How do universities and their libraries respond to an increasingly mobile world? At what point does mobile find itself at the heart of what a university does? Are we at a tipping point with those that fail to address students’ mobile expectations experiencing falling numbers?
Prompted by a recent JISC mobile infrastructure for libraries funding call, I wanted to outline some of the challenges for institutions, and in particular academic libraries, in coming to terms with ‘mobile’:
Re-conceptualisation of services
Hardly a day passes where we’re not confronted by yet another paradigm breaking technology or event. Yet, mobile offers organisations, and academic libraries in particular, an opportunity to re-conceptualise services,. Not just taking existing services and relationships to make them accessible on mobile devices but how new services can be built specifically with the mobile device in mind.
Mobile helps to refocus the potential inherent in the physical space, services, systems and collections of the library, and to transform relationships away from purely service delivery to a more social context. The librarian and library become facilitator and enabler: providing personalised information at the right time and in the right place.
Changing our relationship to space
Mobile services and devices force a reconsideration of concepts like ‘library’ and more interestingly ‘digital library’. There is an obvious impact on the physical nature of the library, but one that has yet to be fully thought through: the re-prioritisation of space, with a move away from the physical and static (books, desktops, desks) to the mobile, interactive and social. A library in your pocket.
For a long time the ‘library’ has transgressed beyond the physical boundaries of the buildings within an institution. But the digital library hasn’t, in general, had a fundamental impact on the design, focus or existence of those buildings. Mobile, it might be argued, will necessitate the re-examination of physical space.
Similarly, the digital space of the library will need re-examining. There is no longer a separation between the physical and the digital; rather the two bleed into each other and the boundaries between the two are constantly exceeded. What does the inherent functionality of the device bring to the discoverability and accessibility of content and services? Augmented reality (where a view of the physical environment is modified by a computer) and near field communication (transactions at a touch: such as barcodes and QR codes) are just two examples of how mobile is challenging the user’s relationship to information and services.
Changing institutional support strategy
The implications for institutions supporting hardware and software that is not owned or managed by the university or its library has huge implications. Mobile devices are owned by and managed by the user. How do institutions manage the support expectations of users who have a problem with their personal device? What role will libraries or departments play in the loaning of devices to ensure equality of access?
This change requires a radically different support policy; the intensely personal and one-to-one nature of most mobile devices has significant ramifications.
The implications of confidentiality and privacy lurk in the background of any discussion around the institutional management of mobile hardware and software. A major challenge for institutions is the confidentiality and privacy of the user. The implications of data breaches and privacy make institutionally owned and managed devices less attractive; it is difficult to loan such hyper-personalised hardware and software.
Not waving, but drowning
In a field as rapidly evolving as mobile, not having a clear focus and direction is likely to result in mobile provision being caught in a maelstrom of new developments and competing devices. To realise the potential and ensure sustainability it is essential that institutional investment is ‘built upon a commonly-understood foundation and within the scope of a wider digital strategy’ (Mobile and Wireless Technologies Review).
The implementation of mobile services currently suffer from a fractured and ad hoc roll-out within many academic institutions. While there will undoubtedly be pockets of excellence across universities and within departments, there is rarely a coherent institutional strategy when it comes to mobile.
The potential of mobile devices to transform and enhance the student experience has been demonstrated by innovative projects such as Bristol’s Mobile Campus Assistant and Edinburgh’s Walking through Time.
But I think it is now time to fully realise the opportunities that mobile offers to institutions, and ensure that these innovations are embedded in institutional strategies and services. The mobile infrastructure for libraries funding call is an occasion to realise those opportunities and to put ideas into action.