Jenna Bain
Publication date: 
Friday, 4 October, 2013

There’s an old editorial adage: don’t bury the lead. Start with the guts of your story. Pitch the hook to your audience from the beginning. The same rule applies to your websites, mobile apps and digital platforms. Lead with your content. The guts. Make your content easy to find and easy to consume. Make your content king.

This paper tells the story of Forte, the National Library of Australia’s sheet music iPad app, as well as the collaboration and enthusiasm that made it a reality. More than just its development, this paper also discusses the philosophy of open data and of finding new and creative ways to showcase the content you’ve always had.

Welcome to Forte, the National Library of Australia’s sheet music app for iPad. Forte was the first mobile app of its kind for Australian cultural institutions, especially for libraries, and has been a really fun and rewarding project to work on throughout the last 12 months or so.

Forte has a number of features. Once you open up the app you can scroll through decades to browse the music collection, the size of the buttons giving some indication of the number of items within that decade. Once in a decade you can browse through scores by their title and cover art. Not shown in the demo but you can also view by composer rather than alphabetical if you like.

Once you find a score you like you can open it up to a full screen view and swipe through the pages. One tap gives you more information about the score and a link back to our online catalogue. You can share that score with your friends through email or social media channels if you wish and you can add that score to your favourites. The favourites is one of the best features in my opinion, it gives you the ability to curate your own selections from the larger collection into one place, and gives easy access to a score you’d like to come back to at a later time.

And there you have it. Forte is available for free download in the Apple app store.

So how did Forte come to be? I’d love to stand here and tell you all that National Library staff were the masterminds behind it’s development and that we envisioned exactly what we wanted from the beginning and the saw that vision out until the end, but that wouldn’t be the truth. Instead it happened a little something like this.

In March 2011 the Library made available a dataset of our sheet music collection on for LibraryHack, a mashup competition that was designed to encourage the creative and innovative use of library data and digital content. There were data submissions from libraries all around the country, many entries in total and around 10 overall winners and prizes.

There were about 11,000 items in our dataset at the time, which included metadata for all pages of all the scores, including the digitised images, which especially highlighted their beautiful cover art.

Lots of great stuff came out of LibraryHack but our dataset didn’t really get used and instead sat waiting on for some other willing enthusiast to find it and run with it.

Sure enough that enthusiast did arrive, by way of Stripy Sock developer Jake McMullin. Almost a year after LibraryHack, Jake walked through the doors of our reading room with a prototype of an iPad app he built using our very own dataset, curious as to whether we’d be interested in developing it further.

Jake is an experienced app developer who has worked on some great projects like ABC’s iView, and had a particular personal interest in iOS app development and was looking specifically for a large dataset that had engaging content for him to work with.

Even though we didn’t have a particular end goal in mind for what we wanted to do with our sheet music collection, the choice to make our dataset available for use meant that we didn’t really need to know exactly what we wanted. We had no preconceptions of what would come out of LibraryHack and we certainly weren’t expecting an app like Forte to be the end product over a year later. But regardless what we know is that had we not made our data open and available, it’s likely nothing would ever have happened.

In general the National Library certainly subscribes to an open-source philosophy. We believe in transparency and sharing and wherever possible we attempt to share not only our products but also our research and planning with those communities who are interested.

Forte exists today because of that open-source philosophy. And in carrying that same torch, Forte itself was developed using open-source software and now the finished-product source code sits in the online repository GitHub, free for anyone to use.

All this is not to say I’m suggesting that after today you should race back to your desks and make all of your data available online in the hope that some audacious developer will swoop in and make something out of it. Getting the most out of our data doesn’t mean putting things out into the universe just as a means of publication, it means fostering the opportunity for collaboration and exploration, and ultimately finding options to provide better access to your content in creative ways.

In terms of access, we actually weren’t giving our users anything new. All the data that is available through Forte can be accessed through our catalogue online and also through Trove. Forte doesn’t include any extra data or information about the individual scores in the collection.

