I just returned from the 2009 m-Libraries conference at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver (which–let’s get this out of the way up front– was an exceptionally beautiful and well-organized venue). The topic of the conference, the second annual, was the influence of the rapid expansion of mobile technology on libraries.
While those of us here at the Digital Experience Group have plenty on our plate with the upcoming overhaul of NYPL.org and more, a good part of our “charter” is to anticipate ways that changes in technology can keep the Library relevant in the future. It was in this spirit that I approached the conference, with an ear towards how other institutions are dealing with one massive technological upheaval: the explosive growth of mobile technologies.
As a good conference on new and speculative topics should do, m-Libraries 2009 left me with more questions than answers, but fortunately they are much better questions than I had when I arrived. I have already seen a few blog posts covering the conference session by session (see Paul Coyne, Vicki Owen, and the official conference blog, among others), so I won’t post another. Rather, in the spirit of pushing the conversation forward, I’d like to enumerate the questions I feel went incompletely answered.
What is mobile technology?
“Mobile” is one of those large amorphous concepts that means something different to different people, and all attendees seemed to be coming at it in different ways. It’s just too big. Are we talking about just phones? Text? Mobile web? How about Wifi? Is it enough to just be wireless? If I have a satellite Internet connection in my shack in the middle of the desert but I never move, am I a mobile learner? In a sense, this question of “what is mobile?” was implied but never addressed head-on, and I naively wanted to try to get people to answer it. It’s not really necessary to have an answer to this question, but I think it would have been a good plenary or workshop topic leading to interesting discussion.
What is the difference between the mobile user, the web user, and the physical user?
I would have liked to have seen more research about the patterns of mobile use, and specifically more about the movement between modes. There was a fair amount of talk about “the mobile user”, yet the mobile user is also the wired user as well as the offline user. The interesting question is where those modes overlap. This can be observed anecdotally just by walking into the Rose Reading Room–our most physical and traditional of spaces–any day of the week and observing the sheer variety of mobile devices spread out in front of each patron. This is fertile ground for future research.
What is the context of mobile tools?
A related question. The applications of mobile technology can be brought to bear on the library in any number of ways, and at all levels. There is neither a “right” way nor a necessary way to use mobile technology. In session after session, presenters stressed the need to listen to users and meet their expectations rather than expect them to adapt to the library’s tools.
One of my favorite sessions was by a pair of reference librarians from Temple University who described their mobile reference-on-demand project as a “complete failure”. There plan was to let students who might be wandering in the stacks of their (dark, low-ceilinged, 1960s Brutalist) library send a text the reference desk when they needed help. Cheekily titled “Ask Us Upstairs”, the project fared dismally. Yet they offered a half-dozen reasons why things went wrong, and in the process illuminated the intimacy with which mobile tech operates: Students didn’t like being approached in the stacks by people they didn’t know, the stacks were considered “student-occupied territory”, voice calls were a better fit than text in the stacks, students did very little browsing in the stacks and were already very directed and intentional before going into what was considered a slightly claustrophobic space, and so on. By sharing the problems they ran into, the Temple folks perfectly illustrated the degree of psychological and emotional design challenges that need to be overcome to make a successful mobile application.
Are we doing enough with SMS text messages?
A common refrain of the conference was that mobile doesn’t necessarily mean mobile internet, SMS text messages are still the standard means of communication for a vast majority of the wired world, due to both the lack of mobile data infrastructure (in the developing world) and the prohibitive expense of data plans for students and low-income users (in the developed world). While there’s understandably lots of excitement about iPhone apps and the mobile Web, it was a strong takeaway that we not undersell the utility of text-based reminders and other tools.
Do we see this coming?
The scale of the mobile revolution is staggering, and hearing about how rapidly the developing world is becoming connected was a real “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” moment for many in the audience. Ken Banks of the FrontlineSMS project pointed out in a highly engaging talk that 65% of the world’s population now has access to a mobile phone (with more coming online all the time), an absolutely staggering number. As technologies start to piggyback on those connections, there is serious potential for the mobile network to be a disruptive technology (to use Clay Christensen’s term) in any number of ways. What does society look like when a majority of citizens carries an always-on global communication device in its pockets? For The Library, we need to have mobile tech on our radar both in terms of reaching new audiences (perhaps a future source of distance learning resources) and expectations of the tools we deliver to our existing audiences.
Where do we start?
We’ve already (sort of) launched NYPL Mobile, but that’s still a beta project. There’s a lot of room for experimentation, and the rest of the world is driving innovation at breakneck pace. Mobile traffic on NYPL.org, while still a small part of the overall, has increased over 300% in the past year without any concession to mobile web surfing on our part. At a certain point, a critical mass of dedicated local users (and our mobile users are overwhelmingly local; there’s that intimacy thing again) are going to expect state-of-the-art mobile services for exploring our collections and physical spaces, and not as a cool luxury, but as a standard practice.
As we plan our strategy for the next couple of years, we need to keep an eye on developments in this field to insure that we’re not looking irrelevant to our most dedicated users.