Mark Williams reports back from a meeting of librarians that could set the scene for discussions on future mobile demands in research and higher education
I was part of Jisc Collections’ recent workshop for librarians that gathered opinions on mobile resources for the library community. There we heard what librarians want to see changed or even solved regarding the quality of mobile resources and found out about different approaches to accessing content.
What emerged is something we would like to call a ‘mobile manifesto’. This brings together what university and college libraries want, but also contains ways in which publishers can closely engage and work with libraries to ensure that they are producing a product that meets the needs of users. We hope to use this manifesto to improve services for the future.
One of the first things that we heard libraries say they need in order to offer strong and popular mobile resources is a crowd-sourced authoritative record of mobile products. The proliferation of mobile resources and devices make testing and assessment of resources an onerous task for any individual library or organisation. A crowd-sourced list, or record, has the advantages of spreading the workload and developing consensus on user experience. To be a success, the record needs to be developed in partnership between libraries and publishers, and the process and ongoing end results need to be effectively surfaced for the community. A model such as Jisc’s Knowledgebase+ might be one to explore. The Library Success Wiki may also point the way for such a resource.
Another thing that librarians want is a mobile standard. This would be a checklist against which the functionality of a mobile resource can be measured. The work done by the Book Industry Study Group on the epub support grid provides a model for how this might work. Librarians would be able to see instantly the kinds of functionality they could expect from a particular mobile resource and be able to advise users on what they can expect to be able to do with the resource.
There is also a demand for clarity around publisher offerings. There is a clear need for a grading system for mobile products that express the status of the development. For example, grades may include whether a product is in trial or will have a continuous upgrade path. This would provide clear information for librarians on when a resource will be ready, and how it will remain updated and current. This could form part of the authorative record of mobile products already discussed (maybe as a status badge for each product listed).
An international approach is important. There is an opportunity for libraries to both share their knowledge and to learn from the experiences of other countries. This open and international approach will help ensure methods are in place to share experiences and expertise and develop a joined-up approach.
Accessibility for all means that content can be easily accessed and read on all mobile devices, using clear flowing text. This should meet not just WC3 accessibility standards but also general ease of use requirements for all users accessing via mobile devices. Accessibility of content on mobile devices benefits everyone.
Similarly, cross platform compatibility is required to ensure that content and resources can be seamlessly accessed on different mobile devices. Users should be able to start reading an article on their desktop and pick up where they left off on their iPad as they travel home on the bus.
Another requirement is for mobile to be a core product offer, not a value added offering. All resources should meet the same universal requirements regardless of the device they are being accessed on. In the future the aim is that mobile should increasingly disappear from discussions of content and resources, and simply be a feature of all content and services.
A rationalisation and improvement of the varied methods of user access and authentication is also required. Accessing content should be made as simple and intuitive for the user as possible. There are only a certain number of access scenarios and all publishers should have the same common requirement of achieving secure authentication to their resources. This can be done through collaboration between libraries and publishers, and agreement and consolidation around a few agreed standards and technologies.
Mobile products should also avoid redirects. Every time a user logs in to a resource and is redirected to another page (and redirected back to the original resource web page) there is an increased possibility of technical failures. Mobile browsers don’t like being redirected multiple times. Content and resource providers should work with libraries to ensure redirects are not necessary for mobile access or in the exceptional circumstances that they are, are kept to an absolute minimum.
There was also a request at the workshop for a common voice on mobile access and developments. There is a need, thought participants, for the development of a trusted, third party to communicate and advocate on behalf of mobile access requirements and developments for the UK academic community. This has already been achieved in areas such as licensing within the UK through the Jisc Collections model licence, but the approach has not yet created consistency in the mobile element of publisher offerings.
Perhaps most surprisingly of all, the workshop revealed that libraries do not want mobile apps. The feeling is that these create content silos which work against the aims and mission of the 21st century academic library. While the ease of apps often appeal to the user, their cost can be significant (and each provider has a different app) and their design is often sub-optimal. It is therefore essential that the core web offering of the library works well and is optimised for mobile devices before other options are considered.
Libraries want to collaborate with publishers
To help address these issues, libraries are keep to collaborate with publishers. The workshop revealed that this would provide an opportunity for testing with real users, so publishers can engage directly with what students really want to do and how they want to do it. It would also give a forum for libraries and publishers to understand the issues both parties face in the development and deployment of mobile products.
In addition, such collaboration could enable mutually developed usage statistics to work out why some users are being let down by the discovery and access process. It would enable agreed common standards, which would make publisher products more commercially attractive. In addition, it would provide an opportunity for discussion around charging for apps. The hope is that this would help publishers to better meet user requirements. There may be an opportunity to develop new types of business models for publishers, content providers and libraries.
Claire Gravely, information resources advisor from the University of Surrey explained: ‘The main issues for us are authentication and consistency of approach - having a multiplicity of authentication methods to apps which then provide varying levels of access to content. While we are all for making content available for mobile devices, we are reluctant to make access more complicated for our users, having spent considerable time and resources on trying to simplify the login and authentication process. The current state of affairs means we feel unable to recommend the majority of mobile apps available for our resources’.
With this manifesto currently evolving, the next steps for libraries and publishers are to open a dialogue between the collective voices of university and college libraries, and publishers. A number of forums have been suggested and at Jisc we will be aiming to support and help enable these conversations.
The community also needs to develop best practice exemplars and standards with the international library and publisher communities in mind, and with input from all participants in this area. Collaboration with NISO (National Information Standards Organisation) provides international reach. Past working groups have achieved good results in areas like this with work such as the NISO Expresso single sign-on best practice guide for discovery to delivery, which has helped improve publisher login interfaces.
One other clear area for the future is to know more about how end users actually interact with mobile resources to understand what services should be developed. Jisc projects such as the UBIRD and the Service Provider Interface Study provided examples of how user behaviour can be studied and built upon to form a knowledgebase of intelligence for the whole community to improve resource interfaces and discovery processes.
Following the unequivocal ‘no apps’ message from delegates at the workshop, and customer needs allowing, we would need to look at how to aid libraries who want to lose the information silos that currently plague mobile content which can undermine the good pedagogy that has been achieved in the area of resource discovery in recent times.
The workshop clearly articulated a message that the development and delivery of mobile content and services is one which libraries, publishers and content providers need to work together on. It is also critical that users – the students and researchers – are brought into these conversations to ensure that developments meet their needs and expectations. One of the presenters at the workshop, Jo Alcock, evidence based researcher at Birmingham City University said: ‘The workshop was a valuable opportunity to get libraries together and discuss current concerns and issues when trying to support users accessing library resources via mobile devices. During my presentation I highlighted some of the options currently available from different publishers, and asked questions about how we should develop support. I believe the outcomes of the afternoon's workshop and the recommended action plan will enable progress in this area, and would particularly welcome wider discussion involving both publishers/providers and users’.
We hope that this manifesto, a manifesto primarily about collaboration, will provide a few pointers to how some of the current challenges can be met.
Mark Williams is UK federation manager, Jisc Collections. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, Ben Showers at email@example.com or follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #mlibs