June 10, 2023

The State of Mobile in Libraries 2012

As patrons embrace mobile devices, libraries need to provide new services. Here’s a look at the state of mobile library services—and what libraries need to do to stay on the radar

By Lisa Carlucci Thomas

Where do mobile library services stand in 2012? Nearly two years after the 2010 LJ Mobile Libraries Survey, mobile devices, such as smartphones, ereaders, and tablets have become mainstream, and the mobile library landscape has broadened significantly. Librarians, technologists, and information professionals are learning about and experimenting with mobile technologies while exploring and adopting best practices from library peers, institutional partners, and cross-industry experts.

Suddenly everyone (and no one) knows best how to meet the ever-changing mobile demand for information. From marketing, packaging, and licensing, to delivery, participation, and integration with existing services and practices, we’re all experts in ­training.

Early innovators are amassing and sharing the knowledge gained through their experiences, assessing the multiple variables that define each library’s unique operating environment and community. Accordingly, budgets, priorities, skills, and perceptions still present challenges. Fortunately, many libraries can work through these when designing a mobile strategy.

Libraries mobilize

In 2010, when LJ did its Mobile Libraries Survey, 44 percent of academic library and 34 percent of public library respondents said they offered “some type of mobile services to their customers,” and roughly two out of five libraries planned mobile services in the near future. Text messaging reference services and notifications, mobile library websites, and mobile-friendly online catalogs led the way, as libraries began to reenvision their virtual public services to meet the immediate and emerging needs of mobile users. Academic and public libraries reported an interest in improving mobile access to databases and ebook content, as well as to library information and assistance.

Since that survey, we’ve seen more libraries in the mobile mix, and forward-thinking librarians continue to push the boundaries of mobile innovation. They’ve developed custom mobile websites and applications, augmented reality tours and place-based collections, point-of-need information and self-service features via QR codes, ebooks and device circulation, and an expanded social media presence. They’ve also increased interactivity through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Foursquare, Tumblr, and other mobile-ready social platforms.

Many libraries are also “thinking mobile” about research guides, databases, e-resources, digital collections, and content managed by, and obtained through, publishers, vendors, and content distributors. Mobile web platforms, such as those from ­EBSCO, JSTOR, and LibGuides, make it easier than ever for libraries to expand user access to content beyond mobile catalogs by simply linking out from the library’s mobile site.

Established mobile library service partners moved ahead in 2011 with product developments and enhancements that provide added-value to mobile users: Boopsie’s new offerings included instant access to OverDrive ebooks, BookLook Mobile barcode scan and availability search, and BookCheck mobile self-checkout. Mosio recently announced Mobile PRM, expanding upon its popular Text a Librarian platform to support “patron relationship management”—real-time, text message interaction with library users beyond the initial reference inquiry (see InfoTech, p. 16).

Mobile technology is driving demand for patron self-service features and responsive communication. Mobile tools and platforms allow patrons to be self-directed library users and also provide quick access to librarians. The Pew Research Center’s Americans and Text Messaging study released in September 2011 reported that “heavy text users are much more likely to prefer texting to talking [55 percent].” Mobile devices support the self-service information needs of users on the go, and the initial method of contact provides an important clue to librarians about how patrons may prefer to receive a response or subsequent communication.

Indeed, a new wave of mobile-savvy users have arrived in our libraries: not only texters but also eager patrons adept with ereaders, smartphones, and tablets. Our mobile vocabulary has grown at an astonishing rate. We converse about Apple iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches, Amazon Kindles, Barnes & Noble Nooks, Sony Readers, Android, SMS, MMS, GPS, LBS, QR codes, and on and on. We have new applications, platforms, operating systems, programming languages, augmented-reality apps, and social networks, along with touch screens, online payment systems, check-ins, tweets, and patron-empowerment features, application programming interfaces (APIs), and integrated mobile-social solutions. We deliberate over usability, analytics, communication strategies, and marketing plans—all designed specifically for the mobile ­environment.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. In the five years since the introduction of the first iPhone and Kindle, there have been five generations of each device. Add to that the increased features, decreased price points, faster networks, cheaper subscriber plans, expanded device ownership, and, of course, ebooks, ebooks, ebooks. It’s a race without a finish line.

