Do we need mobile library services? Not really

Mobile services have to fulfill information needs here and now

Any time anywhere © Simona K

Like many other libraries, the Library of the University of Amsterdam released a mobile web app this year. For background information about why and how we did it, have a look at the slideshow my colleague Roxana Popistasu and I gave at the IGeLU 2010 conference.
For now I want to have a closer look at the actual reception and use of our mobile library services and draw some conclusions for the future. I have expressed some expectations earlier about mobile library services in my post “Mobile library services”. In summary, I expected that the most valued mobile library services would be of a practical nature, directly tied to the circumstances of internet access ‘any time, anywhere’, and would not include reading and processing of electronic texts.

Let me emphasise that I define mobile devices as smart phones and similar small devices that can be carried around literally any time anywhere, and that need dedicated apps to be used on a small touchscreen. So I am not talking about tablets like the iPad, which are large enough to be used with standard applications and websites, just like netbooks.

As you can see, most, if not all of the services in the Library of the University of Amsterdam mobile app are of a practical nature: opening hours, locations, contact information, news. And of course there is a mobile catalogue. This is the general situation in mobile library land, as has been described by Aaron Tay in his blog post “What are mobile friendly library sites offering? A survey”.

In my view these practical services are not really library services. They are learning or study centre services at best. There is no difference with practical services offered by other organisations like municipal authorities or supermarkets. Nothing wrong with that of course, they are very useful, but I don’t consider these services to be core library services, which would involve enabling access to content.
Real mobile devices are simply to small to be used for reading and processing large bodies of scholarly text. This might be different for public libraries.Their customers may appreciate being able to read fiction on their smart phones, provided that publishers allow them to read ebooks via libraries at all.

Even a mobile library catalogue can be considered a practical service intended to fulfill practical needs of a physical nature, like finding and requesting print books and journals to be delivered to a specific location and renewing loans to avoid paying fines. Let’s face it: an Integrated Library System is basically nothing more than an inventory and logistics management system for physical objects.

Usage statistics of the Library of the University of Amsterdam mobile web app show that between the launch in April and November 2010 the number of unique visits evolves around 30 per day on average, with a couple of peaks (350) on two specific days in October. The full website shows around 6000 visits per day on normal weekdays.
For the mobile catalogue this is between 30 and 50 visits per day. The full OPAC shows around 3000 visits on normal weekdays.

In November we see a huge increase in usage. Our killer mobile app was introduced: an overview of currently available workstations per location. The number of unique visits rises to between 300 and 400 a day. The number of pageviews rises from under 100 per day to around 1000 on weekdays in November. The ‘available workstations’ service accounts for 80% of these. In December 2010, an exam period, these figures rise to around 2000 pageviews per day, with 90% for the ‘available workstations’ service.

We can safely conclude that our students are mainly using our mobile library app on their smart phones to locate the nearest available desktop PC.

Mobile users expect services that are useful to them here and now.

What does this mean for core library services, aimed at giving access to content, on small mobile devices? I think that there is no future for providing mobile access on smart phones  to traditional library content in digital form: electronic articles and ebooks. I agree with Aaron Tay when he says “I don’t believe there is any reason to think that it will necessarily lead to high demand for library mobile services” in his post “A few heretical thoughts about library tech trends“.

Rather, mobile services should provide information about specific subjects useful to people here and now.

Anne Frank House AR example

In the near future anybody interested in a specific physical object or location will have access via their location aware smart phones and augmented reality to information of all kinds (text, images, sound, video, maps, statistics, etc.) from a number of sources: museums, archives, government agencies, maybe even libraries. To make this possible it is essential that all these organisations publish their information as linked open data. This means: under an open license using a generic linked data protocol like RDF.

I expect that consumers of this new type of mobile location based augmented linked information would appreciate some guidance in the possibly overwhelming information landscape, in the form of specific views, with preselection of information sources and their context taken into account.
There may be an opportunity here for libraries, especially public libraries, taking on a new coordinating role as information brokers on the intersection of a large number of different information providers. Of course if libraires want to achieve that, they need to look beyond their traditional scope and invest more in new information technologies, services and expertise.

The future of mobile information services lies in the combination of location awareness, augmented reality and linked open data. Maybe libraries can help.

43 thoughts on “Do we need mobile library services? Not really

  1. Good to read too is: “if you want to be cool in the mobile space, you have to develop three different versions of your site:

    In my opinion the lesson to be learned, the conclusion to be drawn is:
    Stop thinking as a seperate Library entity, within your university organization you should not offer isolated, secluded services for users.
    Together with other stakeholders in your organization you should develop services that blend in, integrate, and deliver what they really want & need.

  2. Just being ‘cool’ should not be your goal as a library. I think even cooler is doing what your patrons really like and want. What will make their life easier just using your library services?
    About mobile library stuff: regulary I’ve asked students what they think about mobile library services. And always the same answers: ‘renewing my bookloans through an app would be nice’! That’s all, folks.

  3. Seems to me that for the moment the statistics reveal high use for obtaining information. The fact that many publishers are making their content available online is something that needs to be integrated into the apps. Cool is when you leave it for the user to decide how s/he wants to access information (whether is is straight forward information or information that leads to use of information to create knowledge and understanding). Fact is that I am reading (and now commenting) on this on a mobile device and this technology is getting increasingly sophisticated. To assume reading scholarly material on mobile devices may not be required or is not currently popular could be short term
    thinking. We must be flexible and adaptable an offer a myriad of options to ours users. Then let them decide what is appropriate for them individually.

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