Delivering Library Services and Content to Mobile-Savvy Consumers
A paper presented at SLA 2016 revealed that libraries can do much more to address the ‘gap’ in providing information to mobile device users.
By Britt Mueller, MILS, and Cindy Shamel, MLS
This article appears in the January-February 2017 issue of Information Outlook.
Throughout most of their history, librarians have focused primarily on managing paper and hard copy collections. Only during the past four decades have librarians had to make the transition to a digital environment, but they have had far less time to consider the reality that library users now carry powerful, digital online devices in their pockets. In a profession where change has historically taken place incrementally, libraries and librarians are now facing a cosmic shift in how people access information in every aspect of their lives.
In a paper presented at the SLA 2016 Annual Conference, the authors sought to draw attention to how people now access information, how libraries are responding, and the issues libraries face in staying relevant in a world where information is most often accessed and used with mobile devices (Mueller and Shamel 2016).
Mobile in the World
It seems obvious to call the use of mobile technology ubiquitous. Mobile devices are an intrinsic part of everyday life, allowing people to easily communicate, share information, track activity, and more. Worldwide growth in the use of mobile devices has been exponential and is slated to continue advancing, with estimates of 5.6 billion unique subscribers worldwide in 2020, up from 4.7 billion in 2015 (GSMA Intelligence 2016).
In keeping with this growth in devices, access to online content and the Internet are moving rapidly toward a primarily mobile ecosystem. For example, Google prioritizes mobile-optimized content in search results, and advertising drives monetization and profit for companies providing the platforms and services people use to find information and communicate worldwide.
This mobile ecosystem is also where many of the world’s fastest growing companies look for revenue growth. Companies that provide services synonymous with sharing information (such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter) regularly note in their SEC filings how critical mobile capabilities are to their success. Delivering content optimized for mobile access enables these companies to customize what people see and facilitates a better understanding of consumers’ tastes and needs.
As companies seek increased revenue through mobile delivery, they are prioritizing well-designed and frictionless access to their services and content. Ease of access, exceptional user interface design, and targeted content all combine to create engaging and useful interactions. Users expect (and get) incredibly high standards of product design and low access barriers for their mobile experience.
When we think about library users and patrons, we have to remember that they most likely have a mobile device or smartphone and are actively using mobile social platforms and apps. They are familiar with mobile experiences that are engaging, easily accessed, and targeted to their needs. They come from this mobile world when they enter the library (either physically or electronically) and begin seeking information as a library user as opposed to a consumer.
How do libraries measure up? What can sophisticated mobile consumers expect when they begin to use library services with their mobile devices? And what are libraries doing to provide information access in a truly mobile ecosystem?
Mobile in Libraries
To get a picture of the status of mobile initiatives in libraries, we researched the published literature, visited 40 academic and public library websites, and interviewed several professionals active in this space. We were looking for insights into how libraries are offering mobile access to services and content, the extent to which they are prioritizing mobile access, and how library mobile experts are thinking about the issue.
We found that libraries are trying to address mobile access at some level, but it appears that mobile initiatives are not generally a priority; instead, they are somewhat of a single checkbox or one-off offer that is only minimally promoted. In some cases, libraries are acting in the dark, without sufficient insight into what mobile expectations or solutions their users really want or need.
There are at least three options for libraries to provide mobile access to content and services: apps, responsive web design (where the web-based content is optimized for best display depending on the device being used to access the content), and web pages designed exclusively for mobile. Our library website visits revealed that 65 percent use responsive design for their websites and 75 percent have an app of some kind. Apps primarily delivered access to online catalogs or specific scheduling activities; responsive design was used much more broadly to render website front pages in an optimal way for mobile users. Our interviews indicate libraries found apps to be difficult to maintain, and some are reconsidering the app solution in favor of a mobile website or responsive design.
Despite providing options for mobile access to services and content, the libraries we evaluated often did not reveal or make clear their mobile capabilities. Apps and mobile access were rarely mentioned or were buried at the bottom of web pages.
