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Student attitudes towards mobile library services for smartphones

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The increasing interest in mobile technology in providing library services is apparent in the number of case studies recently conducted and the growing number of mobile friendly websites and native applications being developed for libraries.

In March 2010 Edinburgh University's information services (IS) management team surveyed Edinburgh University students on mobile university services. The JISC UX2.0 project conducted a follow-up survey seven months later based on the IS survey, but with an additional section concentrating on mobile library services. Doing so made it possible to compare findings from both surveys and identify any changes which might have taken place over a period of time.


Mobile preferences

One of the most significant findings from the UX2.0 survey was the dramatic increase in smartphone ownership among students. A total of 67 per cent stated that they owned a smartphone, an increase of 17 per cent from those students surveyed by IS in March 2010.

This is coupled with another finding that 68 per cent of those who said they are planning to change their mobile handset in the next 12 months would upgrade to a smartphone. The results clearly indicate a rapid movement towards smartphone ownership among university students.

Students were also surveyed to determine the level of access to the Internet available on the mobile handsets. Almost three quarters of students stated that they have a contract which provides unlimited Internet access to their mobile handset or a limited Internet service which is sufficient for their needs. Only 16 per cent of students surveyed had no form of Internet access on their mobile handset which is less than the number of students who do not own a smartphone, suggesting that even students without a smartphone still have some form of access to the Internet on their mobile device. The ramifications for universities and libraries in particular is that a high proportion of patrons have the ability to access services using their mobile handset and that this is likely to increase over time.

Mobile library services

Edinburgh University library does not currently have services specifically designed for mobile devices. Consequently it was important to find out if students have ever tried to access any services using their mobile devices in the past and what services they would be likely to use with mobile devices if available.

The results clearly demonstrate that there were some services students believed to be very useful to them. These included the ability to check PC availability, search the library databases and catalogue, view their library record and reserve items on loan.

Being able to locate a shelfmark was also useful, however, it is not clear what such a service might look like. This could relate to simply presenting information on the item's shelfmark or a more detailed description or visual representation of the location, or a combination of them all.

The ability to search the library catalogue was also a service that 60 per cent of students rated as very useful for mobile devices. This suggests that not only is it expected from students, but that there is a desire to search for items on the move. The focus groups briefly looked at the search service provided by each university to see if it met their expectations. Feedback suggested that although students preferred a simple and streamlined service for the mobile, they still want advanced options to help determine the type of search, for example, title, author or keyword. Thumbnail images were also considered useful even on a small screen. Availability and location of items was very important to the participants and consequently students wanted this information to be visible on the results page within the shortened item description.

Focus group participants were asked to identify useful services provided by other university mobile library websites. There were several services implemented by North Carolina State University Library (NCSU) which students particularly liked including their webcams, group finder, computer availability and room reservation services.

The focus groups also revealed additional details on the importance of room reservations. The popularity of library services such as study pods and meeting rooms means that competition is high and booking a room is required well in advance. Students described individual departmental booking systems and believed that they are more effective than the library's current system. A booking service accessible on a mobile device was widely considered a convenient tool in helping students use the library as effectively as possible.

Mobile habits

Within the survey, students were asked to rate the frequency with which they undertook various activities using the Internet on their mobile device (if at all) and the typical locations where these activities take place. The results helped to better understand student habits and anticipate where mobile Internet use would be most likely to take place.

The results show that students look at websites, check their e-mail and use social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter most often. Students are less likely to download media content to the mobile handset. The memory size allowance of mobile devices could be an influencing factor for this. This supports the need for a service where students can bookmark items of interest or e-mail a number of information resources to themselves for reference. Focus group participants often mentioned this as a common need when searching on the move. The limited screen size of mobile devices and the difficulty in annotating documents on such as small scale restricts serious reading activity. A number of focus group participants supported this by saying they would only be likely to skim a document or article on their mobile devices, if at all.

As you would expect of a mobile device, students undertook mobile activities in a variety of locations. A number of students acknowledged carrying out each mentioned activity in the library in addition to other venues. A third of students stated that they browsed the Web, checked e-mail and social networks on their mobile device while in the library. This shows that students are often multitasking with related and unrelated library tasks while they are in the library. It also indicates that if students are already using their mobile devices within the library for unrelated tasks, they are capable of using them for library related tasks if available. The survey revealed additional library services which students wanted to access on their mobile devices. These included library related mobile alerts (due books, reserved books available), the ability to pay fines, top up printing credit, check printer balance and renew books on the mobile devices.


Based on the findings from our research there are areas which academic libraries should consider developing for mobile devices:

  • Account access so that users can check due dates, renew items and even reserve items where possible.
  • Provide a streamlined OPAC which allows users to search items in the library effectively on the move. This would be accompanied with a simple search tool with basic advanced options such as author/date/keyword, should users need them.
  • Floor plans and maps of each library to help users navigate libraries and locate items easily.
  • Access to live library information including PC availability within the building so that students can identify the best location to study prior to going to the library.
  • A booking system that allows users to make and amend library room bookings.

This is a shortened version of "Student attitudes towards mobile library services for smartphones", which originally appeared in Library Hi Tech, Volume 29 Number 3, 2011, pp. 412-423.

The authors are Lorraine Paterson and Boon Low, both based at the e-Science Institute, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK.

About the authors

Lorraine Paterson is the usability analyst for the UX2.0 project, Usability and Contemporary User Experience in Digital Libraries at the University of Edinburgh. She has worked on the project since August 2009 and before that was a usability consultant for the consultancy, User Vision. She is a member of the Usability Professionals Association (UPA). Lorraine Paterson is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: [email protected]

Boon Low manages the UX2.0 project at the University of Edinburgh. He also implements web applications and digital library systems for the project. Prior to UX2, he worked at the university library on several projects pioneering search engine technologies and interoperability mechanisms for the integration of library catalogue and digital repositories in virtual learning environments. His current interests include the research and development of interaction design patterns and advanced user interface in digital libraries.


The authors would like to acknowledge that the research has been possible through the funding of the JISC Information Environment Programme 2009-2011 (12/08 call).