Monday, January 4, 2010

Accessing library catalogue & databases on your Mobile phone

In one of the earliest posts of this blog I observed that libraries faced a uphill battle getting users to come to our web portals to use our databases to search. Libraries tried to work around this problem by using toolbars, opensearch plugins, bookmarklets, smart keyword searches to enable users to search immediately from their browser without the need to visit our webpages.

In a recent post, Guus Van Den Brekel  (Digicmb) , Coordinator Electronic Services at Central Medical Library, University Medical Center Groningen, posted a very similar and excellent post entitled "How to make library users start a search : 6+ ways to search outside "native" interface"

Combining the two posts, plus an additional method (desktop widgets) we get the following methods (grouped arbitrarily by me Digicmb might not agree)

1) Opensearch plugins

2) Custom Toolbars

3) Bookmarklets

4) Smart keyword (or Address bar searching)

5) Quick Links

6) Desktop widgets

7) Search boxes on webpages or personalised pages (Igoogle, netvibes)

These methods allows users to quickly do a search of the library catalogue or database without having to visit the library webpage. An interesting question, I would like to address in this blog post is this, how would this change if the user was on a smart phone?

Right now, mobile libraries is a hot topic. Database vendors like EBSCOhost, IEEE Xplore have mobile friendly sites (stripped down web pages which are low bandwidth and designed for smaller screen sizes and interfaces of mobile phones),  and many other databases will no doubt follow.  Library websites are starting to boast the same. Some libraries have even began to offer iphone apps. Mobile libraries blog is an excellent blog that provides comprehensive coverage of library services relating to the mobile environment.

Libraries are not the only ones bullish about mobile, according to the Mobile Internet Report by Morgan Stanley , they predict that the mobile market will be at least double that of the desktop market!

It seems to me that in the rush to create mobile sites, there is a bit of the "build-it and they will come mentality". Note that even if people began surfing on mobile phones a lot more, there is no certainty that libraries will benefit proportionally from this increased usage of mobile as they don't seem to have from the expansion of internet search since 2004.

So clearly libraries face the same problem again will users come to our mobile sites?When one realize accessing webpages is even more painful on mobile phones than on desktops, there is even less incentive for users to fire up a mobile browser, and try to enter the library url into the tiny browser.

But what about trying to making their services accessible outside of their webpage? For those with sufficient technical skill, creating custom apps (e.g. Iphone apps) is an obvious solution. Examples include  MLN libraryDCPL,  Hongkong Universities' UPLA as well as WorldCat mobile,  iStanford app, Dukemobile, iUSask is clearly the way to go. One simple tap and you are in.

 Some IPhone apps created by libraries and Universities plus Speedy Search, TheOracle and WebSearch

 University of Saskatchewan IPhone app 

IStanford app  allows students to search staff directory, apply for courses, check events etc

DukeUniversity app  with similar functions

Search different Hongkong Library catalogues with UPLA

DCPL Iphone App allows you to check opening hours locations and search the catalogue

MLN IPhone app, allows you to search the catalogue, as well as check your loan account

All these apps are really exciting!  But  for me, I would love to be able to quickly search my favourite database (Scopus, WOS, JSTOR) as well as library catalogue  through my university subscription as quickly as possible. Essentially, go to a list of searches, click on the one i want, enter search and the results appear.

Since none of the above Iphone apps do this yet, I was wondering if any of the methods mentioned above for desktops can be adapted for mobile phones? I'm going to focus mostly on IPhones, because it is currently the top popular smartphone. Another reason is because I currently own one! Will occasionally mention examples for Android based phones if I happen to know about them.

1. Opensearch plugins

On desktops this is by far my favorite method for searching library resources without going to the library website . It's lightweight, and easy to create for non-programmers. I maintain possibly the largest academic library related list of searchplugins here (Library catalogue, database, scholarly search engines, OAI archives etc)

The problem here of course is that Iphone's mobile safari browser does not support this (same for the desktop version). For other smartphones, I don't believe the mobile browsers such as Opera Mini, or even Fennec (Firefox mobile) support opensearch. Anyone know of one?

I would be tempted to say that most browsers are following Chrome's lead in combining search bar with the url address bar, add the lack of space in mobile and probably opensearch isn't going to be big in mobile browsers, except for the fact that mobile Safari browser does have a searchbar!

There is an Android Opensearch appliance though that you can use to get Opensearches to work.

