's Fair to life for me, but provided excellent context into the historical significance of the event. The Fair was opened with a televised (yes, in 1939) speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which was the first time an American president used the new medium. Unfortunately, no recording exists of that speech.

One wonderful find in the app is a group of short color movies by an amateur filmmaker by the name of H. Earl Hoover. The silent movies give a personal perspective of the event from a regular citizen who attended the fair, and the color and scope of the event really comes across in these movies.

The NYPL team was able to recreate the "Democracity" city of the future pageant that took place inside the Fair's iconic Perisphere, using a combination of pre-production drawings, scripts, photos, musical scores, a chorus, and computer animation to create a short video. I'm sure the recreation doesn't have the emotional impact of the actual exhibit, but it was a game attempt by the developers to show what it must have been like.

Something that surprised and delighted me was to find that many of the essays accompanying photos in the app were non-judgmental, telling the story of the New York World's Fair without the usual postmodern "interpretation" that seems to plague many historical exhibits these days. Kudos to the NYPL for keeping the majority of the essays as descriptive as possible without tainting them with personal or political judgment.

Many of the things that we now take for granted, such as electric appliances, television, suburbs, and freeways, were first demonstrated to the public at the Fair. The impending world war is a constant undertone of many of the essays, with discussions of the fate of the Czechoslovakian exhibit after the German invasion in 1938 and how the controversial Soviet Union exhibit closed after 1939 after that nation invaded Poland and Finland.

There's no way that I can do justice to the sheer amount and quality of the written and visual content of this app. Just know that if you have an interest in this period of time in our history, the portions of the New York Public Library's collection that are highlighted in this app will keep you entertained for many hours.

Conclusion

The New York Public Library states that Biblion is to become a series of applications that will "explore ... the Library's vast and awe-inspiring collection." In fact, when the app first launches, the phrase "Biblion: The Boundless Library" is displayed, and the Library intends for Biblion to become an electronic magazine of sorts that will highlight different parts of the collection and exhibits.

We're fortunate that the NYPL decided to pick the 1939-40 New York World's Fair as the topic of the first issue of Biblion, as they had a lot of material to work with. If this app is any indication of what we can expect in the future, Biblion is going to be an exciting and worthwhile collection of historical information.

If you're an iPad owner, don't worry about whether or not you like history -- download this free app and give it a try. You might surprise yourself by spending hours immersed in this fascinating look at the future as seen from the past.

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