When the New York Public Library released Biblion last year, it properly wowed iPad users interested in inventive ways of presenting information. Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic proclaimed it a model for the magazine apps of the future. So far, though — nearly a year later — there hasn’t been another issue.
The theme of the premier issue is the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. The library signed on to get all materials pertaining to the event right from the very beginning, so it’s a fabulous trove of documents, correspondence, blueprints, sketches, photographs, short films, even a menu or two.
The only way to read Biblion is to wander through it, an experience that more than one observer likened to meandering around the fair itself. It’s an impressive emulation, as well, of rummaging through a good archive or taking in a museum exhibit. If you care about women at the fair (scantily-clad ones were a major attraction), or the Czech Pavilion as a commemoration of a republic that fell to the Nazis while the exhibition being built, or what the staff uniforms looked like, or the story of the African-American composer who wrote the music for the Democracity exhibit inside the fair’s giant dome, you can head straight for that and then fork off in other directions later. Navigation is complex, but after a while you get the hang of it.
The material is clustered around short, well-written essays, and this, as well, seems ideally suited to the material. I wouldn’t call Biblion a model for the tablet magazines of the future, however, because it doesn’t offer one of the primary things magazine features and books provide, which is the order of linearity. Making sense of raw facts, pointing out strands of cause and effect, conveying which bits of information mean more than others: These are some of the meaning-making services that writers and editors perform. It’s a mistake — one often made by unreflective technoevangelists — to assume that linearity’s role in that service is no more than a vexing constraint imposed by the print medium.
For a subject like the 1939 World’s Fair, however, the reader’s freedom to browse through the app’s content at will is exactly the right format. Biblion is spectacularly produced with clever little animations and nice touches like a rotating set of opening images and suggestions for which topic to visit next.
It must have cost a fortune to produce, which makes me fear the library will never get around to assembling another issue. (The web version of Biblion has a collection of stuff on Percy and Mary Shelley up at the moment, but no iPad version seems pending.) I hope that’s not the case, because the access Biblion provides to the world’s great library collections is one of the most exciting possibilities of tablet computers.