2. Custom toolbars 

I really doubt custom toolbars like LibX or conduit toolbars exist for mobile browsers. Even if they did, I doubt few would use it, given that screen space is at a premium. In fact, even in the case of desktop use I wonder if browser toolbars are going out of fashion, given that most modern browsers now have a searchbar and the toolbar looks unsightly.

3. Bookmarklets 

For desktops, I personally find search bookmarklets less versatile then other methods.  Still given the lack of space in browsers, and the somewhat limited processor in mobile phones, using bookmarklets seems to be a good idea, particularly since most of them work with most browser.

 Click on bookmarklet and a dialog box will appear 

The main problem is that adding bookmarklets into Safari's mobile browser is not an easy task.

Particularly older versions of Iphones did not allow cut and pasting of urls and as a result, one had to resort to troublesome methods to enable users to add urls.

Here's how the university of Michigan libraries offered their proxy bookmarklet for mobile

1. Create a special webpage with a url in front followed by the needed javascript string.

2. The user bookmarks that page.

3. Then the user edits the bookmark and removes the front portion , leaving just the javascript string.

With the ability to copy and paste in the newer Iphones, it's a simpler now but still a pain.

Still, a perhaps even easier way would be to bookmark bookmarklets in Internet explorer and then sync then in Itunes!

Overall, though, given the fact that you have to jump through hoops to create bookmarklets in Iphones, I seriously doubt most users will bother, as even creating bookmarks with copy and pasting isn't easy.

4. Smart keyword search

Smart keyword searches do not work in Safari Mobile browser (not sure if they work with Firefox mini). However there are apps like Speedy Search ($0.99), TheOracle web multi-search (free but limited to 3 custom searches)  , or WebSearch (a free jailbreak app)  that allows you to set up custom searches. Open the webapp, click the search you want from the list of search engines and enter the search in a dialog box, and you will be sent to the results page.

 WebSearch app (lower right corner of SpringBoard)

WebSearch list of custom searches (LINC is NUS's Library catalogue search)

 WebSearch JSTOR search

 TheOracle app (lower right corner of SpringBoard)

The Oracle list of custom searches (LINC is NUS's Library catalogue search)

  Speedy Search app (lower right corner of SpringBoard)

Speedysearch list of custom searches (LINC is NUS's Library catalogue search)

TheOracle and WebSearch work very similarly. To setup a search you go to the page with the search then do a search for a specific keyword specified by the webapp in the search you want (Asdf for WebSearch, addthisoracle for The Oracle), and the Iphone app will automatically recognize the search url string and ask you to name the search.

Instructions on how to add custom searches for Websearch

Adding custom searches to TheOracle

This is similar to how the firefox addon Needlesearch works. However, my limited testing shows that these two apps are far less sophisticated in the way they capture urls compared to Needlesearch . For one thing they can't handle search engines using POST methods. Also databases that require you to specify the permanent urls like OVIDSP databases, Web of Science will not work using this simplistic method. There are other issues such that it also fails to capure the search strings for Scopus etc.

The speedysearch webapp allows you to directly specify the url needed, with TEXT as placeholder for the search term. This might be a bit more troublesome to setup compared to the method above, but it's more flexible and allows you to setup more search engines. I personally email myself the url strings from my desktop, then open the email on my Iphone and copy and paste them into Speedysearch

Adding custom searches to SpeedySearch

 5. Dashboard Widgets

Windows Vista allows one to create desktop widgets . Scopus for instance offers a desktop widget and there are  other widget systems like yahoowidgets and google gadgets (for google desktops). It's possible to create simple widgets and convert between them using various universal widget systems.

It seems that Android smart phones also offer widgets.

The Quick Search Box widget looks most interesting. Perhaps something like this but searches with your library federated search? Unfortunately widgets (dashboard widgets not web widgets see next section) are not available for Iphone users, not without jailbreaking anyway. 

6. Search boxes on webpages or personalized pages (Igoogle, netvibes)

The likes of Netvibes or Igoogle don't seem to work on IPhones well. I found Plusmo, which seems to be in the same class but designed for mobile phones. You can also create simple widgets that can be added to the Plusmo screen similar to how it works in Netvibes

7. Conclusion 

I must admit none of the methods above are particularly suited for the average user, and would appeal only to the most geeky users. Add the fact that I'm a very new Iphone owner, I'm just exploring the options available. Perhaps I'm just making things overly complicated as usual, and just creating mobile friendly sites & Iphone apps is all that is needed.

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