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  • Do we need mobile library services? Not really

    Posted on December 21st, 2010 Lukas Koster 43 comments

    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.

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  • Mobile library services

    Posted on March 4th, 2010 Lukas Koster 3 comments

    Location aware services in a digital library world

    This is the third post in a series of three

    [1. Mainframe to mobile - 2. Mobile app or mobile web? - 3. Mobile library services]

    © Christchurch City Libraries

    While library systems technology and mobile apps architecture make up the technical and functional infrastructure of mobile web access, mobile library services are what it’s all about. What type of mobile services should libraries offer to their customers?

    As stated before, the two main features that distinguish mobile, handheld devices from other devices are:

    • web access any time anywhere
    • location awareness

    It seems obvious that libraries should take these two conditions into account when providing mobile services, not in the least the first one. I don’t think that mobile devices will completely replace other devices like pc’s and netbooks, like Google seems to think, but they will definitely be an important tool for lots of people, simply because they always carry a mobile phone with them. So in order to offer something extra, mobile applications should be focused on the situational circumstance of potential access to information any time anywhere, and make use of the location awareness of the device as much a possible. But does this also apply to services for library customers? That partly depends on the type of library (public, academic, special) and the physical and geographical structure of the library (one central location, branch locations).

    As a starting point we can say that mobile library services should cover the total range of online library services already offered through traditional web interfaces. However, mobile users may not want to use certain library services on their mobile devices. For instance, from an analysis of usage statistics of EBSCO Mobile at the Library of Texas A&M University, generously provided by Bennett Ponsford, it appears that although the number of searches in EBSCO mobile is increasing, only 1% of mobile searches leads to a fulltext download, against 77% of regular EBSCO searches. These findings suggest that library customers, at least academic ones, are willing to search for books and articles on their mobile devices, but will postpone actually using them until they are in a more convenient environment. Apparently small screens and/or mobile PDF readers are not very reader friendly in academic settings. This may be different for public library customers and e-books.

    So, libraries should concentrate on offering those mobile services that are wanted and will actually be used. In the beginning this may involve analysis of usage statistics and customer feedback to be able to determine the perfect mobile services suite for your library. Libraries should be prepared for “perpetual beta” and “agile development”.

    There are two main areas of information in which libraries can offer mobile services:

    Curtin library mobile

    • practical information
    • bibliographical information

    This is no different from other library information channels, like normal websites and printed guides and catalogues.

    Practical information may consist of contact address, email and telephone information, opening hours, staff information, rules and regulations of any kind, etc. In most cases this is information that does not change very often, so static information pages will be sufficient. However, especially with mobile devices who’s owners are on the move, providing dynamic up to date information will give an advantage. For instance: today’s and tomorrow’s opening hours, number of currently available public workstations per location, etc.

    The information provided will be even more precisely aimed at the user’s personal situation, if the “location awareness” feature is added to the “any time anywhere” feature, and up to date static and dynamic information for the locations in the immediate vicinity of the customer is shown first, using the device’s automatic geolocation properties. And all this gets better still if the library’s own information is mashed up with available online tools, like showing a location on Google Maps when selecting an address, and with the device’s tools, like making a phone call when clicking on a phone number.

    Bibliographical information should be handled somewhat differently. Searching library catalogues or online databases is in essence not location dependent. Online digital bibliographical metadata is available “in the cloud” any time anywhere. It’s not the discovery but the delivery that makes the difference. We have already seen that mobile academic library customers do not download fulltext articles to their mobile devices. But mobile customers will definitely be interested in the possibility of requesting a print item to be delivered to them in the nearest location. WorldCat Mobile, like “normal” WorldCat, for instance offers the option to select a library manually from a list in order to find the nearest location to obtain an item from. It would of course be nice if the delivery location would be automatically determined by the mobile request service, using the device’s location awareness and the current opening hours of the library branches.

    The funny thing here is that we have the paradoxical situation of state-of-the-art technology in a world of global online digital information being used to obtain “old fashioned” physical carriers of information (books) from the nearest physical location.

    Augmented reality, as a link between the physical and virtual world, may be a valuable extension of mobile services. A frequently mentioned example is scanning a book cover or a barcode with the camera of a mobile phone and locating the item on Amazon. It would be helpful if your phone could automatically find and request the item in the nearest library branch. Personally I am not convinced that this is very valuable. Typing in ISBN or book title will do the job just as fast. Moreover, bookshop staff may not appreciate this behaviour.

    A more common use of augmented reality would be to point the camera of your mobile device to a library building, after which a variety of information about the building is shown. The best known augmented reality app at the moment is Layar. This tool allows you to add a number of “layers”, with which you can for instance find the nearest ATM’s or museums, or Wikipedia information about physical objects or locations around you.

    Layar - LibraryThing Local

    There is also a LibraryThing Local layer for Layar, with which you can find

    information about all libraries, bookshops and book related events in the neighbourhood. It may even be possible to find a specific book in an open stack using this technology.

    All these extended mobile applications suggest that users of apps may not just be a specific group of people (like library customers), but that mobile users will be interested in all kinds of useful information about their current location. Library information may be only a part of that. Maybe mobile apps should be targeted at a more general audience and include related information from other sources, making use of the linked data concept.

    A search in a library catalog in this case may result in a list of books with links to related objects in a museum nearby or a historic location related to the subject of the book. Alternatively, an item in a museum website might have links to related literature in catalogs of nearby libraries. Anything is possible.

    The question that remains is: should libraries take care of providing these generic location based services, or will others do that?

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