M-Libraries: Information use on the move is a report from Keren Mills of the Arcadia Programme based at Cambridge University Library. With an eye on developments in mobile technologies and increased adoption, there is concern to assess the requirements, avoiding the expenditure of considerable resources before there is a real need.
The analysis and recommendations of the report are rooted in a survey carried out by the Arcadia Programme, in which staff and students from Cambridge University and Open University were questioned about their use of mobile phones. In the survey, most respondents said that they currently use their phones primarily for phone calls, SMS and photos. Only a small number had read e-books or journal articles on their mobile phones – for example, 91.5% of Cambridge students have never read a journal article on their mobile phones, and there’s a similar (slightly higher) figure for reading eBooks.
These seem fairly predictable findings, but I don’t know whether it follows that:
These results suggest it is not worth libraries putting development resource into delivering content such as eBooks and e-journals to mobile devices at present.
I’m not sure whether that really stands up on its own. It would imply that development of technologies should be demand-driven, and I’m not sure whether that’s true.
The report refers to other successful developments such as the Athabasca University Library’s Digital Reading Room in Canada “which allows readers to access full eBooks and journal articles through their library’s subscriptions on any mobile device.” However the report dismisses the possibility of similar developments in the UK right now partly because of the low usage figures encountered in the survey.
The other reason for not going down the Athabasca Digital Reading Room route is that the technology to make mobile e-journal access possible without such purpose-built platforms is now just around the corner:
… the key difference between the iPhone and previous web browsing mobile phones is that the iPhone can comfortably access websites intended for larger screens. As this type of device becomes increasingly available it will no longer be necessary to develop mobile-ready websites. Several manufacturers have announced that they intend to release touch-screen phones similar to the iPhone in 2009.
The report makes the point over and over again that the iPhone is revolutionising the mobile phone market. For example, although extremely low numbers of respondents had accessed e-resources on their phone:
iPhone users are already more inclined to read eBooks on their phones, according to comments from the respondents to this survey.
The report also comments on the increased uptake of mobile phone applications since the launch of the iPhone (2009 findings from ComScore), although in its own survey only 21% of respondents had downloaded applications to their phones and would do so again.
Thus the report gives us a combined reason for hanging back from M-Library developments at this stage – demand isn’t strong and more suitable technology is imminent without the library world having to develop its own bespoke solution. I think this is a fairly rational position.
The problem that I do have is that the recommendations made are strikingly conservative. Text alerting services, text reference services, audio tours and mobile OPAC interface all seem to me to be excessively anchored down by the current library offering, rather than using shifts in use of mobile devices, accelerated by the iPhone, to re-imagine the library and its services. The following quotation is enough to make you feel that you’ve gone back in time to the print-only era:
… a significant portion of respondents currently use text alerting services in some form, and would be in favour of receiving text alerts from the library to let them know when reserved items are ready for collection, when books are due for renewal or are overdue.
I’m very sympathetic to Lorcan Dempsey’s take on the report: this is a rapidly changing area, and is very difficult to capture. It reminds me of all the years I’ve spent at Silverstone trying desperately to capture Formula One racing cars as they fly past me at 100+mph. Who knows how respondents will be describing their mobile phone habits in even 12 months time. But I do feel that even at this point in time we could be formulating a much more exciting vision of transformed library services that widespread take-up of smart phones might bring out.