New York Public Library’s Biblion App: A Review

Lizzy Walker

Creating apps for the Apple iPad is just one of an array of options available to tech-savvy libraries to stay relevant. To that end, the New York Public Library put out the Biblion app in 2011. This collection of digital images, text, and multimedia has received positive reviews, and well deserved praise. There are areas where the app could improve, but it is off to a good start. The collection, the content within the app, focuses on the 1939-1940 World’s Fair. It contains photographs, videos, scans of telegrams, memos, and the like, as well as articles from modern writers.

Biblion is a visually striking app, and not complicated to navigate. It is quite like wandering around any real-world fair. Even if you get lost there are plenty of interesting things to explore. Despite a few flaws, it is a very good app, particularly for people who prefer to browse a collection rather than search for specifics.

The first page of the app looks like what you would see on a magazine cover. There is an image from one of the galleries that appears there, with a section of recently viewed articles, so the user may revisit some of the stories already viewed. There is also a section that suggests some stories for the user. When one taps the screen in the center, he or she is taken to another layer of the user interface which contains six galleries to choose from. Then, to navigate from there to the content, the user may use the ‘pinch to zoom’ gesture or simply tap to select the gallery. These choices yield different results. When pinching, there is an extra layer that the user has to go through to get to the collection. When tapping, this preview layer is bypassed.

The transition from gallery view, to preview screen, using the pinch to zoom gesture, is not the smoothest and needs work.

There are five to seven layers of user interface separating menus and content from one another, which is to say that one cannot dip directly into specific content. There is the mosaic view, an introductory section for each collection, a revolving stories screen, a page for those individual stories, and the option to rotate to portrait (from landscape) for book view. For a first time user, these various levels might be interesting, but if you’re using the app to do research, it would get tiresome. There is no search option to be found, which slows the user experience if one wanted to look up a specific item in the collection.

Navigating the app would be more intuitive if the means of doing so didn’t change from layer to layer of content. Further, on some screens navigation varies depending on whether you hold your iPad in portrait of landscape view. The explanation for how this all works isn’t as apparent as it should be. To get to the “How to Use Biblion” story, one has to navigate through layers of content before being able to read it. The user’s manual contains a number of images that, while interesting, are unrelated to using the app itself.

The second layer of content for each collection is an introduction page, which explains what each section houses, as well as featured essays and stories. When selecting ‘View Stories’, the user is taken to a vertically revolving stories collection. This section is overwhelming at first glance. The user may scroll through the collection and opt to look at the audio and video items, featured images, or documents. An interesting addition is the Connections function, which links similar stories across collections.

There are two different views to choose from after getting past the first two layers: the book view and landscape view. In landscape, the background is black with white text and in book view, there is a white background and black text. Navigation options also change depending on the view. In book view, the revolving stories are replaced by something that is more appropriate to holding the device in portrait mode. There is an image at the top of the “page” with a scrollable article below. On the left-hand side, there is a smaller view of the revolving stories, as well as images from the current story. Depending on which area the user is reading in the article, the image rotates.

                             

The app has some pretty serious stability problems, despite having been released nearly a year ago. In the process of reviewing the app, it crashed three times, and caused my iPad to perform a hard reboot twice. By way of disclosure, I’m using an iPad 1, and I’ve owned it since 2010. However, I’ve never seen an app with these sorts of stability issues. As I write this, there hasn’t been an update for the app since October 9th, 2011.

Despite the above complaints, Biblion has some innovative features. The various views give users options, both in terms of viewing and navigating content. For example, the users can choose between book view and landscape view based on preference, or can choose the revolving view for browsing the collections. These user interface options should be available in all content consumptive apps. There are also tools that one can use to share collections via Twitter and Facebook, which provides users a way to engage socially with the content.

Best of all, the app is free to download. It wouldn’t make sense for a library to charge for access to a collection. Free access to information is essential for libraries to keep at the forefront and this app is another point of access for users who might not otherwise become engaged in historical content such as this.

NYPL Biblion can be downloaded at: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/nypl-biblion-worlds-fair/id433418206?mt=8.

Lizzy Walker works at the Boise State Albertsons Library. She is currently working in her MLIS with the SWIM cohort through University of North Texas. When she is not working on her studies, she enjoys gaming and spending time with her incredibly supportive husband, Arthur. 

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