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Mobility changes the way information is used

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The findings from five JISC-funded projects on mobile delivery are about to be shared with the academic community. Ben Showers says that they will highlight a much wider debate

A student walks into his university library. A display screen flickers into life and a voice from it says ‘Hello Tim, did you enjoy your economics lecture? Are you interested in the GDP of Australia today?’

To some, that may sound like the start of a joke, but it sounds more like the future to me. It is one possibility that is emerging from five JISC-funded projects in the UK focused on Mobile Infrastructure for Libraries, designed to help librarians in further and higher education to think hard about how mobile technologies can be used to re-engineer libraries, and to revolutionise the services available to teachers, learners and researchers.

The project in question is one of two led by City University in London. It is exploring how public electronic displays can interact with library users’ mobile phones to improve the use, and user experience, of online library resources. Initially, this work is focusing on enabling users to capture information from dynamic displays onto their phones that they can then access anywhere, any time.

Projects like this one at City are pointing the way to a future where, if library users want it, it really may be possible for a screen to interact with their mobile devices to recognise individuals and greet them as they enter the library space, before suggesting strategies to help them get what they need.

And the PhoneBooth project, run by the London School of Economics (LSE), in partnership with Edina, has taken Charles Booth’s 19th century poverty maps of London out of the library and made them available – alongside commentary taken from contemporary police notebooks - on mobile devices. Doing that has meant coming up with practical solutions to the technical challenges of rendering these very detailed maps for small screens.

The result has transformed the experience of students using the maps, allowing them to access the content at the very locations they depict, to see at first hand what has changed or stayed the same, and to get a more profound sense of the deprivation Booth was writing about.

For me, what sings out from the PhoneBooth blog is the enthusiasm that the students involved in the initial programme had for helping to develop the app, and how they continued to help with refining it. Here, as in all the other projects, it becomes very clear that students want very specific things from mobile, and listening to them will be crucial for any institution seeking to optimise mobile delivery.

The University of Bristol has been working on M-Biblio, a mobile application that can record and organise references to books, journals and other resources. There has also been one community project, the M-Library Support Project, led by Birmingham City University, which is designed to ensure there is a knowledge base for m-libraries to access, sharing everything we know so far about what works, and what doesn’t. This shared community resource will enable libraries to skip over some of the initial hurdles in mobile service development, and make sure their services have an immediate impact for their users.

The UK’s distance learning and research university, the Open University (OU), has undertaken a ground-breaking project called MACON (Mobilising academic content online). The project has built partnerships with commercial content providers to start clearing away the obstacles students often face when trying to access documents online, and to explore how to create a seamless experience with vendors of content.

MACON builds on the work the OU has done on innovative delivery of academic content and will help to inform some of the discussions at the upcoming international M-Libraries conference, which brings together librarians from across the globe to discuss ideas and solutions to the big mobile issues facing institutions.

Similarly, when these five projects make their final reports this autumn, they will take forward the discussion that was started in the recent JISC Observatory Report 'Delivering Web to Mobile'. And I hope they’ll make institutional managers stop and think.

The rapid adoption of tablets by academics and students is already changing the game in terms of what can be downloaded on the move, and there’s little doubt that, by 2015, the majority of student access to services and content will be done on the move. And as each successive intake of students demands more in terms of interactivity and dynamism, institutions have a challenge on their hands.

The debate is not restricted to mobile – it is about wider new technologies, and the changing behaviours of how we use them. These technologies are likely to disrupt the entire sector: we need to make sure that their impact is a positive one.

Shortly, JISC will commission a detailed report on the ways in which digital technologies (including mobile) are affecting other sectors, and showing how mobile (and more) could impact on an institution’s whole future strategy. 

The five projects on mobile in libraries have been small in scale, but they deliver some powerful messages. Institutions will need to become more agile and quicker to respond to change, and to be open to taking a lead from the technologies. Simply retrofitting new developments into the way things have always been done is a waste of opportunity – and it really won’t work. 

Ben Showers is a programme manager at JISC

  • On September 24th, Ben Showers is organising a workshop before the annual M-libraries conference 2012, at which librarians and library technicians from around the world will come together to brainstorm ideas and develop initial designs for new mobile services, technologies and apps. Find out more at: http://www.m-libraries.org/node/40#preconference