Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Today's PDAs Can Put an OPAC in the Palm of Your Hand

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Today's PDAs Can Put an OPAC in the Palm of Your Hand

Article excerpt

Here's a primer on PDAs in general, and on their emerging library usage in particular.

Handheld computing is here. Our patrons are coming into our libraries with those cellphones, personal digital assistants, Blackberries, and myriad other computing devices that are approximately the size of a human hand. But have you realized that some libraries have also begun using handhelds for their common tasks? These tiny devices have crept into our field, and here's a primer to get you up to speed.

I must admit that I am one of "those" people-I carry my Handspring Visor with me everywhere and I often also carry a cellphone. I live in Chicago, where wireless access seems to be everywhere. There are advertisements for hand-held devices and services on the el train platforms and on bulletin boards as you drive into the downtown area along the Eisenhower Expressway. The biggest ad (three stories) touting Handspring products is on the side of a building where the Eisenhower Expressway meets the Dan Ryan Expressway.

In Chicago, the ads are not just hype. I see a lot of colleagues using handhelds at meetings. Patrons carry them into our libraries, whether those libraries are special, academic, public, or school. And I can assure you that it's not just a big-city phenomenon. According to research done by companies like Forrester Research, mobile computing is big business, especially in Europe. Magazines like Mobile Computing Communications are dedicated to it.

As a dedicated handheld user and a regional consultant on automation for the Chicago Library System-a consortium of academic, school, special, and public libraries in the city of Chicago-I will try to share my knowledge of the world of ubiquitous computing with you. Hopefully this primer will help you navigate the emerging environment of handheld computing.

Hardware to Have and to Hold

There are so many choices when it comes to hardware. If you're choosing a device, you need to consider its features and also its operating system (OS). The Palm OS is the most prevalent one today. Both Palm and Handspring, which has licensed the Palm OS, have educational divisions. Handspring has also extended its academic pricing to libraries.

For professional use, there are combination palms/bar code scanners. For example, the CSM 150 Bar Code Scanner for Handspring Visor Handhelds is a module that slips into the Springboard expansion slot at the back of any Visor. Other combination devices are designed for use by librarians, like the Barcode Systems, Inc.'s Book Tracker 1500 and the Book Tracker 1550. Also, CASPR offers the HLT63, and Variant Microsystems has an SPT1700/1740 Palm Terminal. The great thing about these devices is they don't act just as PDAs, but they also let you check on items that might be lurking in your stacks, because you can scan a bar code into the handheld and then update the circulation status in your OPAC when the handheld is synced. All three of these vendors offer their devices in partnership with Symbol, Inc., one of the leading developers and providers of bar code technologies.

The most exciting of these combination PDA/bar code scanner devices, I think, is 3M's Digital Library Assistant or "Palmon-a-Stick." When you've put Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags into your books, this tool can locate items in the stacks, so you can use it for shelf-reading and weeding, and for finding books and correcting circulation data. For instance, think of the classic case of a patron claiming that he's returned a book, but your system shows it's still checked out and overdue. You've checked the stacks and not found it, but perhaps it's only been misshelved. You can code the RFID number into the hand-held device, then go to the stacks and wave it across the shelves. When it reads the tag you're looking for, it will sound off to let you know. Book found, patron absolved. This product and the other pieces of the Digital Identification System have been beta tested at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. …

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