Magazine article Information Today

ALA Report: Libraries Gear Up for Mobile

Magazine article Information Today

ALA Report: Libraries Gear Up for Mobile

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For generations, public libraries were stationary with no more mobile capabilities than a bookmobile. But according to an American Library Association (ALA) policy brief, that has begun to change.

A report titled "There's an App for That! Libraries and Mobile Technology: An Introduction to Public Policy Considerations," which was released in June, highlights the need for libraries to make their catalogs available to users not only over the internet but over mobile devices as well.

"A lot of libraries want to be able to adapt to what their users want and need," says Timothy Vollmer, the author of the ALA brief. "If they don't provide services, they don't provide mobile technology, their users are going to go somewhere else." Vollmer, who is an open policy Fellow at Creative Commons, is also a consultant to the ALA's Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP).

Relevance is indeed an issue for libraries. In 2009, there were 4.6 billion active cellular subscriptions in the world and 250 million wireless data-capable devices in use in the U.S. Any one of these is a potential destination for public library information targeted at mobile users.

These numbers are also expected to grow. The adoption rate for the iPhone and iPod touch is eight times what the adoption rate was for AOL in the 1990s, and mobile data traffic will be 66 times greater in 2013 than it was in 2008. So with such a short time to adopt mobile technology and such high stakes, how are public libraries faring?

"It's going so-so, I think," says Vollmer. "A lot of libraries just don't have the resources. I think something that we've found ... was that libraries want to provide these services. They want to provide ebooks. They want to loan ebook readers. But right now, we're still in a very experimental phase."

Money is a challenge, but Vollmer says libraries are also at odds with digital publishers over the legal right to loan ebooks. Licensing for ebooks is generally designed for a single user, and with libraries standing to loan ebooks for free, the publishers have little incentive to change. The report also cites an earlier ALA study that says 66% of public libraries offered ebooks to their users in 2010, up from 55% in 2009. Another concern is privacy--the ability of third-party observers, including marketing firms and law enforcement, to determine the browsing habits of individual library patrons, thanks to user data involved in ebooks and ebook readers. …

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