What is does offer is a new experience. A new way of engaging with our already fantastic collection of digitised sheet music. It gives our users more exploratory licence to discover items in this particular collection, and to make those discoveries in a more physical, personal and even curated way.

I’m also not necessarily suggesting that you should make mobile apps for all of the items in your collections. Absolutely the appeal of Forte as an iPad app is its portability and practicality, but that appeal is only as such because of the type of data that it actually is. 

Sheet music by its physical nature is portable and it’s practical. A native tablet app made sense for digital access to this particular collection as it better emulates the physical experience of using sheet music, more so than, for example, what you might expect when accessing the same content through our catalogue on your desktop computer.

For any idea that you have in presenting your content, it is vital for the mode of consumption to be appropriate, useful and engaging.

Let your content tell its story. And let it be told in a variety of ways. In order to enhance interest in and access to your collections, your ideas don’t have to be revolutionary. They need to make sense. They need to meet the needs of your users, or even just satisfy their would-be-nice-to-haves.   

Jake, our Forte developer spoke about his experience in creating this app a few weeks ago and one thing he said that really stuck with me is that great ideas don’t have to come from outside your organisation. Instead you just need to be open to innovation. You need good data, you need a solid understanding of your users and what they expect to experience when engaging with your institution, and you need to be willing to take risks when necessary.

The risk on paper for the National Library was to put resources towards further developing an app that we hadn’t specifically factored into our operational plan. For working with a guy who essentially walked in off the street and said, hey look at my shiny iPad with all your stuff on it! For investing our time into providing access to something we already gave users access to anyway. 

In reality, those risks, to me at least, were minor. There was a good idea. There was the recognition that our patrons would agree that it was a good idea. There was fantastic data that basically did all the hard work on its own anyway. And of course there was this excellent opportunity for collaboration that was spawned almost entirely just from a willingness to support open data in the first place.

The Library’s mobile strategy has a number of objectives, which include:

  • improving access to our collections and services for audiences no matter where they are in the world;
  • adopting an evidence-based approach to service development and delivery;
  • modernising the Library’s brand to reflect relevance and accessibility; and
  • to facilitate conversation and engagement with national collection material.

Forte ticks all of those boxes. And really, what’s a small amount of mitigated risk when you can say you have positively contributed to lofty objectives such as those?

I know it’s easy to say, “be innovative”, but what does that actually mean? There are lots of ways to interpret the concept and I don’t intend to stand in front of you listing all the ways to be innovative in your organisation. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. To me, innovation comes from a willingness to be adaptive. To understand that growth is absolutely unachievable without a readiness to support change. But more than that, innovation comes from the ability to recognise and assess both need and desire. Innovation is creative problem-solving, even when, especially when, you find solutions to non-critical or urgent issues.

That creativity can stem from just about anywhere, and often the idea doesn’t even have to be yours. I would encourage you to be open to existing and emerging concepts and technologies that may be available to you. By that I don’t mean jump on the bandwagon of every hot topic social platform or latest gadget on the market. But absolutely you should investigate ways to utilise technologies that can provide a platform for innovation just by their very nature, as long as they also provide appropriate engagement with your collections.

Something you may already have heard of that you should keep an eye out for is the new iBeacons from Apple. The basic concept is it’s a technology that allows mobile apps on your phone or tablet to recognise when your device is near a synced wireless sensor called a beacon. This beacon can transmit data to your device when you are within physical proximity to it.

There is a lot of talk within the technology sector right now about how beneficial this technology will be for retail and hospitality industries.

For example, if you have a Starbucks app on your phone and you walk within range of your local Starbucks café that has an iBeacon installed, your phone will pick up on the link between the two and push data to your phone, which might include information about current promotions or coupons, or more information about the products they sell. It’s all pretty exciting stuff.

But what I find even more fascinating is the potential use for iBeacons or other wireless technology to provide content to users within the cultural sector.