The ebook revolution

Ebooks hit the big time in 2011—so big, with so many surrounding issues, that discussions about mobile library services often now focus on ereading or “everything else mobile.” However, it must be noted that the popular adoption of mobile devices, including ereaders and the ereading apps available on smartphones and tablets, sparked the current blaze of interest in ebooks. Make no mistake: mobile devices are revolutionizing library service.

In spring 2011, librarians were knee-deep in the Harper­Collins imbroglio, following the announcement of the 26-circulation cap on HarperCollins’s ebooks. Library advocates were already clamoring for library-appropriate licensing arrangements to support users’ interests better and to secure fair use provisions. As the ebook debate continued, Penguin announced at the end of the year it would no longer make its ebooks readily available to libraries. Meanwhile, Amazon, the leading seller of ebooks to the consumer market, reported last May that ebooks outsold print books for the first time ever, clearly indicating readers’ interest in searching, accessing, and reading ebooks directly on handheld readers. (Ebooks still are a fraction of the overall book market.)

Meanwhile, Amazon also made library news in September 2011 with the announcement that Kindle books were available via OverDrive. Then Amazon rolled out its own lending library for subscribers to its Amazon Prime service in November. Ebook lending continues to be a hot issue in the library world.

Libraries that don’t offer some type of mobile service may be off the radar of more tech-savvy users. Integrated mobile platforms designed to allow individuals to search mobile optimized library catalogs, contact librarians, access information, and maintain patron account information, place holds on ebooks, and directly download and read library ebooks on their devices are critically important for libraries to be competitive in the mobile arena.

In addition, such services present libraries with an opportunity to gather important feedback from their community, at a time when it is especially valuable to those advocating for equitable access to electronic information. With the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) currently in Congress, it is essential to engage the tech-­interested, mobile-aware community members to help to ensure that ­ebooks, e-resources, digital content, mobile access, and unfettered networks are available in libraries.

Obstacles and opportunities

The 2010 Mobile Libraries Survey found that 39 percent of libraries responding had no mobile library services to report and/or none planned. The findings suggested four obstacles to mobile implementation: limited or low budgets, competing priorities, overburdened library technologists and/or insufficient skills on site, and the overall perception that mobile services were not necessary (often because current methods were considered to be effective enough). These obstacles are challenging, to be sure, but not insurmountable.

Tiffini Travis, director of information literacy and outreach services at California State University–Long Beach, last year wrote about her experiences developing no-cost mobile library services in “Edupunk goes mobile: Mobile library sites with zero budget” (on her blog at ow.ly/8hWLs). Travis used LibGuides and WordPress, which both provide mobile-ready platforms, to offer “increased access to point-of-need instructional materials beyond the key sources that students often need for general use of the library.”

Staff technology training and skill development must be part of the planning, not only to avoid staff burnout and alienation from tech initiatives but to ensure adequate backup, tech support, and succession planning. Virtual conferences and webinars such as the Handheld Librarian Online Conference and the LJ innovation and technology online summits offer the convenience of onsite professional development and can serve as a starting point for collaborative learning across multiple libraries at low cost.

Directors and administrators should also consider how mobile library services fit within the context of the library’s strategic plan. Discussion groups can allow staff to suggest small-scale projects within the appropriate goals of their libraries. Need help determining mobile priorities? Arrange for a mobile service evaluation of your library by a consultant to determine short-term and long-term possibilities.

Mobile implementations should be customized based on the library, budget, staff, and community and reevaluated after sufficient information has been obtained to determine usefulness. The newest and most adventurous innovations attract attention, but a simple mobile library website or text messaging reference service may be just right to meet best the immediate needs of your library users.

This year in mobile

In 2012, expect existing mobile library services to mature. Mobile websites will be refined, content will be added, more mobile-friendly platforms will become available, and usability of mobile resources will be examined in greater detail. Integration with emerging features and services, such as mobile payment systems (Square, Google Wallet), checkins and gamification (Foursquare, GetGlue, QR codes, SnapTags), social sharing and content curation (Path, Tumblr, Instagram, PicPlz), place-based collections, and augmented reality tours (Scan Jose) built from library digital collections, will present exciting opportunities.

