Library of Congress set to launch virtual access tours

The technology that allows visitors to the U.S. Library of Congress (LOC) to take a virtual tour of historic documents and map out what exhibits they want to see will be provided by Microsoft the two organizations announced recently.

The project will include the Web site, to be launched in April, linked to information kiosks at the LOC’s Thomas Jefferson Building in Washington, D.C. Interactive galleries will allow visitors to the site to view and sometimes interact with items such as a rough draft of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the Gutenberg Bible and a 1507 map that first used the word “America.”

The new technology is designed to assist people who want to visit the library in person, said John Sampson, director of federal government affairs at Microsoft. Visitors to the Web site will be able to bookmark areas of interest, then use a bar code at the LOC’s information kiosks that will point them to more information in person, he said.

Visitors both online and on-site can also engage in a game called Knowledge Quest that sends them searching for clues in the LOC’s art and artifacts, Microsoft said.

The library has thought hard about how to bridge the online experience with an in-person visit, and the on-site kiosks will help visitors build a custom tour of the library, Sampson said.

The library’s plan is to cycle online exhibits in and out, but gradually make more information available online, Sampson said. “What they’ve realized is they have a vast collection of amazing, historic artifacts, documents and manuscripts that would take far too long to put on display,” he said. “To say they have great content…is almost an understatement. It’s the nation’s most prized treasures.”

Microsoft is donating software, funding and training to the project and in return the company gets to work with one of the premier libraries in the world, Sampson said.

“For us, it’s a unique showcase to show the breadth and the depth of the technology,” said Keith Hurwitz, a platform strategy advisor at Microsoft.

Microsoft is helping put the library’s “unparalleled educational resources literally at the fingertips of students and lifelong learners alike, both on site at the Library of Congress and virtually through the Web,” Librarian of Congress James Billington said in a statement. “The Library of Congress and the causes of inspiration and creativity will benefit immensely from this act of generosity and expertise.”

Interactive presentation software for kiosks will run on Windows Vista and its Web equivalent, built using Microsoft Silverlight. The project will also use Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 Web content management software.

The library’s “Exploring the Early Americas” exhibition, which opened Dec. 13, offers a sampling of the new experience.

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