Meredith Farkas on Mobile Services and the Mobile Library Future

By Daniel A. Freeman |

If you try to keep your library on the cutting edge, you probably know Meredith Farkas. Meredith, Head of Instructional Services at Portland State University in Oregon and an adjunct faculty member at San Jose State University's School of Library and Information Science, has been writing about social networking, libraries on the web and mobile technology just about as long as anyone. Later this month, Meredith will be facilitating the ALA TechSource Workshop Delivering Innovative Mobile Services through Your Library, where she'll provide practical guidance on how to establish and/or enhance your library's mobile presence and services. I spoke with Meredith about what Mobile can do for the library, libraries that have already implemented interesting services and programs, and where she sees this all going in the future. Whether your planning on attending the workshop or not, check out what she has to say.

Dan Freeman: Okay, so it’s no secret that mobile is everywhere—iPhones, Tablets, etc. It seems like one big issue (and this isn’t specific to the library world by any means) is that these devices can do so much that for people who aren’t big-time techies or who don’t have a specific ideas in mind when they buy the devices, it’s hard to know where to get started. What are your basic suggestions for the mobile device newbie on how to get started and make your device work for you?

Meredith Farkas: People use their smart phones and tablets for such a variety of things. I think each person needs to figure out what they want to do on their phone or tablet versus their PC, because it's different for everyone. For example, I never use my smart phone to follow my social networks whereas many of my friends only use things like Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare from their iPhone or other mobile device. I have friends who primarily use their tablet as an eReader and movie viewer. I primarily use mine at work meetings to take notes and pull up relevant documents. Then, at home, my toddler son uses it to play air hockey and watch Sesame Street videos. The key, I think, it is to try out apps (especially free ones) and figure out what is a good fit for you. But don’t limit yourself to looking at apps through the app store. Both Apple and Android app stores are notoriously terrible for anything but a known item search. Lots of tech websites and blogs will list top mobile apps for different purposes and those are usually pretty good places to get ideas. There are also websites that specialize in reviewing new apps. Apps are usually free or low cost, so it’s easy to give them a try and see what sorts of things you really want to do on your device.

DF: So for librarians specifically, what do you see as the key obstacles that must be overcome when it comes to providing services to patrons via mobile devices?

MF: I think one of the biggest obstacles is simply knowing where to start; what mobile services to provide to patrons. There’s often a big gulf between what is cool and what patrons need and want. What aspects of the library website do patrons want to access from a mobile device? What types of smart phones do patrons have? What unique collections might patrons want to view through a mobile-friendly interface? Are patrons using apps? QR codes? Augmented reality? There are so many exciting technologies out there, but the focus ultimately has to be on where our patrons are and what we think they actually need and will use. And that requires surveying our population.

Another major obstacle is the lack of interoperability. People are using so many different kinds of devices and a website or web app that works well on one may not work well on another. At our library, my colleagues are currently testing our mobile site with different types of mobile devices and they’re finding that some features, like the chat widget, don’t work on certain types of phones. And with building apps, it’s even more difficult as you have to design for a specific operating system and (sometimes) form factor. It can be frustrating to design mobile services in this kind of environment.

DF: In your workshop, what tools will you provide librarians with to help overcome these challenges?

MF: Well, I certainly wish I could fix the interoperability problem! I think starting out with a macro-level view of the mobile landscape is key to making good choices when it comes to mobile services for patrons. You have to understand the full range of what’s out there, what’s available, and what’s being developed in other sectors to realize the full potential of what you can do in your own library. In the first part of the workshop, I focus on trends in mobile technologies that librarians should be aware of when they consider what they might want to do at their library. This includes both technology trends and demographic usage trends. I also discuss strategies for keeping up with this rapidly changing area. The second workshop is focused more on practical applications in libraries. I’ll be showing lots of exciting library examples and discussing strategies for successfully implementing mobile services in libraries.

DF: Can you give us just a couple of cool examples of the types of services some libraries are already providing?

MF: Sure! I think WolfWalk at North Carolina State University is a brilliant tool for making history come to life for students and faculty. It’s a location-aware mobile site and iPhone app that lets users explore historic photos of NCSU. Users see their location on a map in relation to buildings with geotagged historic images of the location. This allows people to see how the specific place where they’re standing has changed over time. It connects them to the history of the campus and also exposes special collections materials to audiences who may never have seen them otherwise.

I really am excited by some of the uses I’ve seen of QR codes in libraries. A QR code is a 2D barcode that users can scan with their camera and that can be programmed to send the user to a website, dial a phone number, pull up a video or image, and more. Some libraries are using them to create scavenger hunts to orient users to the library, where each QR code will give the patrons the next clue. Others have QR codes on the stacks to take users to the mobile catalog or to bring them to research guides related to that part of the stacks. The Contra Costa County Library received a grant to put QR codes on popular books that links the user to read-alikes. A university in the UK used QR codes to link users from the physical version of a journal to the electronic. I feel like this technology has so many exciting potential in libraries and I can’t wait to talk about the many, many others at the workshop.

DF: Can you do this stuff without breaking the bank?

MF: Absolutely! True, some of the things I mention require money and/or people with serious technology chops (augmented reality apps being a notable example), but most require little-to-no money and only a minimal amount of tech-savvy to deploy in your library. Lots of librarians are using mobile technologies that cost absolutely nothing in reference, instruction, and the marketing of special collections materials. The average librarian may not be able to build the most sophisticated mobile website, but even a basic mobile site that provides the information patrons need is better than a site that is not really accessible on small screens. And just within the past year or so, lots of companies are now offering services to mobify a library’s catalog and more and more database vendors are coming out with mobile friendly sites. The barriers to developing mobile services have come down significantly.

DF: To me, the coolest thing about all this is that for all the new possibilities that have emerged in recent years, we’re still only at the beginning. As this technology evolves and expands, in what ways do you see it radically transforming libraries?

MF: There are so many ways that changes in mobile device usage is going to change libraries. Right now, we assume that most people using smart phones don’t want to access all of the functionality of a library website on their phone. How many people really want to search the databases and do serious research from their phones? And we have based our mobile website design choices on that assumption. But some of the trends in mobile usage and adoption -- especially the huge growth in mobile web usage among Blacks, Hispanics and lower income Americans -- make me wonder if this will continue to be true. In the future, it is very possible that for many people, their mobile device will be the primary way they access the web. This means that we will need to change our strategies regarding mobile library website design and reorient ourselves towards creating a mobile-friendly research experience. This is going to create big challenges for both libraries and our vendors.

Right now, we are limited in our deployment of mobile services by what our patrons have and are using. As adoption of things like QR codes and augmented reality becomes more common in this country, I can imagine so many exciting applications in library instruction, readers’ advisory, special collections and more. If you know that everyone in your information literacy class is going to have a smart phone, there’s so much you can do to make the class more interactive through mobile computing.

You are so right that we’re just at the beginning and I honestly feel like the future of mobile computing is wide open and so much is likely going to change over the next five years that we can’t even anticipate right now. The key for librarians is to keep an open mind, keep your ear to the ground, and keep an eye on what your patrons are using.

You can register for Delivering Innovative Mobile Services through Your Library at the ALA Store.