Ebooks and digital content discussions will continue to be complicated, and library advocates will build upon collective knowledge gained and further seek to negotiate adequate rights and licensing policies with publishers. Nonetheless, more libraries will purchase ebooks and circulate ereaders, iPod Touches, and tablet computers than ever before and offer instruction and outreach to patrons seeking experienced support and guidance using their own devices.

Technological advancements, such as sophisticated touch screen interfaces, next-generation platforms, patron self-service tools, and interactive communication services, along with evolving user demands will fuel the ongoing development of mobile library innovations for libraries already involved and encourage creative ideas about delivering services with a fresh perspective.

In 2012, resolve to identify opportunities to integrate mobile services, overcome the challenges, and inspire and engage your mobile library community. It’s time to get in the mix.

Lisa Carlucci Thomas is Director of the library consultancy design think do and a 2010 LJ Mover and Shaker. Follow her on Twitter @lisacarlucci



  1. QR code is a great invention people made. I’m making mobile apps currently and find it really cool to implement QR codes into them. I’m amazed at QR code coupons Snappii app builder allows to create. They are really helpful for small businesses.

  2. OK, I’m old. At first glance, I thought the headline was referring to bookmobiles. I guess you could say they were the original mobile apps.

  3. The Librarian With No Name says:

    I’m actually surprised that the gap between ebooks and audiobooks isn’t even higher. After all, Americans own twice as many smart phones as e-readers, and the number of dedicated personal music players is even higher. Aside from that, ebooks and print books are in direct competition with one other in terms of where and when they can be consumed. In most cases, if I can read an ebook, I could just as easily be reading a print book instead.

    Audiobooks, on the other hand, allow for hands-free, eyes-free consumption. It’s getting increasingly difficult for me to set aside time to read for pleasure, but I can listen to a book on my commute, while cleaning the house, or basically while doing any activity that doesn’t require a great deal of linguistic concentration.

    As a result, I easily listen to half a dozen audiobooks from my library’s digital collection for each print or ebook I manage to finish. I wonder what the difference is between myself and the patrons who generated these numbers.

    • I also like e-audiobooks, but find I can only enjoy them while walking or using the bicycle or treadmill in the gym. Housecleaning & driving cause me to focus on the environment, and I miss chunks of the narrative. On my bus commute, the ambient noise is so loud, I don’t feel comfortable with the volume I need to hear the narrative. Therefore, I listen while I walk, and read in all other situations.

  4. If your library is looking to get information on mobile apps, I would be happy to provide you with some information. You can email or call me at:
    1-877-663-6743 brandy@hybridforge.com

    Here is a little information on who we are:

    Hybrid Forge develops software tailored for library Websites & Mobile Apps. Our engineers have extensive knowledge and experience developing client websites throughout North America. Our feature products are:

    Owl iLibrary – your library on the go
    Elephant eContent – your content management (CMS) solution

    “Since deploying the TRAC iPhone app, our library has seen a noticeable increase in holds placed by our younger members. The app has definitely enabled us to engage this demographic more efectively.”
    —Tamara Van Biert
    Stony Plain Public Library

  5. Zamani Hlela says:

    I want a mobile library for my village school. There is no library nearby and youngsters are deprived of the glorious opportunity to read. If I could get one mobile library for my school of choice, I could help get youth of off the streets because it could also be open after school hours and on Saturday mornings for access of the entire community. This is how we could improve the level of learner performance especially in reading and writing (languages)

    Please assist me how can I get one mobile unit for my village school?

  6. Zamani Hlela says:

    I need assistance to acquire a library for my village school, KwaGwegwe Primary, KZN. It is situated in an impoverished rural community and serves 380 learners. There is no library in the school and not even in the immediate community. This would be a wonderful opportunity to empower young minds and offer them a lifelong treasure through reading. There is a high level of substance abuse in the area and such a project could help enhance and save young lives. A library would improve the level of literacy in the school and the community at large.

    If anyone could assist in this regard, it would be highly appreciated.