While information professionals recognize a need for mobile access, we noticed a significant gap in addressing that need. As libraries seek to stretch their limited resources to meet new demands, they face an ongoing struggle over how to prioritize the need for providing mobile access to content and services. A comprehensive mobile solution requires significant investment—apps are expensive to create and maintain, which is one reason some institutions have abandoned that approach to focus instead on responsive design and a mobile website. Beyond these initiatives, there is very little other investment in mobile capability for library website content.
Fortunately, in addition to identifying gaps, the insights the authors obtained from the published literature, the website visits, and the interviews revealed a range of options and opportunities to address mobile library capabilities.
Libraries in the Mobile World
Following mobile design trends in the marketplace is important. Paying attention to things that are done well by commercial interests, such as simplifying access, improving the user experience, and marketing mobile information solutions, is critical to library success in delivering mobile solutions.
However, a clear differentiator for libraries is their ability to offer information disconnected from selling and advertising. Libraries provide access to information free from commercial constraints, distinguishing their efforts from the sea of information provided through commercial social channels. The peril is that without thoughtful strategies, clear budget allocations, and coordination, libraries risk irrelevance—particularly if they take a piecemeal approach that is implemented peripherally and in a one-off manner.
We, as librarians, must gain a foothold in this new world that is already on our doorstep. It will take more than a single mobile deployment; instead, it will require an ongoing and central mobile strategy to allocate resources and position library services for the future.
There are some simple first steps that libraries can take to move in this direction. Our research found that even when mobile apps and solutions were offered, they were not publicized. A strategy as simple as prioritizing attention to mobile solutions can go a long way to make mobile capabilities more visible and coordinated for our end users. Making sure that mobile access is always considered and leveraged as a benchmark of success in library efforts can bring mobile efforts to the front of librarians’ strategic thinking.
Action Items and Best Practices
Based on our interpretation of findings and our discussions with mobile library experts, we have identified some options for best practices in libraries to address the gap in mobile information solutions:
- Develop a strategic plan for a comprehensive mobile strategy to enhance mobile use and align library services with the growth in the mobile ecosystem.
- Highlight, communicate, and market existing mobile capabilities more effectively to provide greater visibility to existing solutions.
- Participate in the mobile efforts of parent or umbrella organizations and collaborate to leverage scarce and expensive IT resources.
- Push vendors and publishers to create better mobile solutions with easier access to subscribed content, then feature these solutions in online resource lists and in mobile apps.
- Collaborate with other libraries to create solutions that can be used widely or in an open source manner.
- If resources are limited, focus on responsive design rather than broad, multi-purpose apps.
- Experiment! Try developing mobile services that don’t require a huge IT investment, such as providing curated lists of useful apps, library app reviews, and instruction in mobile library capabilities.
Librarians have an opportunity to set the standard for mobile access to libraries’ content and services. Providing mobile-optimized access to libraries’ content and services will grow in importance as the mobile ecosystem continues to expand and new generations of library users rely heavily on their smartphones and other devices as their primary computing platform. With strategic investments in tailored solutions, libraries can remain the focal point for the delivery of information and knowledge solutions to existing and future library users.
GSMA Intelligence. 2016. The Mobile Economy 2016. London: GSMA.
Mueller, Britt, and Cindy Shamel. 2016. “Mind the Gap: Delivering Library Services and Content to Mobile Savvy Consumers.” Paper presented at SLA 2016 Annual Conference.
Britt Mueller is principal of InfoLiquidity, a consulting organization that seeks to optimize the flow and financial return on information for content creators, consumers, and organizations. She previously served as senior director for the Global Information & Library Services Department of Qualcomm Inc., a Fortune 500 company focused on advanced wireless technologies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cindy Shamel is principal of Shamel Information Services, a consulting and business research firm. She writes, delivers workshops, and offers consulting services in knowledge management, strategic planning, and client partnerships. She has consulted for SLA, served as president of the Association of Independent Information Professionals and of the San Diego Chapter of SLA, and received AIIP’s Sue Rugge Memorial Award for mentoring. She can be reached at email@example.com.