Thoughts on the Future of Library Computing: Implications of the Use of Handheld Computers for Library Service

By Bridges, Karl | Library Philosophy and Practice, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview
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Thoughts on the Future of Library Computing: Implications of the Use of Handheld Computers for Library Service

Bridges, Karl, Library Philosophy and Practice


The academic world is at the beginning of a major shift in the library computing paradigm. Librarians have participated in the movement from paper-based systems to mainframe computing. This was followed by the movement to personal computing based on ever more sophisticated and powerful personal computers. In the past few years we have begun to see the development of the use of portable laptop computing, first through the use of hardwired ports and, more recently, the use of wireless connectivity.

Is the laptop the final destination on this technological road? The answer, it seems, is no. Libraries have recognized the growth of laptop use and responded to it, but they have neglected the importance of an even more significant tool: the cellular phone. There are a variety of reasons for these attitudes, many of them grounded in a desire to manage the library environment, especially the noise level. This is commendable, but, despite reservations, libraries need to adapt to these new technologies. To do otherwise is to risk falling behind technologically as well as being marginalized in the university environment and in society as a whole.

The cellular phone is not that important in itself for library service. In fact, the library literature is practically devoid of any research on the subject. A search of Library Literature in July 2002 for "cellular phones" and "cellular telephones" found no articles. The response of many libraries has been to restrict the use of cell phones and call it good. The policy of the University of Memphis typifies this response in its statement that, "Cellular phones should be turned off and beepers set to vibrate in the Libraries' buildings. Cellular phone conversations are restricted to areas outside the building."[1]

What is missed in this response is the realization that cell phones--in their next iteration as intelligent devices--represent a coming dominant information paradigm. We have been trying to keep cell phones from ringing in our buildings without recognizing that the call is for us.

The Evolution of the Handheld Computer

Handheld computers began as relatively simple devices with limited memory that could serve as little more than basic storage devices for addresses or other simple textual information. With the development of more powerful devices such as the Handspring ( and the Palm ( these devices approximated the performance of early computers, with the same limitations of size and speed. In the last two years, however, the market for handheld computers has become more mature, with a wide range of devices including those supported by Microsoft and running a limited version of the Windows operating system. The devices are much more powerful and, with the recent decision by Palm to replace its Dragonball processor one based on ARM ( it appears that that Palm is positioned well to be competitive on the hardware front.

Palm and Handspring have much more software available, and are much cheaper than Pocket PCs, although Pocket PCs have been generally considered

more substantial. Pocket PC users can use a trimmed down version of Microsoft Word and other Microsoft Office products as well listening to MP3 music files and even watching limited video. Pocket PCs have, for the most part, only color screens, which increases readability. However, product offerings from Palm and Handspring have caught up with and, in many cases, surpassed the Pocket PC.1[2]

A recent interview with Michael Mace (, Vice-President of Product Planning for Palmsource (, gives a good overview of where the handheld computer market is going:

   I think three factors matter most, and you have to trade off among
   them. The shorthand phrase I use is "simple, wearable, and

   By simple, I mean that the handheld computers has to be totally
   intuitive, so dead simple that you can get to your information, or
   enter new information, with essentially zero wait time or fumbling. 

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Thoughts on the Future of Library Computing: Implications of the Use of Handheld Computers for Library Service


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