Case study: Library turns over new leaf

27 Jun 2005

Famed for providing a window on to the world of historical art and literature, the Chester Beatty Library (CBL) last week embraced the future when it officially launched a new multimedia tour on handheld computers aimed at the enhancing the experience of the thousands of visitors that pass through its doors every year.

The CBL is an art museum and library housing the collection of manuscripts, miniature paintings, prints, drawings, rare books and decorative arts assembled by Sir Alfred Chester Beatty. The library is housed within a restored 18th Century building within Dublin Castle.

The idea of converting the library’s artefacts into a multimedia tour that visitors could enjoy was first mooted four years ago, according to library director Michael Ryan. “Our IT manager [Stephen Farrell] was planning to install a wireless network throughout the building when he came up with the idea of offering visitors tours on Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs. It was a pioneering idea at the time although some international museums are starting to offer such tours now.”

The CBL can boast having the first publicly available wireless hotspot in Ireland three years ago. A few months later, it began an initial trial of the multimedia tour with the aid of €60k from the Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism. However, more funding was needed and it was at this point the Vodafone Ireland Foundation lent its support to the project through a grant of €50k. The mobile operator is also contributing ongoing technical and commercial expertise.

Beginning this week, visitors to the museum will be asked to trial a small number of HP iPaq handheld PCs, which will guide them through the various exhibits. At each tour point, pictures, sound clips and documentation provide further detail and background to the items on display, with video clips to be added at a later date. The system delivers the content of the tour to PDA users over a wireless network via access to a content management database running Windows 2003 Server. The system also includes a tour maintenance system (TMS) that enables CBL staff to create and maintain the content. The content itself is written by the museum’s curators, who record commentary on to their computers and then choose supporting graphics and images.

The museum has two exhibition galleries: Sacred Traditions and Artistic Traditions. Only the former is currently available on the PDA but the content for the latter has been developed and is now ready to be added.

IT services firm Datapac provided the hardware, including Wi-Fi network, while its subsidiary, Manser, wrote the software for the tour delivery system — what users see on their PDA — and the TMS, the database sitting on a central server. According to Frank Corr, general manager of Manser, when developing the system it was important to ensure the hardware and software worked well together.

“We spent a lot of time evaluating different devices. It’s important the tools perform very well and give users the best experience possible, so we went with iPaqs running Microsoft’s Pocket PC operating system.”

The tour has been developed in such as way as to make it accessible to the visually and hearing impaired. Over the next few months, it will be possible for library information to be read to visually impaired visitors using headphones. It is also envisaged the tour will be available in Irish, French and Mandarin Chinese over the coming months.

There are currently 10 PDAs in service. During the trial period, there is no charge for the tour but visitors must agree to complete evaluation forms to help the museum refine the content. Ryan feels it is important to achieve the best possible product before it’s put on ‘general release’. “When we’re satisfied we have a product that can stand up to public scrutiny we’ll double the number of PDAs and open up access,” he says.

Corr agrees content and presentation are key issues. “We have worked out how the thing would work technically but we spent a lot of time teasing out usability issues.”

Fine-tuning content is one of the areas to which Vodafone will be contributing its expertise, says Celine Keating, media streaming platform manager at Vodafone. “I’ll be looking at what people are saying about the tour and advising the CBL on how to improve it and make it as user-friendly as possible.” As well as that, the network operator will also be exploring the possibility of making the tour compatible with 3G phones, as well as PDAs. “It is something Vodafone is very keen to put in place,” says Keating.

Her colleague, Olivia Dobbs, corporate social responsibility manager, explains the network operator also has a well-developed volunteering programme and that several employees with foreign language skills have already agreed to help translate documentation so the tour can be offered in several language versions.

Ryan emphasises the tour is intended to complement rather than replace the museum’s own 35 voluntary tour guides who are “worth their weight in gold” he says. But having tours available on a PDA will be a useful service for visitors because the guides only run tours at regular scheduled times and upon request.

Corr, too, highlights the complementary role of technology. “The curators are still central to everything. We’ve simply provided another means for dispersing their knowledge among more people and enhancing their role.”

Pictured at the launch of the new state-of-the-art multimedia tour at the Chester Beatty Library were: Paula Shalloo, development manager of Chester Beatty Library (right), and Celine Fitzgerald, chairwoman of the Vodafone Ireland Foundation.

By Brian Skelly