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Coming to Terms with Mobile

Submitted by Marshall Breeding on April 6, 2010 - 12:43pm

This column appears in the March 2010 issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter. To read more from Marshall Breeding on mobile library technology and other facets of the library automation industry, you can purchase this issue or subscribe to Smart Libraries Newsletter at http://alatechsource.metapress.com/content/p61u1704g93v/offerings.

Mobile technology suddenly seems to be all the rage in library technology.  The March issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter includes several stories of new products or services that aim to deliver library content and services to users with mobile devices.  

I’ve been aware of the rising importance of mobile technology for quite a long time, but it was a bit abstract until I made my own shift from an ordinary cell phone to a full-fledged smart phone.  Before I got an iPhone a couple of months ago, I didn’t fully appreciate how much one of these devices can shape one’s expectations for information and communication.   I’m no stranger to mobile computing, but I have mostly been oriented to full-sized equipment.  I don’t go far without my laptop—I’m constantly battling deadlines for the next article, column, or report.  While having a smarter mobile device has been great, I don’t see how it could become my primary productivity tool.   Nothing short of a full-sized keyboard will do when it comes to writing in longer forms than Twitter, text messages, or other brief formats.  But for many others, a smart mobile device may well serve as their primary tool for access to the Internet.   The recently announced Apple iPad brings to the market an example of an intermediate device that further blurs the lines between mobile smart phones and full-form computers. 

While I’m not likely to give up my laptop, the iPhone has made a big difference in the way that I deal with information—both the onslaught of incoming correspondence in its various forms and in the way that I gather data for both my personal and professional life.  Smart phones change expectations for the immediacy and convenience of information.   Now it’s hard to wait for any bit of information needed for daily life.  I’m also seeing that the media can make a big difference on the content consumption.   It’s the destinations that make their content or services easily accessed on the mobile devices that I visit repeatedly.  Content designed for full-sized browsers can be pretty awful to use on a mobile device.  The commercial world has already figured this out, with all the major destinations having sites nicely designed to detect and accommodate mobile visitors or developing apps that take full advantage of a given device. My recent personal experience only reinforces my view that libraries need to consider their position and visibility on the mobile front just as seriously as they would their conventional Web presence. 

We’re still in the very early days of mobile services for libraries, and we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.  Mobile sites will always offer a subset of the functionality available through their counterparts on the traditional Web. So it’s essential to deliver the right information and service options that will make the effort worthwhile to mobile users.    The early offerings in this space focus on helping users discover nearby libraries and on making the traditional online catalog more functional on a mobile device.  While that’s a good start, I’m looking for more compelling offerings in the future.  In the same way that the traditional online catalog fails to satisfy the current generation of Web-savvy users, prompting the creation of a new genre of discovery interfaces, those drivers apply to the mobile Web.   We need a mobile presence that does justice to the full breadth of library collections in a coherent and unified way. 

In many of my talks and essays, I discuss the commercial competitors that libraries face in delivering content to our users.  I rail about how advanced these competitors appear in the way that they deliver content and services on the Web relative to the offerings of most libraries.  I see the genre of discovery interfaces as filling an urgent need to help libraries engage users whose expectations have been set by these commercial destinations.  By and large, libraries have been sluggish to move away from their old vintage Web-based online catalogs to more modern discovery interfaces. 

Libraries face the same issues now with mobile technology.  Having a bunch of disjointed apps or other silos of library content available to mobile users will need to evolve quickly into something more polished and cohesive.  This transition will also need to happen in a radically collapsed timeframe relative to what’s happened on the traditional Web.  I’m looking forward to seeing libraries make ambitious and aggressive moves to ramp up their mobile presence.  The products mentioned in this issue are just the initial front of a whole new dimension of library technology. 

The point at which mobile access to the Web will meet or exceed that of larger devices lies only a few years in the future.  Now is the time for libraries to get serious about developing strategies for mobile technologies.  Otherwise, we’ll lose opportunities to provide services, and erode our visibility and relevance.