By Margaret Adolphus
If libraries are not to become like travel agents, losing their customers to disintermediation and the Internet, they must go where their users go. And in the first decade of the 21st century, that's mobile. More and more people are using mobile devices such as phones (which are becoming increasingly sophisticated, able to determine locations through global positioning systems (GPS) and process rich media) and personal digital assistants (PDAs) to do their computing on the move.
Opinion is divided on the extent to which libraries are making use of mobile technologies for their content and services, but it does seem that much more could be done.
The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) reported that for many of its members, it was a case of "yes we ought to think about it, but it's not high on our list of priorities" (Lippincott, 2008), and Hahn (2008), in his literature review of the subject, claims that there is "not a robust utilization" by librarians.
Mobile library services and content may be confined to a few keen early adopters, but there is plenty of evidence of a solid group taking note of, and raising, the issues. June 2009 will see the second conference on mobile libraries, to be held in Vancouver, 18 months after the first, held in November 2007 under the auspices of the Open University and Athabasca University.
These developments, along with various others such as the OCLC Online Computer Library Center's World Cat mobile pilot, and Washington DC Public Library's iPhone application, led one blogger to claim that 2009 will be the year of the m-library (The Distant Librarian, 2009).
So, how can libraries be ready for the rapidly approaching future?
The prevalence of mobile technologies
The growth of citizen journalism (e.g. the first pictures of the 2007 London Tube bombing came from the mobile phones of those who trekked through the tunnel to safety; another example is the January 2009 emergency landing of a bird-struck jet in the Hudson river) and the fact that many of us could not imagine life without a device to keep in touch (e.g. Barack Obama insisted, on becoming president, that his aides would have to remove his Blackberry by force) are just examples of the way mobile technology is taking hold of our lives.
Other indications are the move to ubiquitous computing: we are no longer dependent on a desktop or laptop to be connected, and computing services themselves, such as e-mail, calendars and document/asset storage are increasingly moving to the cloud. The growth of web-based social networking tools such as MySpace and Facebook, as well as asset sharing tools such as YouTube and Flickr, is also well documented.
Such developments have led to the prediction that ubiquitous Internet will replace television as the dominant media (Naughton, 2008). There has also been a huge explosion in ownership of mobile devices; in fact, worldwide, 950 million mobile phones were sold in 2008.
It is claimed that roughly three times as many people have access to a mobile phone as they do to a personal computer (Ally, 2008; Kroski, 2008). A survey undertaken by the Educause Center for Applied Research in 2008 showed that about a quarter of students access the Internet from a hand-held device at least once a week.
Even in the last two-and-a-half years, the technical capacity of mobile phones has much improved, with bigger and better screens, more multimedia capabilities, quicker Internet delivery, and other possibilities such as links to GPS. All this makes the affordances of the new technology more robust.
Needham (2008) quotes predictions that the application friendly iPhone, with its large screen, will dominate mobile phone design, and that phones will become more important than laptops (2008: p. 275). Librarian, Paul Pival (author of the Distant Librarian blog) sees more and more students with iPhones, and has "a hunch that they are going to say, how come I can't access more content on this device that I use on a daily basis?".
The popularity, ubiquity and enhanced capabilities of mobile phones have a number of consequences for the way that information is acquired, processed and shared – and hence for the way that libraries adapt themselves to the new technological scene. It looks very much as though mobile devices are the way of the future.
Mobile device affordances
A good mobile device will provide you with information in your pocket wherever you go. The retired person can check the time of the Pilates class, the student can search library resources, a tour leader can check the dossier while talking to her group – all on the move. Thus information can be integrated with our lifestyles and workflow, and in theory make us more efficient.
Needham (2008: p. 275) comments on how the very nature of knowledge, learning, work and resources, as well as community itself, will be transformed by this mobility: work and learning will no longer be time and space specific. Information will both need to, and be enabled to, change to fill a ubiquitous virtual space which can be embedded within people's workflow.
Mobiles enable information to be not only ubiquitous, but "just in time" – small bits of timely information such as flight times – and context and location specific. Many mobile phones are now equipped with GPS, enabling users to receive localized information.
Mobile technology can also help bridge the technological divide. In much of the developing world, mobile coverage is much higher and more effective than that of the Internet. Mobile phone access has now surpassed landline in much of Africa, where in 2004 there were 76 million mobile phone users. At the 2007 m-libraries conference, a delegate from Zimbabwe enthused about how mobile phones made it easier to get "the right information at the right time" to non-resident students (Dick, 2007).
One of the developments in mobile technology that has most relevance for librarians is its use in education. Mobile, or m-learning, has been around since the early 2000s, has been the subject of numerous conferences, and has its own journal, the International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning (Traxler, 2008).
