It’s difficult to walk across the NC State campus (like any other campus these days) without noticing that most students are more likely to be toting a smartphone in their hands than a book (though there are plenty of those in the backpacks). What may elude a passing glance at NC State though is that the students who are busy texting are probably also on the internet reading their course reserves or checking the line at the D. H. Hill Library coffee shop. The NCSU Libraries has long been a technology incubator for the university and for academic libraries in general, and we see another huge opportunity in these new mobile behaviors. We expect, in fact, that mobile computing—like the laptop a decade ago—is beginning to dramatically reshape how libraries serve the academic community.
Here’s some “why’s”—and our early steps in thinking through the “how’s”:
“More than half of respondents (51.2%) owned an Internet-capable handheld device and another 12% planned to purchase one in the next 12 months.” (The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2009, EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research)
“Users of the mobile web now go online more frequently using their handheld devices than they did as recently as last year. More than half of all mobile internet users go online from their handheld devices on a daily basis.” (Aaron Smith, Mobile Access 2010, Pew Internet & American Life Project)
We are in the middle of immense changes to the information context in which study and research occur:
- Today’s students live in a blended world of the virtual and the physical—the natural state of things for them is to expect learning to happen in this blended context.
- They expect to be able to learn and research anytime, anyplace.
- Seemingly inevitable market forces are reducing the costs, increasing the power, and ensuring the ubiquity of mobile computing.
- Today’s students see collaborative research and study as the norm. Online social networking is a given in their lives. They expect easy and “natural” ways to collaborate and stay in touch.
- Location awareness is built into most newer devices, opening up interesting possibilities for more targeted, personal, and timely services.
- Broad applications of augmented reality are becoming more technologically and economically possible.
NCSU Libraries Mobile Implementations
For some time, we’ve believed that mobile technologies are ready and waiting for libraries to start coupling library information and services to the blended lives of students, graduate students, and faculty. These mobile services connect physical and digital library experiences, helping students make the best use of the library as a place for research, study, and collaboration regardless of where the students (or the research materials, for that matter) are physically located.
We have three “first steps” up and running:
NCSU Libraries Mobile (m.lib.ncsu.edu)
Following our key principle that great mobile services are not just a rehash of the traditional website, NCSU Libraries Mobile was launched in 2009 to provide a carefully selected menu of library services that lend themselves to use on mobile platforms.
While they’re on the bus to campus (or anyplace else), library patrons can now:
- search the catalog.
- find peer-reviewed articles.
- locate available computers in the libraries.
- use GroupFinder and Study Room Reservations to locate groups of study mates or reserve collaborative space.
- ask for real-time help from a librarian.
- interact with several other library services.
For more information, see http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/m/about.html.
WolfWalk is a mobile application (available in the iPhone App Store and on the web) that uses location information provided by mobile devices to deliver historical content from the University Archives in the Libraries’ Special Collections, updated as users walk across campus. Users can give themselves an interesting tour through NC State’s past by pulling out their mobile devices, strolling through the grounds, and being fed a constant stream of photos and other historical info about the buildings and places they are passing.
This application is an initial step into an emerging category of mobile services known as “augmented reality.” By augmenting the experience of looking at sites on campus using images and text from the Libraries’ archives, we can enhance the campus with a historical context that far exceeds what you can find on the commemorative plaques that tag interesting places around the school.
This augmented experience is enabled by the increasing sophistication of mobile devices, and it’s an excellent example of using new technology to enable us to provide fundamentally new methods for people to discover and access our collections.
For more information, see http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/wolfwalk.
4-H & NC State: Leading Together (www.lib.ncsu.edu/m/exhibits/4h)
4-H & NC State: Leading Together is the Spring 2011 exhibit in the D. H. Hill Library’s exhibit hall. For the first time, the Libraries has developed a mobile web supplement to the exhibit that provides access to images from the Libraries’ Special Collections that are related to the exhibit’s themes. The mobile supplement is embedded in the exhibit with placards that display a short URL as well as a graphical code, called a QR code, that the device’s camera can detect with specialized software that automatically directs the device’s browser to the relevant page of the mobile site.
