Bridging the Digital Divide with Mobile Services
This piece is excerpted from the January 2012 issue of Library Technology Reports. You can purchase the full issue on the ALA Store.
Google “smartphone user.” Click on Images. What do you see?
When I tried this, I saw some graphs, pictures of devices (many of them BlackBerrys), and a bunch of white people, mostly men, using smartphones, often to do business. The problem: This is a lie. It doesn’t represent the devices people use nor who’s using them or how.
As I did research for my Library Technology Report, I discovered that many of the assumptions I had about smartphone use—based on media images (like the ones on Google) and the usage patterns of my social and professional circles—were wrong. I believe these assumptions are wrong in ways that have civic and moral significance for the provision of library services. In this article, I’ll walk you through the current state of smartphone ownership and use; discuss a variety of mobile services that can be implemented to serve diverse populations; and address why it is important that libraries do so.
According to a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, more than 80% of American adults own a cellphone of some sort (either smartphone or feature phone), and 40% of adults (that is, around half of cell owners) access the internet, email, or instant messaging from their phone.
Of these, a substantial and growing number are smartphone users. According to comScore, as of July 2011 there were 82.2 million smartphone subscribers in the United States. ComScore tracks users 13 and up, whereas Pew surveys people 18 and older, so the data is not directly comparable. Nonetheless, as there are 308.7 million people in the United States as of the 2010 Census, 234.6 million of them over the age of 18, a sizable fraction of adults are smartphone owners. And this fraction is growing explosively—comScore’s June data showed 78.5 million smartphone subscribers. That’s almost 4 million additional smartphone owners in one month.
What’s driving this? As someone who held out on purchasing a smartphone until April 2011, in part because I was intimidated by the iPhone’s cost, I have a hypothesis. My Android phone, after a rebate, was around $50—nowhere near that scary iPhone price point. In fact, as of August 2011, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T were all advertising free smartphones. Like mine, these are Android phones (iPhones are still expensive); they may be free only after a rebate and therefore require some up-front expense, and the deal may be available only to new data subscribers. And for people who have been accustomed to voice-only phone plans, a data plan is a significant added expense. Nonetheless, even with these caveats, the cost of a smartphone is no barrier to device ownership, because the phone is free.
Tapping mobile power
The most obvious way to leverage patrons’ mobile devices is to put content on the web.
One of the compelling strengths of libraries, in our age of information ubiquity, is their hyperlocal knowledge: their ability to collect, preserve, and showcase the unique experience of a community. In other words, they can collect knowledge of local relevance, create conversations around it, and contextualize it in ways that make the experience of information especially rich for their communities.
I believe there’s something powerful about taking that ability into diverse populations. One of the truisms of minority experiences is that they are not reflected in mainstream media. Our Google Images smartphone users are white businessmen and hipsters, even though that doesn’t reflect the statistics. My local paper has a lot of interviews with old-guard Irish and Italian Americans—a traditional political force in greater Boston—but I’m much less likely to see the Brazilian and Central American immigrants who make up so much of my town’s more recent population. Not long before this writing, the hashtag #YesGayYA swept across Twitter as authors, publishers, and agents argued over why gay characters are so rarely protagonists in YA fiction. And just last week, I heard a story on NPR about how the “black best friend” character is so often used to dispense wisdom to white protagonists and highlight their racial tolerance but so rarely allowed to have his or her own story.
I believe libraries are unusually well-positioned to surface and showcase the unheard stories in their communities. I believe librarians’ experience with outreach and technology training are valuable tools toward this end. And I believe that by taking advantage of four tools and ideas that already exist, we could have a uniquely powerful way to create community experiences, develop local collections, and honor patrons’ voices.
I’ve come to believe that we can, and should, be doing more than we are to take advantage of technology. Many things are easier and cheaper to implement than they seem. The opportunities we can create by being able to write only a few dozen lines of code—or even adapt someone else’s—are enormous. The services that make sense vary by population, and only your local knowledge can address that, particularly as many statistics are collected solely on a national level. But those national statistics tell a more nuanced tale than the one that stereotypes and media images paint. They show that there is potential for widespread, intriguing, and audacious use of mobile technology in library services.
Andromeda Yelton is a member of the founding team at Gluejar. She is a 2010 Simmons GSLIS graduate interested in the intersection of people, technology, and information. Yelton is a 2011 ALA Emerging Leader and a 2010 winner of the LITA/Ex Libris Student Writing Award.