LOC Visitor Center to Be a Technological Candy Land

Posted October 15, 2007 at 6:30pm

When the Library of Congress’ “New Visitors Experience” opens, it will plunge visitors into the Library’s voluminous collections using sleek computers, interactive exhibits and towering video screens. But getting to that technological candy land is much more old-fashioned.

It happens in the “war room” — a small office in the James Madison Building that acts as the organizational epicenter for the project. The room resembles a schoolroom: whiteboards line the walls, each one filled with an orange, green and purple scribble of names, places, dates and tasks. Every morning at 9:30, the key players for the New Visitors Experience gather around the room’s long table and map out the day.

It’s a project that needs constant supervision. Library officials plan to create a new visitors’ center in the Jefferson Building, installing computers that zoom in on physical artwork and setting up video screens that welcome guests to the Library.

They’re on the brink of a crucial element: signing an agreement that will create the project’s technological backbone. By joining with a private company, officials hope to make the center’s interactive games and information accessible from any computer. Once the whole system is in place, visitors will be pulled into exhibits through interactive programs that provide much more information than a stagnant plaque, said LOC spokesman Matt Raymond.

“It’s going to provide a richness of content in a way that we haven’t been able to previously offer,” he said. “It’s focused very much on the use of the Library’s collection to spark people’s intellectual curiosity and to create lifelong users.”

It’s an idea the Library began looking at two years ago. In 2006, officials guessed the first phase of the project would be completed in the fall of 2007 to coincide with what was then the estimated opening date of the Capitol Visitor Center.

Their organization paid off. While the CVC is now slated for completion in November 2008, the New Visitors Experience will open one of its exhibits this December, as planned, and the rest in April. More additions may be added in late 2008. It will be funded privately, with most of the $22 million needed already raised, Raymond said.

The New Visitors Experience will be connected to the CVC through a tunnel — an aspect that Library officials say could help triple the more than a million visitors who come to the library each year.

But the remodeling also will include the re-opening of the Jefferson Building’s main bronze doors above the Neptune Fountain, allowing visitors to enter the building through an entrance that hasn’t been open for several decades.

Visitors will get individual passports when they enter, and with a swipe, those passports will save the link of any of the computers’ interactive features to a personalized Web site. Later, those visitors can access it through their e-mail address.

One feature will allow users to follow such words as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” through different drafts of the Declaration of Independence. Such exhibits will show that “the United States was made by the words throughout history,” Raymond said.

The project team visited places with similar technology as they developed the plan, said Masako Sho, who works in the project management office. The Luce Foundation Center for American Art, a Smithsonian facility, provided some ideas on interactive kiosks, she said, while NASA helped explain the personalized Web sites they offer users online.

Library officials plan to be finished by April, with a “soft opening” on Dec. 13 that will unveil the “Early America” exhibit, which will focus on the pre-Columbian era.

When all the exhibits are finished in April, the Jefferson Building will have a computer infrastructure that will enable visitors to explore the details of books, maps and even the building’s architecture through touch screens, also while seeing the real thing in person.

Thomas Jefferson’s library of 6,000-plus books will be on-site, enclosed in glass shelves that swirl into a conch shell shape. Although users won’t be able to touch the books, they will be able to digitally flip through several and read about Jefferson’s unique cataloguing.

And by standing on the Great Hall mezzanine, visitors also will be able to explore the details of much of the Jefferson Building’s architecture. Photographer Carol Highsmith already has taken hundreds of pictures on the interior and exterior of the building, Raymond said.

“They are gorgeous,” he said. “People will be able to see details you can’t even see by walking around the building.”