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Mobile Technologies: Issues for Libraries

A Recap of the 2011 Digital Libraries Symposium

Mar 01, 2011

Elsevier's Digital Libraries Symposium

What trends will flourish this year as the number of handheld devices continues to grow? What guidelines will librarians follow in determining how to design and develop apps for users? How will new devices, apps and technologies influence eBook publishing?

These are some of the questions panelists addressed at Elsevier’s Digital Libraries Symposium during the midwinter meeting of the American Library Association in San Diego, CA, on January 8. More than 240 librarians turned out to hear from a thought-provoking panel on “Mobile Technologies — Issues for Libraries.” Following is a synopsis of the panelists’ remarks. Each speaker elaborated on the theme from their own professional perspective — that of a science librarian, a user-experience library strategist, a library administrator and a publisher who develops content for mobile technologies.

Joseph Murphy
Science Librarian, Coordinator of Instruction and Technology
Kline Science Library, Yale University
@libraryfuture on Twitter

Joe Murphy noted that mobile is now dominating the current digital landscape. To manage this and future changes, he stated, librarians must engage with, understand and adapt to the changes. More importantly, they must adapt the changes to their needs and discover the implications for changing roles. His presentation focused on the consumer electronics angle because he believes the way individuals interact with technology will guide patron expectations for interacting with libraries.

Murphy envisioned three big themes for 2011 and gave accompanying examples of popular applications that expanded with the exponential growth of foundational technologies in 2010. Each of these technologies builds off the concepts of sharing and location.

  1. Social recommendations — Bizzy is a local business recommendation engine that helps users find places to eat, shop and play.
  2. Mobile photo sharing — Instagram, for instance, allows users to apply a filter to a photo on their iPhone and then share it widely. This trend not only edges out Flickr but also changes the way people discover and share visually.
  3. Social entertainment check-ins — Miso connects TV viewers who share their experience in real time via mobile and Web interfaces. GetGlue allows users to check in to even more (books, movies, even wines) and share. This is an extension of the “check-in culture.”

Don’t look at these applications in terms of enhancing library services, Murphy said. Rather look at how they will influence people’s expectations for engaging with social or physical data. Librarians must consider these huge cultural changes and the user experience to ensure a place within the changing technological framework.

Kevin Rundblad
User Experience and Social Technology Strategist
University of California, Los Angeles
@rundblad on Twitter

Kevin Rundblad stated that the skill sets needed to work in user experience areas are still new to librarians, but not to the student population. It is important to harness their skill sets and, even more importantly, to develop a work culture that is entrepreneurial. He has derived three concepts that work well in developing mobile applications:

  1. Understand the user. It is important to create simple interactions in determining the user’s needs. While avoiding focus groups, individual interviews with users conducted by students can produce a good starting point. But the most important point for user-driven development is to actually work with them (in a development group) and work like them (entrepreneurial). This method produces the most natural result for determining user needs/wants, since it is implicit.
  2. Know the user’s context. For example, touch screens are dominant among the user population. Users also want personalization and fast discovery — one click away. General and specific context drive the functionality in the interface.
  3. Create simple interactions. The users, he said, want to move quickly through information and determine relevancy. Using APIs for mashups holds the most promise for providing an integrated experience. Notable mobile problems to solve include lack of integrated article and catalog discovery experience within the campus single sign-on, data portability, and authentication for on-campus mobile traffic from cellular networks.

Rundblad noted that time/device-shifting is a trend he sees taking shape especially in long-form content, e.g., the use of the Instapaper app for reading long PDF files at a later date. His team has developed and is testing a first version of a time/device-shifting experience. He concluded by stating that he welcomes collaboration on projects.

Brian Schottlaender
The Audrey Geisel University Librarian
University of California, San Diego

Brian Schottlaender represented the library administrator’s view on mobile technology. He asked the audience, “Why go mobile?” The answer, he said, is the users. They want information when they want it, where they want it, and how they want it. He referenced a July 2010 Pew Research Center report on mobile access that notes 65 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds access the Internet on mobile devices.

Some people may believe that mobile devices will have a short life cycle, but the adoption of these devices is truly a fundamental shift in Schottlaender’s view.

And with new technologies come, of course, issues with budgets for developing mobile applications. There are several possible reactions to the budget situation — one is to retreat to the middle and only develop what is doable with limited staff, while another approach is to “push the envelope” and go full steam ahead. UCSD, per Schottlaender, has a User Services Technology Librarian who leads a team of other User Services Librarians and library and campus Web developers in a rapid, modular approach to developing the applications users need and want.

Schottlaender concluded by providing several tips:

  1. Keep it simple and clutter-free.
  2. Don’t try to “mobilize” all your services.
  3. Don’t recreate the wheel; leverage what others have developed.
  4. Focus development on the dominant types of devices.

Suzanne BeDell
Managing Director, S&T Books

Suzanne BeDell provided an overview of the eBooks publishing industry. She noted that some say the iPad is poised to knock Amazon’s Kindle off its perch. Also, while the BlackBerry has a larger market share than the iPhone, it generates much less mobile Web traffic. For publishers, this means ensuring content is accessible within multiple devices. Elsevier, she said, remains “device agnostic” and will develop applications for our users’ needs.

Content development is driven, BeDell said, by media types, file formats, size and currency requirements. Adoption of apps is difficult to predict, and the marketplace is littered with failed applications. BeDell referenced apps like The Elements as potential game-changers for publishing since it incorporates all the features of an eBook on an iPad.

BeDell then discussed Elsevier’s SciVerse platform, which provides APIs for external development of apps for scientific researchers. She noted this allows for faster and broader development of applications, which accelerates research.

In her closing statements, BeDell asked, “What is a Publisher to do?” She answered this question by saying that it is important to tag content in the most flexible and granular ways possible. In this way, content can be altered or manipulated in a speedy and efficient manner.