Monday, July 02, 2007

TSI: Videoconference with Library of Congress

I think this is one TSI section that went perfectly. A couple of years ago I met Judith Graves, the Digital Project Coordinator at the Library of Congerss (LOC), at an Internet2 Spring Member Meeting. I was fascinated to learn how many resources the Library of Congress has, how many have been and are being digitized, and the variety of programs they sponsor. In addition to this, the Library of Congress also supports many Virtual Programs & Services, one of them being live videoconferences with experts at the LOC (Link in above page). Judith had given a nice presentation at the I2 meeting on both the on-line and free videoconferencing resources at the LOC, which she coordinated.

I faithfully saved Judith's card, and was waiting for the right opportunity to videoconference with the Library. The Tempel Summer Institute seemed an ideal venue. Most of the faculty had never participated in a videoconference, and it was a good opportunity to showcase new technologies, how we use Internet2, and the resources of the LOC and its experts. Our videoconferencing now runs on the Connecticut Education Network when connecting in-state, then switches to I2 when connecting out of state. Our own campus I2 subnet is also extremely efficient, thanks to the dedication of our network administrators. I don't want to jinx anything by stating all three networks, which have to work together, have been extremely reliable, and have never failed us when needed, so please forget I said it!

We have a portable videoconferencing unit in the DCC which can be moved to any classroom in Blaustein, though only three have I2 connectivity for now. However, 18 months ago we also installed a better videoconferencing system in the Dilley Room, shown below, a classroom in Shain Library. Coincidentally, the equipment was funded by a grant procured by Prof. Bridget Baird, who was also one of the participants in this year's TSI.

This is our only "professional level" facility, with two cameras and two large plasma monitors, so we decided to use it with the LOC. The room is small, but well-laid out for 16 participants sitting around three sides of a large table, with clear sight lines to both the far-end monitor and any data projection used at either end. In the above photo, the 6-foot screen displays the computer at either end, and the far end participants are viewed in the center plasma display. This 42" monitor is considerably bigger than apparent, the photo is distorted by a wide-angle lens. The left-hand wall-mounted 50" monitor is used when the teacher is at our college, and simultaneously teaching students both at our end and at the far end. In these cases, our instructor sits or stands to the left of the projection screen, facing our class. We then use the large monitor on the right to display the far end class, this is easily viewed by the instructor.

Our primary camera is mounted such that the far end can clearly see all of our 16 participants, without panning, as shown in this image. The Dilley Room was not originally designed to videoconference, and it took a lot of experimentation and effort to get equipment locations and sight lines worked out. We ended up actually mocking up working camera and monitor locations, as a few degrees and inches either way made a difference.

About 8 weeks before the videoconference (VC) date we preferred I contacted Judith by email, and filled out the on-line form requesting a videoconference. Judith was flexible enough to develop a custom program for us: a half-hour demonstration of a few of the many Library of Congress assets and services that may be relevant and useful to us, and a half-hour of Q&A with our faculty. A month before the videoconference I ran a one-hour connectivity test with the LOC's technician, Donald Blake. I always run at least one test before a videoconference. If I have never connected to the other end-point, the test is for the duration of the future videoconference. The test went without a hitch. We often leave our VC units on all the time, so I asked Donald to dial in for a short period a day or two before the conference, to check connectivity. Judith also had asked me to send some information along on the TSI faculty's interests and courses, to gear the presentation to their fields.

The videoconference itself went great. Along with Judith, Laura Gottesman (Digital Reference Specialist) and Sheridan Harvey (Women's Studies Specialist) participated from the Library of Congress. They all had taken time to research a bit of information on Connecticut College, New London, and some of the faculty's interests. This information was interwoven throughout their presentation, between general LOC facts and resources, and lent a personal note to the videoconference. The half hour of presentation and half hour of Q&A were not consecutive, but also interspersed, allowing for a more informal and friendly atmosphere. The LOC staff came across as pleasant, with good communication skills, and worked very well together.

We had a very good network connection so there was very little latency, or delay, in both of our audiovisual signals. This resulted in a more natural experience than in many videoconferences, where there are awkward slight pauses at the end of each sentence. You never know if they far end is done speaking, or if they are going to start talking again as soon as you start to say something! This leads to an experience that is not quite as transparent as "being there", which is always one of my goals in producing a videoconference.

Thanks to Judith and her colleagues, our network folks, Internet2, and the Connecticut Education Network, our videoconference with the Library of Congress was thoroughly enjoyed by our faculty, and was one of the highlights of the week.