Where Mobile Can’t Go

Despite being repeatedly told so by some prominent and even not so prominent librarians, I’m still skeptical that the future is mobile, at least for academic research. This is not to say that I don’t think libraries should do what they can to make things easier for mobile users. It’s just that whatever we do, mobile use of the library and of tools designed to create the products of academe will always face severe limitations.

If you want a depressing exposition of what you can and can’t do as a college student armed only with a mobile phone, read this article: Smartphones Bring Hope, Frustration as Substitute for Computers. It details all the limitations with smartphones as computers, a situation many poorer students with either no computer or no Internet access face. And let’s face it, without Internet access, a laptop might as well be a brick when it comes to research. Sure, many of us wrote numerous college essays on computers with no Internet access (and probably even some typewriters), but that was before most of the research material was online, back with journals and indexes were in print. With a wifi-less laptop, you could still do a lot of reading and writing, but finding and getting to that reading would be a lot more difficult. Imagine trying to all your college research and writing on a smartphone.

One could also argue that “mobile” should include other devices besides mobile phones. However, some of those restrictions are also faced by other mobile devices, especially small tablet computers, which seem to me to be great for consumption of information but not so much for creation. (And please don’t comment, “you just haven’t tried one!” I’ve tried one. I have one. I know what I’m talking about.) Though I do see plenty of librarians carrying iPads around, when it comes time to do anything productive with them out comes the keyboard. Once you have the keyboard, you’re not any more mobile than you would be with a netbook, and still possibly less productive depending on what software you need to use and how long or complicated the thing is you want to create. If you don’t have the keyboard, have fun writing anything longer that a few paragraphs with that virtual keyboard. Imagine doing all of your college research and writing with nothing but a keyboard-less iPad. It would be an improvement over the phone, but not much.

While I have seen some research on the adoption of mobile technology among college students, I’ve seen nothing that shows students relying primarily on mobile phones or even tablets for their work. One article* talks about what services students  want. “These included the ability to check PC availability, search the library databases and catalogue, view their library record and reserve items on loan.” I’m sure there are many more. For my complicated library building, I’d love a library app that would let me scan a QR code embedded in the OPAC and launch a map that would provide me physical directions to the book on the shelf. But none of the great mobile services libraries can and are providing mean that the bulk of student work isn’t done on larger, more powerful, and more adaptable devices.

From what I see in the library, it will be a while before even tablets make much of a dent. While a number of my colleagues tote their iPads to meetings, I’ve yet to see a student in the library using anything other than a library computer or a personal laptop. Even the ones I see in the lobby making phone calls are usually Skyping through their laptops rather than talking on a mobile phone. I’d be surprised if they also started carrying iPads around. The librarians all have office computers to rely on, and they carry the lightweight iPad to meetings. For the students living out of their backpacks all day, their entire life is like going to a meeting, only they also have to maximize their productivity. So while libraries should do what we can to help mobile users, I still think it’s important to remember that the bulk of the real work that people are doing for research and writing can’t be done easily or well on strictly mobile devices. Academic research and writing: where mobile can’t go.

*Lorraine Paterson, Boon Low, (2011) “Student attitudes towards mobile library services for smartphones”, Library Hi Tech, Vol. 29 Iss: 3, pp.412 – 423. DOI: 10.1108/07378831111174387

4 thoughts on “Where Mobile Can’t Go

  1. As a postgraduate student and a school librarian, I have to say that I use the iPad more than your post indicates. I have found the iPad fantastic for reading those electronic journals and digital versions of books, annotating them, searching through the text etc. I did not buy the iPad as an eReader, but now I much prefer it for studying and feel frustrated when digital versions of texts are not available.
    I would not do extensive typing on a mobile device and I have, when needed hooked up a Bluetooth keyboard to help, but then for the research phrase of producing a paper, catching up on class reading, the iPad is my preferred device. Note taking using mindmapping on a touchscreen rather than using a mouse, or one of the many audio capture apps available has transformed my skill in lectures and planning. Within schools, the ability to have access to the web, specialised apps, interactive books are a boon within a classroom and appear to me much easier for young children especially to use productively.
    Mobile devices won’t replace desktop computers or laptops, but in my experience they have provided a more productive device for many aspects of my life as a student, a librarian and a teacher.

  2. Sandi, you get no argument from me. Tablets are great ereaders, and they make consuming content much more convenient than a laptop or desktop computer. I take notes in word processing programs using a keyboard, so the inability to flip quickly between windows and the slower copy and paste would be an inconvenience to me, but notetaking is always idiosyncratic. I was merely making the point that despite the hype, there’s a lot that mobile devices don’t do well, especially if you had to rely solely on mobile phones like the students in that article.

  3. Thanks for this viewpoint – it is too rare in the library world! Of course we need to make as much of our content available to mobile/tablet users as possible, but I sometimes think we are expending too much time and energy worrying about mobile access when there is little data to support the idea that research is really being done on these smaller devices. I think you are right: research is still being done on keyboards.

  4. Even though this is the time for mobile phones and wireless communications I still think we have a long time coming ahead of using these systems. Although it hasn’t come forth all the way doesn’t mean we won’t be seeing this in the next few years. http://ultimatephoneplan.com talks about a new company called solavei that has a good change of really making a difference in the way we go about having cell phone bills. I think they have a sold model and can blow up really big.

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