Building Multimedia Delivery Systems

by Jean Freedman

It's a cold, snowy day in the year 2006, and you are stuck indoors. You don't expect to be bored, however; you have plenty to do today. First, you need to do research at a library in Switzerland. After doing so, you realize that you must find a document in another library, which is either in France, Germany, or Belgium. You send a request to a metacomputer, which locates the library, finds the appropriate document, and sends you the information. Satisfied with the day's work, you explore the new exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York. Then you choose the evening's entertainment; from a central film archive located somewhere in cyberspace, you select a movie to be digitally beamed into your home. Finally, you go outside to shovel snow.

Sound like a brave new world? Actually, many of these things can be done already, and the rest are in the planning stage. As showcases for information and recreation,

libraries and museums at Indiana University are taking full advantage of the computer revolution. The Interactive Multimedia Distribution System (IMDS) at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis is a case in point. This state-of the-art multimedia system, located in the IUPUI library, was a joint project of educators, computer engineers, computer programmers, and multimedia experts. Ali Jafari, an associate professor of communication studies, director of the Information Technologies Laboratory, and head of the design team that developed IMDS, identifies four major applications of the system: video-on-demand, multimedia papers, advanced multimedia, and classroom teaching applications. Video-on-demand allows library users to electronically choose videos (which are stored elsewhere on campus) and to view those videos at library workstations. Multimedia "papers" are projects that originate on the computer and allow students to combine audio and video clips with text. Garland Elmore, an associate professor of communication and associate vice chancellor, already assigns such projects in his classes. Advanced multimedia allows students and faculty to retrieve information from the Internet to create multimedia presentations and home pages. Finally, television monitors in classrooms make it possible for professors to use the system's interactive multimedia capabilities for teaching.

Multimedia delivery systems are natural in fields where visual images are important. James Reidhaar, an associate professor of fine arts at the Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts at Indiana University Bloomington, is currently using digitized images from the Lilly Library to teach classes in the history and practice of graphic design. At present, he has more than 7,000 digitized images that supplement and illustrate his lectures. Computer images are more convenient than slides--it would be hard to load 7,000 slides into a carousel--and they allow students to view rare material in the Lilly Library without any damage to the material itself.

Like many contemporary museums, the Fine Arts Gallery of the Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts has a World Wide Web site, which went online in September 1995. Visitors to the site can browse through current exhibitions, examine the museum's catalog, and read about the museum's plans--without setting foot in Bloomington. The Web site was introduced by a novel exhibition entitled Draw (No. 6): Machine for Drawing All Over the World, designed by the Canadian artist Alan Storey. This exhibition featured a large metal machine with a video camera on its top and two blue pens at its base. The machine moved slowly across a map of the world that lay on the gallery floor. A real-time image of the machine's motion appeared on the gallery's Web site, while the blue pens created a dense, stationary "web" across the map itself.

The Main Library at Indiana University Bloomington has also become a multimedia center, where students can access visual and sonic information as well as texts. At the LETRS (Library Electronic Text Resource Service) center, students use databases and CD-ROMs to explore material in an interconnected and contextualized way. An example is the CD Perseus, which focuses on classical Greek civilization. With Perseus, one can read a work of Greek literature (in the original and in translation), view a map that highlights places mentioned in the text, examine the art and pottery of the period (from a variety of angles), and so on. Other CDs allow examination of the age of Chaucer; still others facilitate study of the Bible in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, English, and Coptic. The Chadwyck-Healey English Poetry Full-Text Database allows one to search more than 4,500 English-language poems, while the Victorian Women Writers' Project provides access to poetry not included in the Chadwyck-Healey database.

What will the future bring? Elmore envisions a metacomputer that will make information available to scholars no matter what the source or provenance. Betsy Stirratt, director of the Fine Arts Gallery, suggests an increase in artwork created on the computer and on the Web--an occurrence that would allow collaboration among artists who have never met. Jafari discusses a proliferation in digitized material, which is not destroyed in use (as books and tapes are) and which allows many users to view the same material at the same time. Who knows? Maybe someday a computer will even help you shovel snow.


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