M-learning has been used in various ways:
- a "drip feeding" adjunct to other methods, for example texting new vocabulary on a daily basis for language students;
- for learners in the field, such as those in health care;
- for disadvantaged learners, such as recent migrants wanting to learn English; and
- unemployed young people in Naples.
This learning involves, according to a 2007 study by the UK's Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), use of mobiles, PDAs, etc., not only for resources and short exercises, but also to create content, to collaborate with others and seek their support (Lippincott, 2008a).
There have been a number of attempts to construct a pedagogy to underpin m-learning. Some allege that creating content involves students in a deeper learning (Lippincott, 2008a), while others talk about navigationism and connectivism, with the location and evaluation of knowledge becoming important (Traxler, 2008), as well as the ability to make connections between ideas from many different sources, and organize learning.
What is certain is that libraries must provide the services and content to support the new way of learning.
The mobile services libraries can offer
As all sectors of the community grow more IT literate, they will increasingly come to expect ubiquitous services. How will libraries respond to the demand for information "on the go"?
Libraries have already had to adapt to the virtual world by creating a strong virtual presence which is often as important, if not more so, than the physical space. The latter has moved from being a repository for books to something akin to an information commons, with group and individual learning areas, with access to all types of technology.
Lorcan Dempsey (2008: p. xliii) claims that libraries are already offering mobile-based services, for example:
- reference enquiries via text or chat;
- audio or e-books;
- podcasts or videos about library services (often on YouTube or iTunes);
- text alerts;
- mobile adaptations of their websites;
- allowing users to load items onto their iPod, for example, reserve lists for a particular course.
What types of groups can benefit?
What sorts of users would be more likely to use mobile content? Distance learning students are an obvious example; they are in any event heavily dependent on the virtual library and could benefit from using it on the move, or, in the case of students in remote areas in the developing world, where Internet connectivity may be poor.
Some of the students of the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) live in very remote areas, where they may not have reliable electricity supplies, and therefore cannot access the library's electronic resources. Some aspects of the OUSL's portal are therefore being made available via the mobile network: the OPAC (with shortened metadata), SMS-based ask-a-librarian service, indexed or annotated recommended literature, course materials, and My OUSL service (Seneviratne, 2008).
Students temporarily away from the institution, on field trips, in clinical settings or on professional internships, can also benefit from mobile services supplying them with resources where they are.
The Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona Medical School set up a project to help final-year students on clinical placement. They supplied them with PDAs which could connect to library documentation such as catalogues, databases, and digital resources. That way, they had information at their disposal when they were with patients (Carles et al., 2008).
Many students do not fit into these categories, but still have fairly nomadic lifestyles, juggling work and courses. Hahn (2008) comments on how mobile services support his technologically aware students, who have packed schedules and hold in their pockets devices with the processing power of computers ten years ago.
There are a number of possibilities for libraries, ranging from the comparatively simple use of short message service (SMS), through mobile websites to the development of a complete application for the iPhone.
A number of libraries are already texting users regarding renewals and reservations, and Foster and Evans (2008) point out that this service could be expanded to publicize events.
The University of South Africa is a distance learning university with a learning portal, MyUnisa, and uses that along with postal and courier deliveries to send material to its clients. To these services they are adding SMS for notices about borrowed items, messages about services, special events, lost items, training sessions, and notification about search requests (Mbambo-Thata, 2008).
Between March and April 2009, Emerald worked with the University of Swaziland (UNISWA) on the use of SMS to increase the usage of its product and help the University communicate with its students. Full-text downloads increased by 138 to 153 per cent. This proved an administratively simple, and inexpensive communication method.
The Ask a Librarian reference service is an obvious candidate for migration to text. Examples include South Eastern Louisiana University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and Orange County Library Service.
Two choices present themselves to libraries which want their websites to be accessible via a mobile: leave them as they are, but make them device independent, or create a specific mobile site.
Many libraries leave their websites as they are, but enable them to be rendered into a mobile format with the aid of a special style sheet and a transcoding application. These enable the sites to appear on various different platforms, and in a single column which is easier to read on a mobile.
Having a site which can be accessed on a mobile device easily is central to the strategy for both the Open University and Athabasca, as they recognize that being able to consult the library on the move is vital for time-poor students. Accordingly, they have both put some effort into ensuring that their websites are genuinely platform independent.
Athabasca University seeks to give maximum virtual support to its (distance) learners, including ones on the move. The format is fluid so that it can change in response to the device on which it appears, and it uses Auto Detect and Reformat (ADR) software to detect the user's device and reformat the page accordingly. Thus the page appears slightly differently on some mobile devices.
The Library provides a range of digital resources, including the digital reading room, e-course reserve, the digital reference centre, a help centre, a search engine, a portal for access to online journal databases, and a mobile catalogue package (Cau et al., 2008).
