Libraries and Mobile Services

Posted Tuesday, March 22, 2011 - 14:48

Mobile devices are ubiquitous in today’s society, and there’s no evidence that that is going to change. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, as of mid-2010, 82% of American adults own a mobile phone or a mobile computing device that works as a phone. it is crucial for librarians to understand mobile devices and provide services through them.

I’m sure your library is cash-strapped, underresourced, and understaffed. Development of tools and services that target mobile likely seems a distraction, a drain on your time and attention. It might feel like it’s the flavor of the month, blustery conference paper fodder that’s unlikely to pay off in real service to users.

What evidence would provide a good indication that the day had come for your library to focus concerted efforts on mobile services? If nearly all Americans owned cell phones? Maybe if a large percentage of those phone owners demonstrably used their device to access the internet? Perhaps if smartphone sales began to approach sales of PCs? If major information service providers were shifting their focus from the desktop to mobile devices? If the trend turned away from mobile devices mimicking the functions of desktop computers, and instead desktops began to emulate mobiles? Maybe if there was evidence that traditional desktop connectivity wasn’t reaching people who could be reached on their mobile devices?

If so, then that day is today.

The changing face of the digital divide

Libraries have long been at the forefront of advocacy for increased broadband internet access, particularly for the poor and for rural Americans. Mobile may not yet be the ideal solution for rural users, but the demographics of mobile internet usage show encouraging signs of increased access among groups that have long been underrepresented among internet users in the United States. The report “Mobile Access 2010” from the Pew Internet and American Life Project notes that Latino and African-American adults are more likely than their Caucasian peers both to own mobile devices and to use them to access the internet. While 80% of white adults own mobile phones, among African Americans and English-speaking Latinos the rate of ownership is 87%. Of all American adults with cell phones, 38% use them to access the internet, but black and English-speaking Hispanic users far outstrip the average—at 46% and 51% respectively. Pew’s survey was conducted in English, so data on those who only speak Spanish was not available.

The day for mobile services has come

The evidence is compelling. The vast majority of Americans now own cell phones. Nearly half use them to access the internet. In the fourth quarter of 2010, manufacturers shipped more smartphones than they did traditional PCs. Underrepresented groups are accessing the mobile internet in impressive numbers. Google is developing for mobile first and the desktop second. Apple is in the midst of making its desktop computers behave more like its mobile devices. If your library, like mine (and every library I can think of), has been transformed by desktop computing and internet access, now is the time to take action and be proactive in providing robust services to mobile users.