Instant Ideas and Collaboration
For our upcoming #uklibchat on Mobile Tech in Libraries on Tuesday 8 July, we invited Mick Fortune to write a feature article for us. We hope you will enjoy it, and that it will provoke thoughts and ideas on how mobile tech can be used.
Walk across any station concourse or airport lounge and the impact of mobile technology will be immediately obvious. We increasingly live our lives through our phones and tablets using a staggering range of “apps” using an increasing number of sensors and scanners that can monitor our heart rate, plan our travel, and even find the nearest pub with a beer garden where the sun is currently shining (for that all important end of day G&T).
Finding ways to make your products and services relevant to this mobile world challenges even the technology giants. The demise of the Blackberry and the decline of the laptop warn us that we should take nothing for granted in this increasingly connected world. The Internet of Things is slowly but surely becoming a reality and a mobile virtual world sometime seems increasingly more attractive than a static library – even to some librarians.
Librarians are responding to the challenge in a variety of ways, reinventing their buildings as makerspaces, hackerspaces, enterprise centres, council service hubs and migrating collections into the complex and highly competitive digital world.
This is a natural response to a rapidly changing economic and cultural landscape. Libraries are quite rightly evolving, albeit in the UK more rapidly than elsewhere and in several directions at once.
But should we empty the shelves just yet? And does mobile technology have a role to play in this evolution maybe even by extending the life and usefulness of physical collections or by offering new services and experiences to users?
Well oddly – and almost by accident – it may.
You’re probably already familiar with the sticky labels we’ve been putting in books, CDs, DVDs and – in one case – ukuleles for the past 15 years to stop them being stolen. Turns out these “tags” might just be part of the mobile revolution too.
The key is (perhaps unsurprisingly for those that know me) RFID (Radio Frequency Identification).
Now an almost ancient technology (first having appeared in 1948 – and first used by libraries in the 1990s) it has been enjoying something of a renaissance recently. One of the reasons has been the significant increase in the capacity of RFID tags for storing data – making it possible to create almost any object intelligent simply by sticking a tag on it. Another is the growing acceptance of data standards, stimulating innovation as developers no longer have to re-engineer their solutions for the variety of data models that were the norm before 2011.
(When libraries first used RFID the tags stored only a serial number added at the time of manufacture but now they store up to 256 bytes of data which – since 2011 – is more than enough to store the 25 coded elements of the UK Data Model.)
So far UK libraries have been slow to take advantage of the opportunities this presents. Most RFID solutions still only store a barcode number and many still use it only to support self-service and provide security – but outside of the UK this picture is changing as libraries discover new ways to use the technology and even – in the Far East in particular – to find new ways to manage stock in the library.
What does all this have to do with mobile technology?
Well mobile apps for libraries are not exactly new. Companies like Solus and Boopsie have been actively developing mobile solutions for some time now but similar to those developed by LMS/ILS providers they have mostly focused on providing access to catalogues and online resources (in addition to offering location and access information) rather than interacting directly with stock.
The advent of NFC (Near Field Communication) creates the potential to change that.
NFC is another form of RFID – one that relies on close contact with tagged items in order to read and write data – and one that by happy accident operates at the same frequency as the tags in most of the world’s RFID-equipped libraries. Apps are readily available from Google Play and elsewhere (some of them free) that can read and write data to library items using any android device that supports NFC.
Put these two things together – the ability of items to carry more on-board information, and the ability of mobile devices to access and alter it – and you have the beginnings of a new model for managing and exploiting collections.
So what are the implications for libraries?
Well obviously they can be good or bad – depending on whether a device is being used to reprogram a library’s stock holdings for some nefarious purpose – or to interrogate an item to find out more about its author or topic, or perhaps simply to borrow it.
Imagination is just one of the limitations to our using the technology to create new experiences and services for library users; the other is a lack of engagement from ILS/LMS vendors. I regularly speak with representatives of companies operating in both RFID and mobile technology sectors that are brimming with ideas for new products and services so I believe it’s only a matter of time and some determination from librarians before some of these ideas come to fruition. In the meantime you might like to start making your own list of ideas for using RFID in conjunction with your mobile device. Here are some to get you started.
The public library in Oslo has turned the items themselves into mobile devices. Items of interest can be used to explore other related resources within or without the library. At present items are taken to a reading station or “active shelf” but with an NFC device this exercise could be performed at the shelf.
Self-issue is another obvious candidate. At present all the prototypes I have seen so far still use a conventional card in conjunction with a smartphone or tablet (reading either a QR code or RFID tag) to identify the borrower but there’s no reason I can think of why the device itself couldn’t be used. Some libraries now provide staff with mobile devices (not smartphones) that allow them to issue, return or renew items anywhere but why not let borrowers do this for themselves?
In France a library has come up with another use for smart devices to enable users to read and listen to scores too valuable to be on open access.
In Denmark (and soon in Ireland) library users can access the library buildings 24 hours a day. At present this is achieved using smartcards but NFC smartphones and tablets could perform the same function.
These are a few of the many new ideas for using mobile devices in the library I’ve seen over the last year. I think these are exciting times for the technology and the library. All you need to start rethinking the library experience is a little imagination, a co-operative supplier – and of course some RFID!
Mick Fortune’s career in library and book trade automation spans over 40 years – from running the first MEDLARS search service (over ARPANET) at the British Library in the 1970s, via managing Ameritech’s European library enterprise (the forerunner of SirsiDynix) in the 1990s, to heading up Nielsen BookNet looking after e-commerce for their key publishers and booksellers before attempting retirement in 2006. Since then he has been working part-time as an independent consultant on LMS and RFID procurements – but mostly as a member of various standards bodies (ISO, BSI, BIC etc.) promoting interoperability standards for LMS and third party applications (including RFID).
Mick can be found on Twitter: @MickFortune