It also has AirPAC, a wireless version of its catalogue. See Figure 1, below.
Figure 1. Athabasca University Library home page, as it appears on a desktop, and AirPAC, its mobile catalogue,
(© Athabasca University 2009. All rights reserved. http://www.athabascau.ca/ Reproduced with permission)
The Open University Library has had Mobile Library 2.0 (developed in conjunction with Athabasca University) since 2007. It too uses ADR software to reformat the page to the user's device. It is very robust, having been tested on a variety of mobile devices, including the then latest version of Blackberry, and iPhones. Between October 2007 and February 2008 there were 1,847 hits to the website from mobile phones.
Other libraries create dedicated mobile websites, which deal with information in a different way. Ball State University, for example, adopts a radically simplified model for its mobile interface, but one where you can still search the catalogue, access resources, and find out about library services. See Figure 2.
Figure 2. Home page of Ball State University Library as it appears on a desktop screen and on a mobile (used with permission from the Ball State University Libraries)
North Carolina State University (NCSU) Library has also created a simple, no frills mobile website. See Figure 3.
Figure 3. NCSU's mobile website
WorldCat, the network of library resources available via the Web and sponsored by Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), has also created a mobile version, with an interface for iPhones (see below) and it has also developed a mobile application in partnership with Boopsie which will enable users to search for library content near them.
Figure 4. WorldCat's mobile interface
While mobile access to catalogues is very valuable, so too is access to content. A steady trickle of libraries are waking up to this fact.
The University of Alberta in Canada provides health service reference material for its students, which is of obvious value when students are working in the field, and need to consult information instantly. In fact, the Library has its own "PDA Zone" with a fair amount of useful information including a link to PubMed for PDAs and places where you can connect to the Library's wireless network if you have wi-fi (http://www.library.ualberta.ca/pdazone/). Its PDA resources contain medical and drug related reference works, as well as treatment guidelines.
In 2007, teams from Athabasca University and the UK's Open University began to collaborate on the delivery of content on mobile devices, again using ADR software. Athabasca University already offers its electronic resources to mobile users, as well as providing offerings in mobile device-ready formats, for example MP3 versions of journal articles. The digital reading room provides access to course-related resources, which includes online journal articles, e-books, audio and video clips – which means that you have most things you need for a particular course in your pocket or bag.
Information literacy is always a concern with librarians, and mobile devices provide another way to engage with students. The University of Arizona, for example, provides information literacy podcasts on "The Library Channel", a series of radio type programmes on such issues as copyright.
The Open University Library's information literacy programme, Safari (Skills in Accessing, Finding & Reviewing Information) has been adapted for mobiles. See Figure 5.
Figure 5. A page from Mobile Safari, developed by the Open University Library and Athabasca University Library
Mobile Safari is developed using software from Athabasca, and is complementary to, rather than a replacement for or an alternative to, the main version. It uses the sparse nature of the mobile environment (there is very little text per page) to act as a bolt on, a revision tool which can be used "on the move".
Creating a mobile friendly environment
In a world of mobile computing, the library needs not only to go where the student is, but also offer them an environment where they can recharge their devices, borrow them if necessary, and produce and display work they create.
Many libraries thus have electrical outlets for recharging, facilities for group study and production of multimedia presentations (Lippincott, 2008a).
The University of South Dakota issues PDAs to students, pre-loaded with reference materials (Lippincott, 2008b).
The Montesquieu Learning Centre at Tilburg University in The Netherlands has electrical outlets for recharging mobile devices. (Lippincott, 2008b).
Some libraries also provide mobile audio tours via hand-held devices, which means that patrons do not have to wait until a librarian becomes available. Other libraries, such as the University of Oulu in Finland, use context aware architecture to help users know what collections are available in their specific location by means of their PDA (Hahn 2008a).
At Nottingham Trent University Library, pod spots are located around each library site and represent individual audio tour tracks. Media players with prerecorded tours are available for loan from the information desks within each library. Alternatively, the audio tour, transcripts and floor plans can be downloaded from the LLR website onto personal MP3 players. The media players have been provided by alumni funding.
Localized services and GPS
Many mobile devices contain GPS, enabling the user to receive information that is pertinent to their location. This has prompted Foster and Evans (2008) to suggest that public libraries exploit this by providing localized information which could also be supplemented by the local community. The information would be downloaded from the library and could include, say, local ticket availability and places of interest.
Context-specific information is not just dependent on location: Needham (2008) points out that it is also possible to link information semantically so that, for example, if you were looking up a particular author, you could also be directed to other relevant information.