Currently at the National Library we offer visitors to the building an audio tour of our Treasures Gallery through a mobile app. They hold the phone in their hand while wearing earphones and then as they find an item on display that correlates to an item featured in the app, they can hit play on an audio clip that provides more information about that particular item.

iBeacons could totally revolutionise this process. Instead of the current setup, a series of iBeacons could be fixed throughout our gallery space in proximity to different items on display, meaning that I could have my personal device in my pocket with headphones in and as I approached the location of an iBeacon, the audio information about the linked item would initiate on its own.

It basically creates a more enriched user experience within the gallery because people can still be engaged with the physical items in front of them and not looking at their mobile devices all the time, but also still be able to consume extra information about our collections if they want to. 

You could even have a beacon near the gallery exit so that once a patron has finished in the gallery, as they leave they can get information about what goodies our bookshop can offer them in relation to the items they have seen on display, or maybe even just what the day’s special are in our café.

There are so many new technologies like this with us now or on the horizon that have the possibility of totally redefining what user experience actually means. And not just for users of our websites or mobile apps, but as demonstrated, even the people who physically walk through our doors.

And these aren’t way-off-into-the-future type possibilities either. They are affordable and accessible technical solutions that are available to us now.

Like I said, revolutionary.

As a Library, our core business is to provide access to content. We wouldn’t be a Library if we didn’t have content. We wouldn’t be a collecting institution without content to collect and then in turn deliver to our patrons.

But more than just being a hub for the dissemination of information, we take all the care in the world to thoughtfully and purposefully curate that content. We make assessments about what users need and what will engage them and we then construct paths to guide them to that information. It’s our business to have intimate knowledge of the items and information in our collections and as such our expertise is required to provide the most useful and meaningful experiences associated with that data.

To paraphrase our Trove Manager and digital historian Tim Sherratt, it’s not our job to just pump out data and hope that people find it useful. Instead our craft is to enrich that data and give it meaning. To provide context and create a user experience that aids access to information but also that contributes to its appeal. That’s why Forte works so well. The physical experience of being able to swipe through each score with crisp full screen images of each page makes the content not just consumable just also enjoyable. It creates a specific user experience.

Another piece of advice I’d like to leave you with today is that if and when you do decide to embark on a new project of this nature, don’t be too concerned with giving your users the world from the very beginning. Development can and should be iterative, or to use the latest buzz term in the design world, your development process should focus on “progressive enhancement”.

When we first brainstormed what Forte could and should do, there were lots of ideas that sounded like great features the app should have. I remember at one particular meeting the lovely Robyn Holmes, who you saw as the star of our promo video earlier, got very excited about the idea of linking audio recordings in Forte so that you could open up a particular score and the track would start playing along with you and you could sing along to it as the notes jumped around the page.

Of course, we had to sit her down and say Robyn, we’re focused on progressive enhancement remember? Maybe that can come in a later update…

When it came down to the development of Forte, resources and timeframes confined us. We couldn’t have added in every desirable feature, even though it would have been nice. Instead we created shortlists of must have features and nice to have features.

In the end we had to make some hard decisions about what we could include and what would be left for future updates. For example, this is why there is no search function within Forte. We had to choose which features were most important for the first release, which lead to the decision that by leaving search out and asking the users instead to browse, we hopefully could promote the experience of exploration and discovery of the collection, especially for those who weren’t necessarily familiar with the content.

Now that Forte has been in the public domain for a few months, we have gotten lots of useful feedback which will help us in developing a new release of features and functions should we decide to take that path. I’m also happy to announce that at this very moment we are working on an Android version of Forte that will be available by the end of the year.

I couldn’t be happier with the experience we’ve had developing Forte. We were very lucky from start to finish in that things seemed to fall in place very easily. We had the right mix of people involved in its development, as well as the right amount of tenacity in even recognising that there was good data and a good idea in the first place.

