December 8, 2022

Patrons Expect More Mobile Services | Handheld Librarian Conference

Lee Rainie

Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

There are now more mobile phone subscriptions than there are people in the United States, and U.S. citizens—particularly young people—have rising expectations for mobile services offered by both commercial businesses and public institutions, according to “The State of Mobile Connectivity,” a keynote address by Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, at the 7th Handheld Librarian online conference on Wednesday.

Citing data from a Pew study released earlier this year, Rainie noted that 17 percent of U.S. consumers now use a mobile phone or smartphone as their primary or exclusive point of access to the internet. For young people, minority groups, and households earning less than $50,000 per year, the rate is significantly higher.

And, people are rapidly adopting mobile technologies. Forty-six percent of U.S. adults now have a smartphone, up from 35 percent in 2011, and 41 percent now have another type of cell phone. Fifty-six percent of adults own laptops, up from 30 percent in 2006, 44 percent own MP3 players, up from 11 percent in 2005. Almost 20 percent own tablet computers, and ownership of those doubled this past holiday season.

“We’ve never seen technology spurts like that in the history of our data,” Rainie noted.

As a result, mobile services are becoming a major new way that libraries will be expected to serve their patrons, Rainie said, and librarians need to be aware of emerging trends.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pew reports are starting to indicate that people use tablets and smartphones differently. With smartphones and cellphones, people tend to want “quick hit information retrieval” whether that means texting, searching for directions, or making a phone call. They aren’t usually looking for enrichment or a “full-blown media experience.” By contrast, they are willing to spend more time with tablets, reading e-books or long-form journalism, or watching videos.

The popularity of mobile apps continues to grow as well, which could mark a transition to search-oriented web surfing toward a more app-focused experience on mobile devices. At least fifty percent of U.S. adults now have at least one app on their phone or tablet, Rainie said.

The most common were apps offering news, weather, sports and stock updates, owned by 74 percent of users, apps for specific topics of interest, owned by 64 percent of users, apps offering info about destinations the user will be visiting, owned by 53 percent of users, apps to assist shopping or making purchases, owned by 46 percent of users, and apps focused on an event that the user will be attending, owned by 35 percent of users.

Libraries to Go

The smartphone trend has gone global as well.  The world now has 5.3 billion mobile subscribers, representing more than 77 percent of the global population, and 1 billion of those devices are smartphones, noted Ellyssa Kroski, Manager of Information Systems at the New York Law Institute during her “Libraries to Go: Mobile Tech in Libraries” presentation.

Libraries are already adapting to this growth, she noted. Most major ILS systems offer Mobile OPAC apps. And, citing several different examples, she illustrated various ways that public and academic libraries are using QR codes to direct readers to books in the stacks, to direct readers to reviews of new books, or even to recommend similar titles once a reader is finished with a popular book.

“Augmented reality” apps can also allow a patron to use their smartphone’s camera to get directions to local library branches, or even for library staff to discover books that have been incorrectly shelved.

To get involved, Kroski suggested that libraries start small and experiment with basic mobile services, like mobile alerts and texting services. At more advanced stages of development, a library should consider either launching a site that uses responsive web design techniques to optimize itself for mobile devices, or design a mobile-only website that redirects users accessing the site via cellphone, or go to a third party service that designs mobile apps. Citing LJ’s Patron Profiles, she noted that 60 percent of smartphone owners said they wanted to be able to search their library’s catalog on their phone, 59 percent said renew checked out books, 57 percent wanted to be able to put holds on materials, and 57 percent said they would use their phone to discover new materials.

Marketing Mobile

“People are performing more and more tasks that they used to perform on desktop computer on a mobile device,” noted Bohyun Kim, Digital Access Librarian at Florida International University Medical Library in Miami during her presentation “Marketing the Mobile Part of Your Library.” And if they don’t know what your library has to offer for their mobile devices, they can’t try it out.

With a live online poll, Kim asked attendees to rank the current state of their own library’s mobile services. About 45 percent ranked their mobile services as fair, while 47 percent said theirs were “poor.” Few respondents chose good or excellent rankings.

Libraries could start simple by examining their current resources, and not taking for granted that patrons are familiar with these services. For example, if a library offers Kindles for checkout, don’t expect patrons to find out about it by searching the catalog. Patrons will need to be reminded using posters or other promotional materials.

Also, QR codes can be generated for free online and used for a variety of purposes to give mobile services more of a presence, she said, citing a QR Code booklet designed by Kentucky State University to highlight electronic database services for students. Features of the databases are explained on paper, and then students can easily gain access to the mobile version of these databases via a QR code.

Florida International University also uses QR codes to give a physical presence for ebooks using “dummy bookmarks” in the stacks. When users search for the physical copy of a popular novel, for example, they’ll also find the bookmark jutting out of the shelf with a cover image, call number, author, and a notification that the book is also available in the library’s ebook collection.

Kim also encouraged libraries to stay involved with social media, and to be sure to engage patrons on Twitter and Facebook, rather than simply using these channels to broadcast information. “People liked to be talked about” and hear news about their friends, she noted.

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Associate Editor, Technology for Library Journal.