Transforming library services with mobile technology

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Ben Showers reports on a recent workshop to reimagine library services using mobile technology

The discovery, consumption and creation of content - music, photos, text and video - constitutes the majority of our mobile activity. Such activities used to be rooted in a physical space, the library, the classroom or the cinema, for example. The disruptive nature of mobile technology means that many of these bonds have been loosened, or broken altogether, and require us to rethink many of the assumptions we have about how and where content is created and consumed.

But it doesn’t stop there. The disruptive nature of mobile serves is a reminder that disruption is the new norm; it is a feature of the system, not a bug. For institutions, and support services like the library, this means a re-conceptualisation not just of how you deliver services, but how you design and develop those new services. The technology becomes secondary to the processes and thinking that enables your services to adapt and reform themselves in the chaos of a digital world.

What strategies and processes are libraries employing to help develop the capacity and skills needed for this new service development? How can specific technologies like mobile be used as a way to explore and share ideas and inspirations for how libraries can develop services, and exceed user expectations?

These were exactly the questions that led to the Mobile Imaginations workshop that opened the recent Fourth M-Libraries conference: From Margin to Mainstream, at the Open University, UK.

Hacking ideas, not code

So, what happens when you bring together 40 librarians, academics and library innovators interested in mobile technologies and services, from nine different countries and across sectors and put them in a room for a day to explore new ways of creating and prototyping library mobile services?

This might sound like the beginning of a joke, but the answer is more futuristic than funny. Indeed, the answers included an augmented reality app that students can use to look at a shelf of books and see the ‘hot spots’ where particularly popular books are located. There was also a library card on your phone, which is always with you and enables you to check out books as well as lookup content, and a social networking app for students on distance-learning courses that allows you to connect with people doing similar subjects or from the same institution.

The aim of the workshop was to provide a space where librarians and library innovators could collaborate and imagine new services, and pitch the ideas and begin developing them into prototypes.

Self-formed groups worked on specific ideas and paper prototyped them together. The groups were often very diverse and consisted of librarians and domain experts, technologists, academics and developers. Ensuring this diverse mix was critical and helped ensure a mix of skills and knowledge that aided both the realisation of the ideas and their subsequent development and prototyping.

While the limitations of time and resources meant that the workshop couldn’t result in usable technical prototypes, this served to help free the delegates from the burden of ‘products’ and enabled a focus on ideas, in an environment and with a diversity of skills, that could then be recreated back at the institution.

The workshop aimed to act as a crucible for ideas sharing, imagining new mobile futures, and lay the foundations for an international community of m-library innovators. In many ways, the workshop, and its participants, reflected the changes and challenges that technologies like mobile present to established information providers such as libraries, and the ways in which those established institutions are rethinking and retooling their services.

The future of mobile service development in libraries

It was clear that when we talked about mobile technologies at the workshop we were often talking about a group of different technologies (augmented reality; geo-technologies; hardware etc). But what brings these technologies together is the idea of mobility - the user is at the heart of the mobile transformation - and their expectations are here to stay..

The technologies themselves are amorphous and fluid, and traditional models for developing responses may not always be suitable in such a chaotic technological landscape.  So what are some of the lessons that emerged from the Mobile Imaginations workshop, and the wider M-Libraries conference, that might help libraries think about the future of service development?

Ideas are expensive: The generation and development of ideas have very specific overheads that are easy to overlook. These overheads include time, energy and the simple logistics of collecting, recording and sorting the ideas. The human overheads involved in technological innovation are easily overlooked.

Creating an environment where people feel safe to articulate their ideas is essential; everyone involved has to agree to the same rules. The workshop also used cheap and simple paper-prototyping tools (see resources below) to make sure that ideas could be developed sufficiently to test their efficacy as a potential service.

Technologies are cheap: If ideas have specific overheads, then in many cases the technologies that can form the foundation of services often come relatively cheaply. Many of the ideas in the workshop (and in the wider conference) emerged through using cheap existing technologies. These included QR codes, Facebook, Twitter and services that already have mobile components built in.

There are some wonderful case studies and ‘pathways to best practice’ examples of institutions implementing new mobile services from the M-Libraries community blog. These provide a selection of achievable and relatively low-cost examples that institutions can use to spark their own ideas and variations.

User-centred development: It was very clear from the workshop that for everyone there the purpose of mobile services was to improve the user experience. It was also clear that engagement with the user was both essential and not as expensive (financially) as often assumed.

Participants at the workshop began prototyping ideas at the start; this enabled them to be tested with colleagues and users. This instant feedback is essential for allowing ideas to be rejected quickly, before too much effort is expended on them, or for ideas to be refined iteratively with users if the idea works. Paper-prototyping is a great way to start this process, with additional web prototyping tools such as Balsamiq and iMockups that are both cheap options.

A mobile micrcosm

The kinds of challenges and opportunities that mobile technologies present are, to a great extent, the same the world over. Improved access to educational resources is one that resonates across boundaries and geographies.

The Mobile Imaginations workshop was primarily an opportunity for a wide range of librarians to share and learn from each other. The diversity and richness of the ideas was enhanced by this mix of experience, sectors and technical ability. It also highlighted that, increasingly, there is no single model for success.

Like the M-Libraries conference itself, the workshop pointed to the reality that there will be no smooth transition from how the world was before the web to a new information era. Instead, the reality is one where there is no single solution to the complex and fluid technologies and user expectations that will inform the future of library services and systems.

Increasingly, the word ‘mobile’ will begin to drop out of our conversations, as it embeds itself into the expectations of our everyday lives. Yet, its main message of mobility - the user as mobile - will remain, and the ways in which services will be developed and deployed will remain radically altered.

Ben Showers is a programme manager at JISC