Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Review of M-libraries: Libraries on the Move to Provide Virtual Access

M-libraries: Libraries on the Move to Provide Virtual Access

My review of M-libraries: Libraries on the Move to Provide Virtual Access. Edited by Gill Needham and Mohamed Ally. (London: Facet, 2008).
Published in New Library World, 110(5/6), 2009.

Mobile devices are getting smaller and more powerful as everyday tools, even in the developing world. M-Libraries: Libraries on the Move to Provide Virtual Access, based on the 2007 First International M-Libraries Conference at the Open University (OU), United Kingdom, explores how mobile technologies have revolutionized information provision and services. With delegates from 26 countries, the conference examined how research, education, and recreation have been revolutionized by the global adoption and growth of mobile devices. To meet contemporary information needs, librarians and educators must design and deliver information on mobile phones, PDAs, palmtop computers, smartphones, and other devices. Editors Gil Needham, Head of Strategic and Service Development at the OU Library, and Mohamed Ally, Director of the Centre for Distance Education, Athabasca University (AU), Canada, emphasize the importance of developing mobile libraries (“m-libraries”) in an evolving information landscape.

Traditional libraries combined place, people, and services, vertically integrated around collections. A networked environment, however, only provides services. In the foreword, Lorcan Dempsey, OCLC’s Vice President and Chief Strategist, notes that, “The position of the library as a functionally integrated, discrete presence, whether on the web or as a physical place, becomes diffused through various manifestations (a physical space to meet, a toolbar, a set of services in the course management system, a Facebook application, a set of RSS feeds, office hours in a school or department, and so on)” (xxviii). Anytime availability challenges libraries to provide services without diluting core values of universal, equitable information access.

Moving from the general to the specific, the book is divided into four sections. Part 1 examines the changing landscapes of mobile technology and libraries in a networked society. The second part explores technology and the development of mobile information delivery. M-library initiatives, innovations, and challenges are examined in Part 3. The final part presents case studies of mobile technologies in libraries around the world.

In “Libraries in a Networked Society,” John Naughton, Professor of the Public Understanding of Technology, OU, examines media theorist Neil Postman’s theory that communication change creates cultural change. The ubiquitous Internet has changed competencies and expectations in knowledge construction and collaboration that are only just beginning to be understood. An information literacy gap has grown between those who have matured with the Internet and information professionals raised with earlier technologies. In a networked environment, librarians are no longer intermediaries between patrons and services, and they must keep pace with mobile technologies to remain relevant.

In “An Effective Mobile-Friendly Digital Library to Support Mobile Learners,” Yang Cao et al. discuss how distance education has shifted to mobile learning. The authors write, “Digital libraries delivered through mobile devices could offer increased flexibility in terms of access and forms of content; increased interaction between students, instructors and tutors; and increased hands-on learning opportunities” (109). The authors discuss how AU library systems have accommodated many devices through template-designed dynamic pages, rather than redesigned pages for every new device.

In “Open Library in Your Pocket—Services to Meet the Needs of On- and Off-
Campus Users,” Hassan Sheikh et al. discuss how OU has adapted mobile technology to deliver specialized services and content, optimized to render on smaller devices. Creating flexible, suitable materials and just in time applications for mobile users is challenging because of their unique requirements.

Mobile technology’s biggest impact will be to increase the level of education in the developing world. Mobile devices bridge the digital divide, providing educational opportunities to economically, socially, or geographically remote or disadvantaged areas. Case studies explore teacher education in sub-Saharan Africa, mobile SMS and OPAC delivery at the University of South Africa, and information access for community-based health workers.

The conclusion explores the conference participants’ opinions on the future role of libraries, technology, content, and personalization. This section could have been improved with more summation and fewer direct quotes. Throughout the book, more illustrations of information presentation on mobile devices would have been informative, especially in the case study chapters.

M-Libraries: Libraries on the Move to Provide Virtual Access offers a compelling mix of theory and practice, assisting libraries to create information systems that keep pace with technology and patrons on the move. Information professionals seeking strategies to improve access for itinerant or remote patrons would benefit from reading this volume.

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