In a discussion of how to label the just-finished decade, some people, most notably Mike Cane, have suggested that it be called “The iPod Decade.” Brian Chen echoes this sentiment, calling the iPod the Gadget of the Decade because it “opened the doors to the always-connected, always-online, all-in-one-device world that we live in today.”

Tim Spalding, on the other hand, says this: “Resolved: The Os were the ‘Lost Decade’ for library tech—libraries made incremental advances, while others flew past them.” Having gotten an iPod Touch (aka iTouch) myself recently, I get the strong sense that much of what Spalding is talking about is the explosion in mobile, especially iPhone/iTouch, use, especially by young people, in the last few years — which has made few inroads in the library world.

So what about the next decade in libraries? How can we catch up to Spalding’s world that’s flying past us? My suggestion is that we get on the mobile wagon as quickly as we can. And the most practical way to do that right now is the iPod Touch (most of the capabilities of an iPhone without the phone and its high monthly AT&T costs).

Mobile Friendly Design: A Great Opportunity for Libraries

The premium in designing information for mobile displays is Simplicity — Dotcom sites are feeling very pinched because small mobile device screens don’t leave much room for ads and Bells&Whistles –  Popular mobile news sites, for example, have mostly the text of news stories on their pages. Likewise, blogs that are well-optimized for mobile (WordPress Rocks!) have just the essential text and accompanying pictures.

A simple, streamlined screen-environment fits us in libraries very well — We don’t have to worry about squeezing ads on our pages, and we’ve never tried to compete with dotcom Bells&Whistles. So mobile seems like a natural for us.

So why haven’t more libraries adopted mobile tools? There certainly are libraries that have developed mobile interfaces for some of their services. But a big barrier to more general of embracing of mobile in libraries is that the information that we have in the “library silo” — most notably the online catalog — is generally not in mobile format (**see below). I suspect that many users, when they see that our “mobile sites” don’t include the catalog, are going to lose interest quickly.

The cost of an iTouch is in the $150-$200 range, making it practical for most libraries to consider providing each staff member with one. The real investment, I think, is going to be learning how to integrate library services with them. It’s going to take an adventurous, visionary administration to accomodate staff time to “play around on the new toy” to learn how to use it.

In many ways, I’m finding the mobile interface on the iTouch to be “uncharted waters.” The standards for what makes a good mobile site are yet-to-be-written — Bloggers, journalists, publishers, web developers — are all hard at work looking for the best approach, competing for the users’ attention. Whoever gets it first will be the winner in the next decade — Hopefully libraries will do better than in the last one.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the inspiration for the cute title of this article –  One Laptop per Child (OLPC) of course — And just in case anybody’s paying attention, I’ll the first to apply the new acronym — OITPL ;-)

**Library Catalogs in mobile format – The only ones I’ve been able to find that have what I would call a truly optimized interface, to make them readable on an iTouch, are North Carolina State Univ, Iowa City Public Library, and Univ North Carolina — Please tell me if you know of others!

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Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

13 thoughts on “A Mobile Modest Proposal: One iPod Touch per Librarian

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  8. Really? $200 per person is practical? I don’t know any library – public or academic – that can drop that much money on something like this. If we suddenly had a few hundred extra, we would use it to make up for our budget shortfall, and I’m quite sure many others would do the same.

    I see your overall point, but you are working from an amazingly privileged perspective if you think such a purchase is within reach of “most libraries”. It’s also a little difficult to tell if you want to be taken seriously or not, since the tone of most of this post is serious, this part of it is outlandish, and the title references OLPC (serious) and Swift’s Modest Proposal (satire). If there is an OITPL fund out there, I’d be glad to sign up to receive one though. ;)

  9. Sarah, You’re right that I’m straddling the line between serious and tongue-in-cheek (But then didn’t Jonathan Swift do a bit of that too ;-)) …

    My point is — If the world is rapidly adopting mobile technology (which I think is undeniable) what choice do libraries have, other than learning to make our resources available in a mobile-friendly format? And how are we going to do a good job of that if we don’t know how to use these devices ourselves?

    As far as the cost, $200 per staff member doesn’t seem excessive compared to the cost of providing each staff member with a desktop computer, which I’d guess is fairly standard in libraries. I think the real cost, that I don’t mention, is teaching and supporting mobile use by staff. And that is, indeed, a problem. But, again, what choice do we have?

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