Since launching Forte back in March, the app has been downloaded a total of 3,935 times. As of last week, there are 2,508 active users of Forte, active meaning people who use the app regularly, not just once. This means that more than half, around 55%, of the people who have downloaded Forte come back to use it again and again; a very pleasing result. 

Another statistic that I find intriguing is that the average usage time per session in Forte is 5 minutes 30 seconds. This is a very high industry average. 

While it is difficult to isolate results specific to music collections in our catalogue, we do know that for online access to all of our digitised collections online, so everything we have through our catalogue not just sheet music, the average time per visit is only 3 minutes and 33 seconds, and only around 26% of users return for another visit. In other words, people actually enjoy using and better still, returning to Forte, generally more so than they do through our catalogue.

There are also some interesting lessons to learn through statistics gathered about the features we built into the app and how they have been used. During development we decided that social sharing would be a useful tool for users, and a nice way to promote your favourite scores with your friends if you wanted. However, the data we have collected since launch shows that of the nearly 26,000 times scores have been viewed in Forte, only around 650 times have they actually been shared socially. I guess we got that assumption wrong.

Collecting this kind of information is really vital to any changes or updates that we make to the app in the future, because it ensures we are actually meeting user needs and creating experiences with our content that users actually want to have.

Sure, during initial development we can do a little bit of guess work or trend following with the inclusion of some features, or make assumptions about what our users want, but ultimately to sustain interest in our products, we need to heed the information given to us by those actually using them. It gives us excellent insight into user habits and user needs and provides evidence for, and sometimes against, the development decisions that we make and have made in the past.

One of the greatest rewards with working on a project like this is hearing from users what Forte has meant to them. Even months after Forte’s launch, we’re still hearing about great stories of engagement with the content.

Just last week even, our Social Media Coordinator sent out this tweet from the National Library Twitter account:

“In honour of tomorrow’s AFL grand final, here’s “The Football Polka”! Can someone make a recording?”

The Football Polka is one of many scores available in Forte.

20 minutes later we had an obliging reply from one of our followers, Wendy Davis, who coordinates a research project called Musical Bundaberg, and an hour after that we got a complete recording of the entire piece of music uploaded to SoundCloud


and these two wonderful photos.

I gotta say, seeing stuff like that really puts a smile on my face!

So, my takeaways from this experience are these:

Number 1. Share you data. Not only the actual metadata associated with items in your collections, but also share your research and experiences. Share your knowledge about your content, especially with other institutions and interested communities. You are far more likely to find great ideas that work for you and your content when a range of interested parties have the ability to experiment with your data.

Number 2. Showcase your stuff. If you’ve got a great collection, don’t be afraid to flaunt it! If you find your collections interesting and engaging, it’s likely that others will too. There’s nothing wrong with showing off your data in more places than just your traditional catalogue.

Number 3. Target your content. While Forte is available to anyone for download, when promoting the launch of it, we specifically targeted groups we felt would benefit from it the most. Musicians, music communities, teachers, other libraries, etcetera. Not only did it gain more traction, but there was also lots of chatter about its release from a very engaged community of people, helping to further its promotion.

Number 4. Listen to your users. The most sure-fire way to find a great idea is to listen to the needs of your patrons and when appropriate, give them what they want, or even just what you know they would appreciate and be able to utilise.

Number 5. Iterate. The true mark of a good idea is how others receive and interpret it. Put your data out there in a useable and consumable state and then improve on it progressively, based on your learnings from real feedback, real statistics and real use cases.

Rather than always expecting our users to know what they’re looking for, especially when we have such a wealth of knowledge available to them, there is great merit in being creative with your delivery of that information. Not only will you make your content more accessible, you also have the opportunity to give it more meaning by creating a better, or even just different, user experience in engaging with it.

And by making as much of your data open and accessible as possible, you may just also create the opportunity for others to be innovative in both finding and enriching that meaning for you.

Thank you.