Cody Hanson on Libraries and the Mobile Web

By Daniel A. Freeman |

Cody Hanson is a guy who knows his way around the mobile web. In his new issue of Library Technology Reports, which will hit the ALA Store and our MetaPress site next week, his introduction talks about his ongoing fascination with mobile devices, which started when these devices had just become available to the public:

"I found myself on a Saturday morning in the fall of 2003 waiting in my car for my local GameStop to open. That October week had seen the release of what I was convinced was a groundbreaking convergence gadget: the videogame- and MP3-playing, Web-browsing smartphone. I was waiting for the privilege of exchanging hard-won U.S. currency for a Nokia N-Gage

If you’re familiar with the N-Gage, you’re likely wiping away tears from derisive laughter. If not, allow me to explain why the N-Gage holds a special place in the hall of fame of misguided, poorly designed gadgets."

As you can see, Cody--who is now the web architect and user experience analyst at the University of Minnesota Libraries--has learned a lot about gadgets and the mobile web through trial and error. Between Cody's Report, and his hands-on ALA TechSource Workshop on March 9th, you'll be able to use his mix of good and bad experiences to learn efficient, accessible and cost-effective ways to get your library onto the mobile web. Whether it's building a website that is optimized for mobile devices or providing services through an iPhone or Andoid App, you'll be able to get on the fast track.

I spoke with Cody this week about why he thinks its so important for libraries to get invovled with the mobile web and mobile devices, and what he'll be covering in his report and his workshop.

Dan Freeman: So let's start with the most basic question: Why do you think its so important for libraries to be involved in the mobile web?
What do libraries and librarians stand to gain by getting involved? What do they stand to lose if they don't?

Cody Hanson: I think that mobile is the future of computing. You'd have a hard time arguing that libraries haven't been profoundly transformed by the advent of personal computing, broadband, and the web. While the move to mobile may seem like an incremental step beyond these three innovations, I think it has the potential to be just as disruptive, requiring libraries to rethink how they deliver information, how they negotiate with vendors, and how they fit into users' information access and consumption workflow.

As information enthusiasts, librarians have to be excited about the mobile web. More people have more access to more information in more places than ever before. I take for granted that I have near-constant access to mobile Wikipedia, and as such live in a world where many trivial facts can be verified (caveat lector, yadda, yadda) anywhere, anytime. This is a history-altering development. I have a ready reference shelf in my pocket. And also it makes phone calls from anywhere, and plays music, and a million billion games, and by the way I don't buy paper books anymore because I'd rather read them all on my phone. Say what? Not only that, but statistics show that mobile internet access is bridging the digital divide, dramatically expanding the demographics of the connected.

As participants in what's become a fairly complex library economy, librarians have reason to be apprehensive about mobile. We've invested huge portions of our budgets in electronic resources, and while vendors are quickly coming to market with mobile-optimized interfaces, much of the content that we're paying for is still trapped in print-format PDF files. It may sound nit-picky, but these PDFs are almost always portrait-oriented scanned pages, and they barely cut the mustard on the landscape-oriented laptop screens most of us use. While most smartphones are capable of rendering PDFs, the reading experience is lousy.

Meantime, mobile adoption is going hand-in-hand with the broad consumer adoption of e-books. I conflate the two because I think the already-blurry distinctions between e-readers and other mobile devices are going to disappear in short order. Consumers like me love e-books because they're available on demand, sync across devices, typically sell for a discount compared to their print counterparts, and are more convenient to carry around. Publishers like e-books because they license rather than sell the content to users, thereby patching that pesky bug in the publishing business model called first sale doctrine.

The information marketplace is shifting very rapidly. Late last year Newsweek, founded in 1933, merged with a barely two-year-old website because it couldn't make ends meet. In the fourth quarter of 2010 smartphone sales outpaced PC sales. In January News Corp. launched a daily publication available only on the iPad. In February Borders Books went bankrupt. Libraries are still built on delivering traditional publications in print and to known PC platforms, and we will not be exempt from the profound disruptions to these ecosystems.

Dan Freeman: So your report definitely talks a lot about trial and error. How can people learn from early adopters like you so that they can devote less time and money getting involved with the mobile web.

Cody Hanson: Well, I think libraries that are just now beginning to assess their options for mobile services are actually in a pretty good position. In the past couple of years, things have been getting far better from two different directions: 1) the mobile devices our users are carrying are increasingly capable of accessing and rendering standard web sites and files, meaning that we have to do far less customization to provide basic access for mobile users, and 2) as I mentioned earlier, our vendors and partners are more frequently providing interfaces for their products that are optimized for mobile devices. Two years ago we had to hand-build a mobile interface for our catalog and for vendor databases. Now in many cases we just need to knit together the mobile interfaces that are ready-made for us.

Dan Freeman: So to someone like myself, who has limited knowledge on the topic, it seems like building a mobile app is definitely not something you can do without a lot of technical knowledge or programming experience. Is that true?

Cody Hanson: I do think that for the majority of libraries, where IT resources are perpetually scarce, the notion of building native applications for specific operating systems and markets (the iOS App Store, the Android Market, e.g.) is a pretty tough sell. I think there was a time when the novelty of having something in the App Store could be a compelling marketing point for a library, but it's passed. Now, in order to justify building an app, a library should have some combination of the following:

  1. An experience or content that they can effectively monetize through an app store
  2. A need to access device features that are inaccessible to web applications, like the device compass or media library
  3. An application that can be used offline
  4. In-house native developer and design expertise, or the willingness and wherewithal to contract for those services.

Libraries have developed some strength and expertise in delivering services through the web, and we can more easily leverage that experience in building mobile web sites and web applications than we can pivot and begin developing OS-specific software. There are some solutions out there that are intended to allow experienced web developers to easily package web applications as native mobile applications, but again, the typical motivation for doing so is to sell an application, and I don't expect many libraries have content they can resell.

Dan Freeman: So let's talk about your workshop. How are you going to help libraries prepare for the shift to mobile services?

Cody Hanson: It's probably easy for libraries to feel like the subject of mobile has already been beaten into the ground. We've all seen articles and presentations full of breathless speculation, and mobile has been the next big thing for a number of years now. It would be easy to be cynical about its eventual impact because despite dramatic prognostications, the effects of the shift to mobile have yet to materialize for many libraries. Despite the understandable fatigue that libraries may feel about mobile, I think we're still in the early days of the transition to a smartphone and mobile device-centered user base. To draw a PC analogy, I think we're still firmly in the OS/2 and Windows 3 era.

I'm going to focus on three areas in the workshop. I'm going to discuss some simple techniques for bridging the gap between the services we offer now and the needs of mobile users. More importantly, in my opinion, I'm going to discuss the mobile technology and market landscape, describing the players and forces that are shaping the mobile user experience, and which will define the boundaries of what libraries are going to be able to accomplish in the future. Finally, I'm going to spend a little time describing some of the issues around mobile that relate to library values, topics like mobile net neutrality that are going to require vigilance and advocacy by libraries and librarians. I'm looking forward to some lively discussion along the way!

You can register for Cody's workshop at the ALA Store.