Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A few heretical thoughts about library tech trends

This is a blog devoted to covering new tech that might be used for  libraries to benefit users. That said, there are times when I wonder whether some of the current tech trends that are hot now will end up being duds or dead ends (in fact some definitely will, the million dollar question is which ones!).  It's very easy to get into a condition that some have dubbed as "techno-lust", so let me play devil's advocate this once and share with you some heretical thoughts I have had about library tech.

1. Mobile library website

Unless you have being living in a cave (with no access to internet), you know that mobile surfing on smartphones is hot! The number of libraries with mobile friendly sites is closing to a 100 by now. Everyone is predicting that in the near future, mobile computing will be big.. maybe even bigger than desktop computing by 2013 etc.

My posts analysing mobile library sites are probably some of my most popular ones, particularly What are mobile friendly library sites offering? A survey and a more recent one on mobile apps which shows the interest librarians have on this topic.

Typical mobile library site

I wonder though might this interest in mobile sites for libraries end up becoming a dead end? I got this tweet from a librarian who was preparing slides to present on mobile at a conference, who asked me if I had any statistics showing the success of library mobile sites. 

I said I heard of figures like 0.5% to 1% of total traffic and he confirmed that he was hearing the same and a recent book i was reading also advised to target 1-2%. The thing is, he was tired of presenting the same old statistics everyone was presenting about the rapid rise in ownership of mobile phones, the projected rise in use of mobile wireless internet etc and was hoping for some real concrete figures showing moderate to high usage of library mobile sites.

I think the current thinking in library circles is that libraries going mobile is a "sure bet" (assuming they even consider it a bet), and this is despite the figures not supporting it so far. (Or perhaps 1% is considered a success?) 

Maybe. While I believe mobile computing will definitely become a dominant force, I don't believe there is any reason to think that it will necessarily lead to high demand for library mobile services.

One thing we do know about mobile usage is that certain services like games, social networking are in demand, while others are used less if at all. What if most library services fall under the "use less, if at all" category?

Where do library services fall in this spectrum of usage? Source 

One possible reason that library mobile sites are not getting much traffic currently is that the wrong services are being mobilized. But currently there is precious little research on what users want with regards to mobile library services (here's a recent one by CDL) , and even then I'm not quite sure if the users really know what they want until they try it!  

I guess lacking the resources to do proper studies most libraries simply, look at what other libraries are doing and follow the crowd (that's why this post is so popular I suspect and why many seem to be eerily similar at least compared to the normal web sites), but what if the current crop of library mobile sites are doing it all wrong?  

Similarly databases providers are starting to add mobile friendly sites, some like Elsevier are adding mobile apps. To some extent this mirrors the earlier trend of databases adding RSS feeds. But as we know now, precious few of our users use that as usage of RSS has failed to take off. Will mobile friendly databases  suffer the same fate? I suspect mobile OPACs would even be worse off as they don't even offer full text for instant gratification, which is the basic reason for using mobile.

2. QR Codes
In Star Trek, they had tricorders, where you could scan an object and information would appear on the device. In 2010 we have smartphones that in theory could do the same. While we are a good way off from good image recognition technology (though google goggles type technology comes close), slapping on a barcode or QRcode for scanning is better than nothing.

Again this is something of intense interest to my peers in the library world, and I myself have written a summary post on how this could be used in libraries.

QRCode that embeds a url to my blog

However what little evidence and research we have on this isn't particularly encouraging. The UK libraries are in the lead for this, I believe their research shows that currently there is very low awareness of qr codes among undergraduates (less than 1%) and even lower usage.

The issue here I think is that users are essentially lazy. Getting them to take the effort to go figure out how to download a QRcode reader before they can use a function that they aren't even sure is going to be useful is probably asking too much.

Supposedly Japan is quite crazy on QRcodes, and i suppose in such a country supporting QRcodes is a no-brainer but most of us don't live in Japan :) . As much as I would like to think so , I don't think libraries can affect a societal change to suddenly cause people to become crazy about QRcodes so I think usage of QRCodes is unlikely to rise unless some drastic happens.

One possible scenario is if iPhones or android phones etc starts getting prepackaged with a QRCode reader.

Or perhaps a powerful player on the global scale like FaceBook or Google starts to push for usage of QRcodes (Google already does to some extent) and libraries can ride on this 

But barring that what makes you think QRcode usage will rise?

3. SMS reference

IM/chat reference was hot in the early 2000s, and by now it's considered fairly standard. The current darling is SMS reference and the hope is that by 2020 it will be standard as well.. One very high profile library conference speaker even said something to the effect that if a library did not have sms reference it was invisible to him...

Here's my heretical thought. The rise of mobile surfing (#1 above) makes sending questions over SMS less important if not irrelevant in the long run.

If #2 is right and users start surfing on the web all the time on their mobile phones, why would they sms you, when they could just email you on their handphones? That way they would not be limited to sms length for both asking questions and receiving.

Would a mobile phone user ignore SMS option and just email or use IM?

Some libraries "solve" this problem of limited length of sms answer by texting the url  of a page with the answer. But doesn't this already assume the user has access to the mobile browsing? Sure he can wait until he goes to a desktop to access the page, but that kinda defeats the purpose of  asking questions via mobile I think, since presumably if you can wait until you get to a desktop to get the answer, you can probably wait until you get to a desktop to ask?

Want an "instant answer"? Again a user of a phone with browsing capabilities wouldn't sms, he would rather go to a chat widget (e.g. Libraryh3lp) and use that.

Of course access to SMS will always be more universal than mobile web, but aren't libraries betting on a future where many if not most have access to mobile surfing?


To tell you the truth, I'm not sure if I really believe all that I wrote above and certainly it doesn't mean I won't try the things above (in fact some of it is currently in the works), but hey it's good sometimes to try to argue the other side.

Also while it is nice to experiment with new things, tight resources means that you might want to focus only on areas that have a fighting chance of working and adopt a wait and see attitude for others.

Of course, the real reason why I blogged is that I hope people will chime in and say , "you're wrong, it's a huge success in my library we have x% usage in y months!" which I can then use as evidence to push these projects into high priority projects. So please go ahead and tell me I'm wrong! :)

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