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The Library in Your Pocket

Making the Library Truly Accessible Anytime, Anywhere

Wan Wee Pin, National Library Board | Nov 01, 2009

While libraries have been inundated with talk of Web 2.0 technology, social media and the Internet, we’ve failed to notice the mobile revolution taking place. According to Taiwan's Market Intelligence Center (MIC), the number of global mobile users hit 2.3 billion in 2006 and will reach 3 billion by 2010.

This statistic suggests wireless technology and mobile phones are becoming an integral part of everyday life and are changing the ways we connect and interact with the world around us. In Singapore, a scan of mobile communication shows an increase in favorable factors such as a penetration rate over 100%, lower charges by service providers and better capabilities in new phone models.

How does mobile access benefit libraries?

From the library’s perspective, there are two main implications.

  1. Traditionally, people have accessed library services by visiting the physical library and obtaining information on-site, during opening hours. However, today’s users demand information anytime, anywhere.
  2. The library continues to see a demographic of “missing” younger patrons who have few loans with the library or don’t visit it. With surfing the Internet on mobile phones becoming more popular, there is huge potential to engage the younger generation by providing mobile services such as catalog search, book reservation or the ability to download stories.

Mobile access represents a new channel the library can use to reach out to customers. At the National Library Board (NLB), we’ve introduced a comprehensive set of mobile services to exploit the potential of this phenomenon.

Experimenting with mobile services points the way

In the past, we’ve experimented with mobile initiatives including using 2D barcode technology. We’ve placed 2D “barcode squares” on posters and shelves; users could use phone cameras, take photos of the squares and immediately access more information about the resources — e.g., programs or collections — publicized on the posters or housed on the shelves. This project failed because our patrons weren’t ready; their understanding of library services was of the old paradigm. We realized that for our mobile services to be successful, we needed a rethink.

The most difficult part of 2.0 librarianship is neither creating new services nor even convincing those in charge to let you try new ideas. No, the hardest part is often the reexamination of ideas (Casey & Stephens, 2008).

All of our mobile services work on the same principle: We want to meet the needs of our patrons, no matter where they are.

Using that as a philosophical guideline, we realized users didn’t want new services but rather wanted to transact traditional library services through a mobile platform.

Assessing user needs factors into the development of our new mobile portal

To get on track, we conducted a user survey and identified services such as catalog search and account management to be included in a mobile portal.

Because we had observed customers jotting down catalog search results, a troublesome act when pen and paper weren’t at hand, we decided to include, in the mobile portal, the “SMS Me” feature. It allows customers, while searching our catalog, to send book details in the form of SMS (Short Message Service) messages to their mobile phones. Then, they can refer to the messages while searching for items on shelves. We also decided to include in the portal some reading material, library information and an inquiry service.

Also, to assess the technical feasibility of a mobile portal, we developed a proof of concept emphasizing the portal’s usability and navigation. Besides conducting internal trials, we released a beta version for public access in early 2009.

The Library in Your Pocket proves a success

Then, in February 2009, we launched our mobile portal, the Library in Your Pocket. It provides mobile phone users with quick and convenient access to library information and services.

The Library in Your Pocket adds to other mobile library services we offer. The majority of these focus on SMS technology. For the last 2 years, we’ve run an SMS Research Inquiry service allowing patrons to send in queries. We’ve also allowed for SMS transmittal of voting and Q&A during our events (texted questions and answers are projected onto screens). This has been successful because most Singaporeans are not outspoken and prefer to have their questions or views posted anonymously.

To date, the Library in Your Pocket has attracted an average of 4,000 unique visitors, 26,000 page views and 4,000 transactions per month. Also, 800 comments have arrived, with most praising the portal. And, the New Jersey State Library and the local National Technological University have expressed interest.

All of ourmobile services work on the same principle: We want to meet the needs of our patrons, no matter where they are.