Put Virtual Reference in the User’s Pocket

Some say that IM is on the verge of extinction and that forging into such territory for virtual reference so late in the game is a waste of a library’s energy. You can surely count me as one of those who agrees with that statement. I predict, as do many others, that virtual reference needs to fit in users’ pockets – in their cell phone.

We need to look at the trends happening now (according to PEW, 2006):
-47% can’t live without their cell phones
-35% use SMS and 13% would like it added to their features
The preceding stats were from the general respondents. Look at what the younger population (18-29) has to say:
-65% use their cells for SMS
-36% want their IMs to be forwarded to their cell
-40% would give up their landline completely for a cell (Note: I’ve done this already)
-56% want access to mobile maps and directions (could we include this into a broader grouping such as “want for general information?”)

Some of us look at our phones and say “jeez, it’s just a phone.” I personally don’t do text messaging because it hasn’t become a part of my communication habits (as an aside, my director jokingly put that I must be “old” seeing that I usually fit in with the tech habits of digital natives). Others see the phone as something greater than what Alexander Bell once did. Obviously, the PEW stats indicate such – the phone is more than a phone – and I’d venture to guess that those stats have risen dramatically over the past two years.

Let’s not stop here, shall we? These are statistical trends, but there other trends, observational trends, that we simply can’t ignore.

Walk into your local Verizon wireless store or AT&T and look at what they offer. More and more these big name cellular companies are introducing Smart Phones (phones with applications, advanced hardware, WiFi access, cameras, and more). These are what’s wanted and what’s needed (by some). Take a look at what the Mobile World Congress introduced this week. More Smart Phones. More technology. More features.

It’s safe to say that Apple knew this a year ago. So what did Apple do even though they knew cell phone users wanted more features (applications specifically)? Apple basically said “you don’t need more applications than what we give you – just be happy.” The couldn’t have been further from the truth. No one was angered more than the high tech iPhone users when they were limited by Apple to its default application settings. These high-end users wanted a software developers kit (SDK) to create more applications and they wanted it that instant. Apple is the whipping boy here – other phone companies have gotten the same treatment.

Finally, Apple was forced to see the light and said “fine, go build your applications – sheesh.”

Guess what. Over 70 applications that provide information services have been created. Nearly 900 total applications have been developed across all categories. Is your library one of them?

We can’t deny the trends. But we can and should adapt our virtual reference services to forge into the cell phone world. Adapt SMS reference, create mobile applications to search the OPAC and federated search tools, and – the biggest one of all – develop your website so it’s viewable on a cell phone or other mobile device.

I’d bet my MacBook Pro that this is the future of virtual reference (and that’s saying something!).

TTW Contributor – Kyle Jones

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8 thoughts on “Put Virtual Reference in the User’s Pocket”

  1. If you really want to bet, I’m game, and I’ll put up my 2001 iBook against it, which is already as worthless as your MacBook Pro will be by the time we settle it. :)

    Seriously though, I don’t see this as an either/or question, and I wouldn’t go as far as to discourage libraries from adopting and exploring IM. It’s not the shiny new toy it was ten years ago, but virtual reference on the web and over IM is still growing steadily.

    IM-based virtual reference services, in particular, are very easy to get started, and unless we’re going to block our ears and shut our eyes and sing ‘la-la-la’, we’ve all got to start learning how to communicate online sometime. Why not now?

    In terms of mobile trends, it might be better to say that library services need to go where the web goes, and that means mobile devices and phones. Not tomorrow or next year, but right now, libraries need simple and quick-to-load interfaces that work on those devices.

    For virtual reference, we need to rethink requiring the user have Flash (ie for MeeboMe widgets), and maybe also those interfaces built on frames, like QuestionPoint’s main chat interface (caveat – OCLC is changing some things up really soon and I’m excited to try them on the phone).

    I also don’t see mobile devices replacing desktop computers as research tools, and insofar as reference services support research (and other uses of the library), screens on phones and mobile devices are still too small. At least, they are this year. Maybe next year we’ll get that paper-thin multi-touch roll-out display in a tube.

  2. I just bought a new smart phone. It does everything I want and more, from Google Earth to MIcrosoft Office, to IM, to gaming and much much more as a camera (still/video) and MP3 player. After using the thing for a few days it dawned on me that it really isn’t a “phone” anymore. It’s an information appliance, and the phone is secondary now to everything else… Oh, and I gave up my landline five years ago and haven’t looked back!

