‘Information on the move’: a mobile conference in the city of roundabouts

I must admit Milton Keynes (aka the ‘Roundabout City’) was never on my top list of places to see, as it is not very easy to move around on foot, being designed for the car. But the quality of speakers and workshops at the recent M-Libraries-Conference on mobile technologies in libraries more than made up for taking our life in our hands every time we walked from the hotel to the venue!

‘Hype Cycle’ -Jo’s graph plotting ‘Visibility’ against ‘Time’ for libraries’ mobile services – leaving its mark on an OU whiteboard!

The keynote speeches drew on what became a common theme : where does a library or information service place itself on what our very own Jo Alcock from Evidence Base calls ‘the hype cycle’? Or to put it another way : where we between ‘wow?’ and ‘wow-but-can-we-do-it-now?’

So Steve Vosloo’s summary of what UNESCO ‘s work, (with a statistic echoed by Bob Gann from the NHS : ‘there are more mobile phones in Africa than in USA’ ) showed us some great programmes delivered on phones that some might not consider ‘smart’ –  but they work. You might think retro-fitting technology to a literacy service for boat schools in Bangladesh or using cellphones to run an SMS check on drugs (in countries where 30 percent of medicines are fake and can kill you) is a far cry from introducing mobile tech into a UK library – but these are good examples of working out where you on that hype cycle. 

The lists of possibilities were endless – from QR codes – (we’ve got one already on our Summon posters and our library cards) to the case studies mentioned by JISC m-libraries project – which include Chris Langham’s post on here about using SMS in a successful way to reach students.) Another useful overview was from Ellyssa Kroski from New York in her presentation, Libraries to Go.

 I personally like Bath Library’s idea using QR codes to link to audio tours – (I use SoundCloud as a musician, and using mobile apps as sound-recorders and even mixers certainly is more flexible then what we did ‘in the early days’ by trying to record and edit our library induction on Sony minidisc – remember those?.) As you would expect, there were also some great demos : using Augmented Reality browser to overlay fragments of papyrus with teaching materials from John Rylands University, Manchester ; or the PhoneBooth project from LSE, a digitally mapped overlay of Charles Booth’s London survey that could be accessed on mobiles.

Thomas Cochrane’s closing keynote ended with the powerful statement that mobile technologies can transform existing ways of teaching  – and for libraries in particular that means thinking differently about how we teach students, and thinking about about student-generated content. We want to encourage students to map and document their library space, not just get us librarians to do it for them. He showed us a video by students at Auckland on QR codes – done as a project before the library even started promoting them! . He also ran a live demo of Chirp – a technology that sends digital data such as pictures via sound, that could be used in lectures.

As I began writing this post – a student came to the library help desk struggling to view a MyiLibrary book on her battered-but-still-servicable 8-inch tablet. She was still trying to access the book on our library catalogue, and therefore was struggling to access it in a way that she needn’t have done had she searched Summon. It struck me that by searching what is essentially a repository of physical objects (the library catalogue) for an electronic item, she was doing the equivalent of trying to cross a roundabout meant for cars.
We need to make clearer to the student where they look for ‘analog’ or ‘physical’ content, and where they look for ‘digital’. In the course of crossing that digital divide, lets make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the Milton Keynes planners.
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