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M-libraries

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By Margaret Adolphus

If libraries are not to become like travel agents, losing their customers to disintermediation and the Internet, they must go where their users go. And in the first decade of the 21st century, that's mobile. More and more people are using mobile devices such as phones (which are becoming increasingly sophisticated, able to determine locations through global positioning systems (GPS) and process rich media) and personal digital assistants (PDAs) to do their computing on the move.

Opinion is divided on the extent to which libraries are making use of mobile technologies for their content and services, but it does seem that much more could be done.

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) reported that for many of its members, it was a case of "yes we ought to think about it, but it's not high on our list of priorities" (Lippincott, 2008), and Hahn (2008), in his literature review of the subject, claims that there is "not a robust utilization" by librarians.

Mobile library services and content may be confined to a few keen early adopters, but there is plenty of evidence of a solid group taking note of, and raising, the issues. June 2009 will see the second conference on mobile libraries, to be held in Vancouver, 18 months after the first, held in November 2007 under the auspices of the Open University and Athabasca University.

These developments, along with various others such as the OCLC Online Computer Library Center's World Cat mobile pilot, and Washington DC Public Library's iPhone application, led one blogger to claim that 2009 will be the year of the m-library (The Distant Librarian, 2009).

So, how can libraries be ready for the rapidly approaching future?

The prevalence of mobile technologies

The growth of citizen journalism (e.g. the first pictures of the 2007 London Tube bombing came from the mobile phones of those who trekked through the tunnel to safety; another example is the January 2009 emergency landing of a bird-struck jet in the Hudson river) and the fact that many of us could not imagine life without a device to keep in touch (e.g. Barack Obama insisted, on becoming president, that his aides would have to remove his Blackberry by force) are just examples of the way mobile technology is taking hold of our lives.

Other indications are the move to ubiquitous computing: we are no longer dependent on a desktop or laptop to be connected, and computing services themselves, such as e-mail, calendars and document/asset storage are increasingly moving to the cloud. The growth of web-based social networking tools such as MySpace and Facebook, as well as asset sharing tools such as YouTube and Flickr, is also well documented.

Such developments have led to the prediction that ubiquitous Internet will replace television as the dominant media (Naughton, 2008). There has also been a huge explosion in ownership of mobile devices; in fact, worldwide, 950 million mobile phones were sold in 2008.

It is claimed that roughly three times as many people have access to a mobile phone as they do to a personal computer (Ally, 2008; Kroski, 2008). A survey undertaken by the Educause Center for Applied Research in 2008 showed that about a quarter of students access the Internet from a hand-held device at least once a week.

Even in the last two-and-a-half years, the technical capacity of mobile phones has much improved, with bigger and better screens, more multimedia capabilities, quicker Internet delivery, and other possibilities such as links to GPS. All this makes the affordances of the new technology more robust.

Needham (2008) quotes predictions that the application friendly iPhone, with its large screen, will dominate mobile phone design, and that phones will become more important than laptops (2008: p. 275). Librarian, Paul Pival (author of the Distant Librarian blog) sees more and more students with iPhones, and has "a hunch that they are going to say, how come I can't access more content on this device that I use on a daily basis?".

The popularity, ubiquity and enhanced capabilities of mobile phones have a number of consequences for the way that information is acquired, processed and shared – and hence for the way that libraries adapt themselves to the new technological scene. It looks very much as though mobile devices are the way of the future.

Mobile device affordances

A good mobile device will provide you with information in your pocket wherever you go. The retired person can check the time of the Pilates class, the student can search library resources, a tour leader can check the dossier while talking to her group – all on the move. Thus information can be integrated with our lifestyles and workflow, and in theory make us more efficient.

Needham (2008: p. 275) comments on how the very nature of knowledge, learning, work and resources, as well as community itself, will be transformed by this mobility: work and learning will no longer be time and space specific. Information will both need to, and be enabled to, change to fill a ubiquitous virtual space which can be embedded within people's workflow.

Mobiles enable information to be not only ubiquitous, but "just in time" – small bits of timely information such as flight times – and context and location specific. Many mobile phones are now equipped with GPS, enabling users to receive localized information.

Mobile technology can also help bridge the technological divide. In much of the developing world, mobile coverage is much higher and more effective than that of the Internet. Mobile phone access has now surpassed landline in much of Africa, where in 2004 there were 76 million mobile phone users. At the 2007 m-libraries conference, a delegate from Zimbabwe enthused about how mobile phones made it easier to get "the right information at the right time" to non-resident students (Dick, 2007).

M-learning

One of the developments in mobile technology that has most relevance for librarians is its use in education. Mobile, or m-learning, has been around since the early 2000s, has been the subject of numerous conferences, and has its own journal, the International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning (Traxler, 2008).

M-learning has been used in various ways:

  • a "drip feeding" adjunct to other methods, for example texting new vocabulary on a daily basis for language students;
  • for learners in the field, such as those in health care;
  • for disadvantaged learners, such as recent migrants wanting to learn English; and
  • unemployed young people in Naples.

This learning involves, according to a 2007 study by the UK's Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), use of mobiles, PDAs, etc., not only for resources and short exercises, but also to create content, to collaborate with others and seek their support (Lippincott, 2008a).

There have been a number of attempts to construct a pedagogy to underpin m-learning. Some allege that creating content involves students in a deeper learning (Lippincott, 2008a), while others talk about navigationism and connectivism, with the location and evaluation of knowledge becoming important (Traxler, 2008), as well as the ability to make connections between ideas from many different sources, and organize learning.

What is certain is that libraries must provide the services and content to support the new way of learning.