In the future, we hope to build more of these specialized, easy to develop, mobile web applications that enhance temporary exhibits, tours, and events, making use of and shedding light on particular aspects of our digital collections.
This project demonstrates one way that mobile devices can connect physical spaces and the web.
For more information, see http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/dli/projects/mobileexhibits/.
We have learned to ask ourselves two broad questions, which are useful in a variety of project scenarios, before we start work on a new mobile initiative.
1) What value does the “mobile” aspect of the project add to the user experience with a library service or collection?
Ubiquitous services have value only if these new channels meet the user at a point of need. It is possible that mobile-optimized library services would not add much value in certain library contexts, despite the proliferation of mobile services in the broader information landscape. Projects built on the shifting grounds of emerging technologies can stay focused by continually checking that they are providing unique value to the user.
2 ) Are we pursuing these new opportunities in a sustainable way?
The mobile user experience is evolving rapidly. From a technological perspective, the current state-of-the-art in mobile computing will become commonplace in only a few years, at the most. The balance of costs and benefits of the various technologies with which mobile services can be developed is also rapidly changing and user expectations of what it means to interact with a mobile service will continue to change.
This shifting landscape creates a plethora of new opportunities, but also raises significant challenges from a sustainability perspective. Library organizations that are considering a mobile initiative should be prepared to approach it as an ongoing learning experience punctuated by incremental improvements rather than a clearly defined problem area to solve all at once. Neglecting to take a long view on this opportunity will result in mobile projects that quickly become irrelevant.
Potential Future Directions
It is difficult to predict how mobile computing use will evolve over the next few years. The commercial success of the Apple and Android app stores suggests a future of many specialized mobile applications in many different domains. As mobile device platforms mature to include new hardware and software capabilities, mobile application developers are likely to continue to exploit this technology to create new user experiences in a mobile context. What are some future directions for specialized mobile applications in the library domain?
Mobilizing the library staff
Mobile library applications have primarily focused on library patrons as the end user. Perhaps we should also do a 180 turn and explore how mobile computing can help library staff improve the services they provide to library users. Is it worthwhile to examine, for instance, whether existing library staff workflows can be enhanced through local adaptation of mobile technology? Why not use mobile devices as data collection tools when we take on the next large-scale book relocation projects. Or unchain our reference librarians from the desk to provide the freedom to rove through the building, armed with mobile devices.
Making the space mobile-friendly
On many college and university campuses, the physical library space plays an important role as a learning environment outside the classroom. Many students use library spaces for individual and group study. It is common for students use library computer resources to produce content for coursework. How should library spaces evolve to support mobile enhanced learning? Examples could include lending mobile devices, improving access to electrical outlets to support power needs, and providing spaces for students to share work that is stored or produced on mobile devices.
Making “finding” easier
The proliferation of location-based services on mobile devices has introduced new ways of finding information that leverages the user’s current location as input. Is there is an opportunity for libraries to promote their services and collections in a location-aware way? On a local scale, location-based technology could be used to improve the navigation of large or complex library spaces. Mobile geolocation can also be used to enhance discovery and use of digital library collections with meaningful geographic attributes, such as photographs of historical events or architectural objects.
Recent advances in mobile computing have revolutionized how people access, interpret and share information. The long-term implications of the mobile revolution for libraries and higher education are yet to be determined. Libraries have an opportunity to be innovators in this space if they are willing to experiment with adapting mobile technology to serve local needs. Perhaps we should heed the advice of computer scientist Alan Kay: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
Want to talk further?
Mobile service development at NC State Libraries is a broadly collaborative effort involving many contributors. Contact us if you’d like to talk through your next steps in the mobile library space or find out what we’re working on now. We’re happy to answer your questions or put you in touch with someone else who can.
Associate Head, Digital Library Initiatives
Digital Technologies Development Librarian
Digital Technologies Development Librarian