Location aware services in a digital library world
This is the third post in a series of three
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:
- 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.
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?