    I don’t think IM is dying any more than email is dying, or voice transmissions are dying. I think it’s important to note that each of these tools satisfies a specific communications need. Phones (voice) are great when something is urgent, IM is great for real-time collaboration, and email is a great method of communication for all parties involved when prioritization is key. I really love the ability to rank emails as to their importance and respond accordingly… Information triage if you will.

    Mobile reference, working in tandem with the Ref Desk, is definitely the future. What form it will take is anyone’s guess… Excellent Post!

  3. I agree that conventional IM is going the way of the dodo. It’s not because IM isn’t fun or useful — but rather its niche hasn’t transitioned to the browser-based web and to mobile devices as gracefully as other desktop applications have.
    * I don’t want AIM taking up monitor real estate and system resources just in case my friend wants to start up a convo.
    * SMS is easy — no third-party in mobile-to-mobile communications + capability for mass messaging
    * Online Social Networking took a lot of market share from IM clients because messages can be private threads, some commentary can be public, it’s less temporally-limited, and it ties in tons of services that IM wasn’t meant to delve into.
    * browser-based IM clients tend to be finicky, whether they’re Javascript or Flash.

    I happen not to be an Apple fan – they’re blatently proprietary in an increasingly open technological community — with only innovation and aesthetic appeal to save them. One innovation was notably the iPhone’s web browser.

    The web is too massive for every page to adapt to mobile devices. Apple took the realistic approach and made real web pages viewable on their phone. The technology for that will only get better. As such, and as always — Libraries will do best to put 99% focus on their full-size web site. There is no substitute for good coding.

    I will have to disagree with the contention that libraries should be making pages and/or apps for all kinds of different platforms. Mobile standards happen not to be very standard at all. The iPhone SDK merely provides API hooks for the functionality provided by the phone (This is true for Android and tons of other mobile options). If an app doesn’t provide something directly beneficial on the merits of it being a mobile communication device, then it is merely a superfluous interface and icon. This is also true for social networks — if an app does not provide social features, it will not thrive.

    Individual libraries have a number of options open to them in terms of Usability and Accessibility that I would be happy to elaborate on to anyone who will listen. However, a killer mobile app for the library community is going to be 1) Intuitive 2) Powerful 3) Universal 4) Local (in the same breath). That’s not something an individual library would provide single-handedly, unless providing a universal service for others for the heck of it.

    I wholeheartedly agree that SMS reference should be an avenue. I’m shady on the numbers, but more recent data I’ve seen is staggering when it comes to texting. Once again, using the web site and other outreach to broadcast library services is equally important to this process.

    Very thought-provoking article!

  4. @caleb tr:
    I wouldn’t completely discourage IM, but I would say “hey, while you are doing this it is necessary that you start looking to have a mobile presence.”
    You said: “…we’ve got to start learning to communicate online sometime.” I couldn’t agree with you more. I’d also agree that mobile devices will not replace desktop computers as the go-to-tool for research – but they will supplement for the less intensive research processes. Thanks for the comment!

    @Woeful:
    Agreed. Mobile interfaces wouldn’t be used to replace anything (except IM when it goes the way of the dinosaur)- but simply to supplement or improve upon the library’s virtual presence and digital reference services.

    @Brad:
    I disagree that creating an app for social networks must have social features to thrive. I think you can look at many of the OPAC apps created for Facebook and see some value in them even though they aren’t social at all. I think what we have to remember when creating these apps is that they will never go mainstream. Apps are for niches that find them useful. Does that make them a waste of time? No. For the most part they are free to create and implement (like IM) and if even a small group of users adopts them in their digital life then your ROI is excellent.

    Thanks everyone for the comments!

  5. Apple blatantly proprietary. Really?

    So, who isn’t? Open Source? Sun would control the world if it could, trust me.

    In a market driven, competitive environment, the goal to win and retain marketshare is based on a deep-seeded drive to be blatantly proprietary.

    The thing I appreciate about Apple, is they are innovative, not stale, constantly trying to wow the market with a drive to new technology. Of course, they are trying to tie up all the ‘Tune’ business. And they are trying to break up this insane corporate love affair with Microsoft Exchange. MS is a decayed monopoly that needs a clear business alternative. In becoming this, MS defined thievery and proprietarianism.

    Cest la vie. More power to Apple and ANYONE who can break that dynasty.

    OK, back to work on my XP machine, When I get home I can play on my iMac and Macbook. :)

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