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Talking with Keren Mills About Academic Libraries and Development of Mobile Services

Chris James, Elsevier | Nov 01, 2009

Examining new technologies that could help improve library services is a particular calling for Keren Mills, the innovations officer in the Research and Innovations Team in the Library & Learning Resources Centre of the Open University, headquartered in Milton Keynes in the UK. Responsible for running the Digilab, a staff development resource in the Open University Library, she recently turned her attention to “m-libraries” or mobile libraries. Here she shares with us some of her thoughts following the recent publication of M-Libraries: Information Use on the Move, a report she wrote as part of research funded by the Arcadia Programme at the University of Cambridge.

What was the Information Use on the Move project?

In 2007, Library Services at the Open University was already developing mobile services, including a mobilefriendly website and version of our online information literacy tutorial, Safari. When Library Services at the Open University cohosted with Athabasca University the 1st International M-Libraries Conference in 2007, I noticed that though libraries had begun to develop m-library services, none reported asking users what services they might want. When I heard the Arcadia Programme at Cambridge University Library was offering research fellowships for projects to increase libraries’ capabilities to provide users with services appropriate to a networked world, I leapt at the chance to undertake some user-requirements gathering.

Why did the project focus on mobile phones?

My aim was to find out whether users were likely to try to access library services on the move, and which aspects of the services they wanted mobile access to. I knew from our experience of developing the mobile-friendly library website, and from literature reviews, that most Web-based services work on larger mobile devices, such as laptops and handheld game consoles, without needing to be specially developed for them. Mobile phones, on the other hand, use diverse browsers without a common set of standards and require development to enable content to be accessible across a broad range of devices.

How was the project conducted?

Having only 10 weeks in which to conduct the project, I used an online survey to conduct my research. As mobile library services are such a new area, rather than asking about library services, I asked people how they use, or would like to use, mobile phones to access and interact with information. The survey went to staff and students at the University of Cambridge via library mailing lists, blogs and websites. It went to staff at the Open University through similar methods and was emailed to a sample of 2,000 Open University students.

What trends did your research identify regarding how people use mobile phones to interact with information?

The project identified that the majority of mobile phone users in the UK are more comfortable with using SMS-based services to access information than with using the mobile Internet. The idea of SMS alerts and reference services was popular. Respondents at both universities were keen to have mobile access to OPACs and information such as library hours and location and contact details [see the graph].

Why do you think only about 30% of respondents indicated interest in using mobile phones to access journal articles?

Numerous respondents commented about reading articles or eBooks on phone screens. One respondent wrote, “Mobile phone screens are just too small ... I use my laptop instead.” Others commented that their phones lacked the capacity to display e-texts, that they didn’t know how to access e-texts or that they would do it if they had better phones. For some, the cost of mobile Internet browsing was an issue, but many simply prefer using laptops or reading print.

Your report mentions seeing clients use phones to take pictures of the library catalog?

Yes. In the survey, I included questions about mobile access to OPAC interfaces because of such observations. And based on the high number of respondents who stated they would use such a service, the report recommends that libraries offer mobile-friendly OPACs.

What other key recommendations does the report make?

Here are a few:

  • Pilot text alerting services: Per the survey results, at least a third of library users are likely to sign up for notifications by text message, email or both.
  • Pilot a text reference service: Add this additional communication channel to your reference desk.
  • Ensure that the library website will resize to smaller screens: Get ready for an increase in the numbers of netbook users and mobile Internet users over the next few years.

Remember, though, that these recommendations are based on particular sample populations. National and organizational cultures may influence people’s needs and the way they interact with technology. So libraries may wish to undertake their own research.

"National and organizational cultures may influence people’s needs and the way they interact with technology."

What mobile services do the libraries of the University of Cambridge and the Open University offer?

At present, the Open University Library Services offers in mobile-friendly format its full website and revision modules from our free online Safari tutorial. Both services utilize Auto-Detect and Reformat software developed by Athabasca University in Canada. Cambridge University Library is planning to offer SMS alerting services and a mobile OPAC. The two libraries plan to collaborate on future developments.