Info Tech Tips and Trends

Winter 2006

The Emerging Technologies in Instruction Committee would like to introduce you to a new technology that you might find useful, or a familiar technology you may not have used in library instruction.

This edition of Emerging Technologies " Tips and Trends" features Tablet PCs.

Tablet PCs: Portable but Problematic
Carole Svensson

A tablet PC is a mobile computer (wireless built-in) with a touch screen that can be written on using a stylus or digital pen, without having to use a keyboard or mouse. A “slate” tablet is one where there is no keyboard attached directly to the tablet, though you can plug a keyboard in via one of the USB ports. The other type of tablet on the market, called a “convertible,” is one which has an attached keyboard allowing it to also function like a traditional laptop. In 2003 our library at the University of Washington, Tacoma purchased two “slate” tablet PCs, a Fujitsu Stylistic ST 4110 and a Motion Computing Tablet, to support ‘roving reference’ and instruction activities. Unfortunately, the librarians had not been prepared for this culture shift in doing reference and instruction, and were not as eager as our technology staff to incorporate them into our work.

Tablet PCs have many touted benefits. They are relatively compact, allowing for use in small space, or while standing up. They can allow you to interact with people, and not just face the machine screen during your session. Handwritten notes (using the tablet’s stylus) can be taken, allowing for quick and natural comments that can easily be converted to typed text (my handwriting seems to be an exception to this rule, but since no one can read it anyway, this doesn’t seem unreasonable). Microsoft Office products like Word and PowerPoint can be marked with your notes, allowing you to emphasize points in class lectures by highlighting and drawing right on the screen (these benefits are adapted from Top 10 Benefits of the Tablet PC).

In testing the Fujitsu and Motion Computing tablets in working with our students, we quickly discovered that tablet PCs are often heavy and awkward and can get very warm, as well as being tricky to use and hold at the same time. Those used to the mouse and keyboard of a traditional desktop or laptop (remember when using a mouse was awkward?) may have difficulty making the transition to navigating with a stylus. Additionally, a tablet PC is not always easily viewable by two people at one time while being held by one person.

We have never quite adjusted to using the tablet PCs in our library. However, in reviewing articles for this piece (see Further Reading below), tablet PCs seemed to have inspired great enthusiasm on the part of librarians who have successfully integrated them into their services. In one study (see Tablet PCs at the Reference Desk in Further Reading below) two different libraries tried tablet PCs. One test library successfully integrated them; the other test was “almost a total flop,” according to the authors. This seems to raise a larger issue—at what point does a new technology cross from early adopters, librarians eager to try out and incorporate new tools such as tablet PCs, to those who are content with the tools they are currently using? We purchased our tablet PCs in 2003, perhaps pushing the envelope in early adoption of this technology. The librarians who have written about their positive experiences appear to have moved a little more judiciously, perhaps accounting for the differences in our experiences.

There are ways that a tablet PC could effectively be used to support and interact with students: Not only roving reference in the library, but weeding and collection development in the stacks, working with small groups in a non-computer classroom, pulling up a list of citations that are available in traditional formats, and then browsing the stacks with your tablet displaying call number information. A student could pull up a journal article, annotate it with handwritten notes, and later convert those notes into text that can be used in a paper. It could even be used to register students for library cards around campus during the first weeks of fall quarter. However, I do wonder if most of these could just as easily be achieved with a light-weight laptop, rather than grasping at new technologies that continue to be problematic.

I believe that tablet PCs have great potential for all the reasons noted above, not to mention the coolness factor that can deeply resonate with students. However, until the issues relating to the tablet PCs themselves, and the cultural shift necessary to accept them, are remedied, this technology is not yet ready to take us ‘on the road.’ A review of the tablet PC models currently available reveals that many of the machine’s issues are on the way to being addressed (some have solved the heat issue, some the weight, some the viewing issue) but no one machine appears to have solved them all. How long the cultural shift takes is difficult to pin down, but it seems inevitable that the tablet PC issues will be resolved, allowing us to consider the benefits that tablet PCs have to offer librarians trying to connect with users anywhere they are.

Further Reading:

  • Enabling the Roving Reference Librarian: Wireless Access with Tablet PCs. Michael M Smith, Barbara A Pietraszewski. Reference Services Review. Bradford: 2004.Vol.32, Iss. 3; pg. 249
  • The Wireless Librarian: Using Tablet PCs for Ultimate Reference and Customer Service: A Case Study. Holly Hibner. Library Hi Tech News. Bradford: Jun 2005.Vol.22, Iss. 5; pg. 19
  • Tablet PCs: Blending Technology with Customer Service. Jennifer T Ries-Taggart. Public Libraries. Chicago: Jan/Feb 2004.Vol.43, Iss. 1; pg. 16
  • Tablet PCs at the Reference Desk. David Bennett, Donald M. Luisi and Jackie Corinth. Computers in Libraries 2004. Tips and Trends: Winter 2006


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