Smartphones and the Library

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It is an undeniable reality of our times that mobile technologies are commonplace, with the majority of North American users now able to communicate via the web, SMS or speech from any location that can wirelessly connect to the Internet. The percentage of people in the US who possess smartphones crossed the 50% threshold in March of this year, which is remarkable considering that the iPhone was only introduced five years ago. Mobile penetration in Canada is lower, but not only are we not all that far behind, our client base of university age students will more than likely have at least that high a rate of ownership. Many libraries were very quick to acknowledge and invest their own time and services to this new medium, with efforts ranging from simplified and simple HTML web pages to full blown, downloadable applications designed specifically for their library. While mobile technologies are still in their infancy, they are not something that can be ignored if a library is to fulfill its mission of providing access to the information their users need with the speed that they have now grown accustomed to.     Clark Quinn argued in his 2011 book “Designing mLearning” that mobile learning is not something that can replace the more traditional methods of education, but can instead augment the learning process in myriad new ways. Mobile services are best used as a way to support our clients, and the library itself, rather than replace any component of the whole. Libraries perform a wide variety of services for their patrons, and it is up to an individual library to determine which of them will most benefit their patrons in a mobile format. Services that have already been applied in a mobile context at various institutions include: library websites dedicated for mobile use, MOPACs (Mobile OPACs), library instruction, database access, library tours and floor maps, SMS notifications (due day, renewal request, overdue, request arrival notify, news and events reminder), library circulation, QR (quick reference) codes, access to services (room bookings, laptops, e-books), SMS reference, opening hours, podcasts, lists of newly acquired titles, music, audiobooks and videos. These last few are becoming increasingly important as academic institutions adapt their instructional methods to the learning styles of a diverse population.

Many of the most important academic publishers, including the IEEE, Scopus and EBSCOhost, as well as common services like Summon, RefWorks and Blackboard, have already deployed their own mobile access points. While some remain rather rudimentary in their layout and design, it is an important first step towards full support for mobile usage. As I see it, the enormous benefit of instantaneous access via mobile to any of the databases or e-books is not that a user can read a 100 page document on a tiny screen (though they could), but that they can use those databases and e-books as a reference, rather than the work as a whole. Should they desire to read the document in full, they’d more likely (to my mind) do so on a laptop or desktop, and increasingly on an iPad, but the ability to refer to it again from a random location could prove invaluable to librarians, researchers and students alike. So long as they can keep a record of which articles they have read, or intend to read, either through RefWorks, Mendelay, Zotero or whatever, it would be a simple task to relocate the necessary article much more quickly than through other means.

Note that not only can library patrons benefit from the use of mobile technologies, but the librarians themselves can, as well. SirsiDynix, Thompson Rivers’s own catalogue provider, has created a mobile system called PocketCirc that librarians can use for remote circulation management, allowing them to move out from behind the reference desk and out into the library population. Other programs are open-source, such as the ShelfLister app developed for the University of Texas at Arlington, which allows a staff member to enter the barcodes for two books on a shelf, then retrieves statistics on charges and usage for all the books in between them. This can be very useful for collection development and inventory purposes. ShelfLister currently only works with the Voyager ILS, but there is no reason to think that such services will be unavailable for other ILSes over the coming years.

There has been a lot of excitement in education circles over the potential of bringing “Serious Gaming” technologies to enhance learning, and mobile is expected to be a large part of that movement. As a person whose parents are music teachers, I am keenly aware that the best way to teach a person how to perform a task is to get them to directly engage with it. As the proverb goes “tell me, and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” The most recent Horizon Report claims that interactive games for instructional purposes will become widespread over the next two to three years. As we know, academic libraries worldwide have been developing instructional videos to assist people in navigating and using library resources; we can easily create interactive, augmented reality games for mobile users that can help them find physical items in the library, in addition to games developed to locate electronic documents in the available databases.

As an emerging technology, it is important to understand that these are still the days of the Wild West when it comes to mobile technology. Ever since the iPhone hit the market, there has been speculation that a consistent standard will be adopted and implemented for mobile services. As it stands right now, all mobiles can handle HTML, and it is to be expected that they will all consistently work with HTML5 as it becomes a more concrete standard. However, the full capabilities of a given mobile are unavailable through web pages in this way. Apps can take advantage of the accelerometers, GPS, cameras and gesture capabilities of mobiles, whereas HTML pages cannot. Speed of access and a persistent icon on the mobile screen are both major pluses in favour of apps for libraries. Some libraries have taken the initiative and experimented with downloadable applications in addition to the mobile webpages which I would argue are unavoidable. My own university, Western, added a mobile app this year, for example, though its capabilities are no different from what they provide through their mobile website. There are strengths and weaknesses for mobile web versus apps or hybrid versions, and an individual library must investigate to determine which route is the best option to take.

In 21st century Canada, change is constant, and the mobile technology industry is at the leading edge. The most recent Horizon Report, released just this last April, claims widespread adoption of mobile technologies and their supporting applications, as well as tablet computing like the iPad within the next year; within 2-3 years, game-based learning and learning analytics; and within 5 years, gesture-based computing and the internet of things. While the library is not in control of what people choose to use in order to access information, it is our responsibility to ensure that we provide that capability, so that it is there when they need it.

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