For Paul Pival, a significant development in adapting to mobile use came with Washington DC Public Library's new application launched especially for the iPhone, which enables you to search the catalogue, using author, title or keyword searches, and place reservations. You can also read reviews and summaries, and find out factual information about the library.
Figure 6. Washington DCPL's iPhone application
How to develop a mobile service
Despite the advantages and many examples of successful practice, developing a mobile service is not without its problems. The website, for example, may have been developed some years ago and may have all sorts of features which do not sit well on mobiles. Public libraries in particular may suffer from library management systems which were developed a long time ago in a far away information and communication technologies landscape before web, let alone mobile, interfaces (unlike university libraries, which have had to integrate with virtual and managed learning environments).
Notwithstanding the potential problems and pitfalls, libraries may still want to develop services. The starting point is to create a strategy: who are your users, and what services will be most useful?
The profile of your users should contain information on their ages and how they use their mobiles currently: are they students using mobiles for social purposes, business people using mobiles while travelling, active retired people seeking on-the-go information? What type of mobiles do they use: high end mobiles, iPhones etc.? Are there users you could reach that you don't now?
As with moving content from print to electronic, it is important to consider the nature of the different medium and how this will affect use and what you can provide. Even the newest mobile phones only have small screens and are not good for complex content and a lot of text.
Kroski (2008) suggests a number of possibilities:
- The simplest is to use text alerts (to which users can subscribe) to tell users about events, or use them as a way of reminding them about overdue items, reservations, etc.
- Keep your website as it is, it will be viewable in an iPhone and via a browser such as Opera. There are also transcoding applications such as Skweezer or Mowser which can arrange your site in a single column, and you will also probably need to use a special style sheet that can adapt to mobile devices.
- Develop a mobile-only website. This should not be a miniature version of your existing site, but should have its own content and purpose.
Here are some tips for developing a mobile-only website:
- Content: Bear in mind the limitations of the media and keep content simple.
- Think about what is most appropriate to users on the go.
- Avoid lengthy text; use bullet points where you can.
- Usability is very important.
- Use a single column and avoid too much scrolling by having important content at the top.
- Don't make navigation too complex: have a simple hierarchy.
- Ensure a fluid layout, without tables or frames.
- Chunk everything into small units.
- Images – restrict these to those that are really necessary and ensure that they have alternative text.
- Provide alternatives for certain types of document if you want the user to access them on his mobile device, as PHP and PDF cannot be recognized.
- Search – provide this near the top of the site, due to the difficulty of navigating mobile websites.
- Test on a number of different devices.
Popular web applications such as Google, Facebook and YouTube have gone mobile, thereby underlining their popular appeal. As outlined above, it is possible to develop a mobile presence with relatively little effort. If libraries are to be indispensable to the user, they would do well to include mobile devices as part of their strategic thinking.
M-libraries: Libraries on the Move to Provide Virtual Access, edited by Gill Needham and Mohamed Ally, Facet Publishing, London, 2008.
This is a collection of articles based on the First International M-Libraries Conference. There are a lot of thoughtful contributions and it is a good place to start, but inevitably in a fast-moving field it will soon be dated.
The Distant Librarian (http://distlib.blogs.com/distlib/)
This has a section and a blog about the m-library: http://distlib.blogs.com/distlib/2009/01/is-2009-the-year-of-the-mlibra….
A page devoted to mobile libraries with links to interfaces, applications, blogs, and useful reading material: see http://www.libsuccess.org/index.php?title=M-Libraries.
Kroski, E. (2008), "On the move with the mobile web: libraries and mobile technologies", Library Technology Reports, Vol. 44 No. 5, July.
This is a very useful getting started guide, especially for someone who is not familiar with all the things that you can do on mobiles.
Ally, M. (2008), "Nomadicity and information access", in Needham, G. and Ally, M. (Eds), M-libraries: Libraries on the Move to Provide Virtual Access, Facet Publishing, London.
Carles, D., Castellana, A. and Guerrero, F. (2008), "From shelf to PDA: how to transform mobile devices into a library information tool", in Needham, G. and Ally, M. (Eds), M-libraries: Libraries on the Move to Provide Virtual Access, Facet Publishing, London.
Dempsey, L. (2008), Foreward, "Always on: libraries in a world of permanent connectivity", in Needham, G. and Ally, M. (Eds), M-libraries: Libraries on the Move to Provide Virtual Access, Facet Publishing, London.
Dick, S. (2007), "First International m-libraries conference, 13-14 November 2007", SCONUL Focus, No. 42, Winter, p. 101.
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Seneviratne, W. (2008), "A basic plan for mobile service connectivity for the library system of the Open University of Sri Lanka", in Needham, G. and Ally, M. (Eds), M-libraries: Libraries on the Move to Provide Virtual Access, Facet Publishing, London.
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