Libraries Explore Mobile Options

February 24, 2015

The Allen County (Ind.) Public Library App
The Allen County (Ind.) Public Library App

As mobile devices continue to gain prominence, libraries are recognizing their value in providing service to patrons. “There are a lot of people who don’t have computers who do have mobile devices, and we want to reach them,” said Sheri Chambers, digital content manager at Orange County (Fla.) Library System (OCLS).

While there are vendors who offer apps that libraries can customize to their needs, some libraries have taken the step of developing mobile apps in-house.

OCLS’s Shake It! was one of the first library-developed apps. Shake It! offers randomized recommendations of library materials based on age group, genre, and material type. After setting any combination of these parameters, users shake their phone (or press a button) to receive a random selection from the library’s catalog that fits. Within the app, they can also see the item’s availability and place a request.

Since being released on Apple devices in 2010, Shake It! has been downloaded more than 6,000 times and provided more than 87,000 recommendations. It also won ALA’s Office of Information Technology Policy’s Cutting-Edge Technology in Library Services award in 2011.

“The inspiration for Shake It! came from our assistant director, Debbie Moss,” Chambers said. Specifically, Moss thought that a feature in the Urbanspoon app that offers random restaurant recommendations by shake could be adapted for the library.

“We thought there was something there that we could translate for our patrons and engage with them in a different way,” added Digital Access Architect Cassie Shivers.

More recently, OCLS released K-Ready, an app for tablets that helps young children get ready for kindergarten. “The children’s department received a grant to expand our kindergarten readiness program,” said Digital Access Architect Amy VanSchaik. “We talked to kindergarten teachers to learn what their needs in the classroom are,” which led the library to focus the app’s games on teaching shapes, colors, letters, and numbers.

Allen County (Ind.) Public Library (ACPL) chose to create an early literacy app because it saw a need that existing apps weren’t serving. “Many apps are intended to be passed from parents to children,” said Children’s Librarian Heather Grady. “Research has shown that’s not the best way to interact with your children, so we wanted to create a library app to help parents interact in developmentally appropriate ways with their kids.”

The result was the ACPL Family app, which was released in April 2014 for iPhone and iPad. The “READY on the GO” section is the app’s centerpiece. It offers a collection of videos that demonstrate fun talking, writing, reading, singing, and playing activities for parents and children to share that will help build literacy skills in children up to 6 years old. The app also includes booklists, a reading timer, and a listing of early literacy tips and fun facts for older kids.

ACPL also created a general library app, ACPL Mobile, which offers features like a catalog search, an event listing, and a library card barcode display so the device can be used to check out materials at self-checkout machines. In addition, “There’s a lot of neat integration with the OverDrive section,” which allows users to read library ebooks within the app, said Children’s Librarian Kris Lill.

Mobile vs. Native

OCLS offers a collection of mobile resources on its website, including Shake It! and K-Ready and a host of third-party apps. For general mobile library services, however, OCLS has chosen to provide a mobile version of its website, rather than a native app. Mobile sites are easier to develop, since they require adaptation of an existing website to the size of a mobile device rather than creating a new piece of software—which has to be created in different programming languages for Android, Apple, and Windows devices. Apps also need to be uploaded to an app store and redownloaded by users to incorporate updates made by the developers.

Stu Baker, associate university librarian for library technology at Northwestern University Library in Evanston, Illinois, said maintenance difficulty (and specifically issues introduced when Apple released its iOS 8 mobile platform) is part of why the library is planning to retire its NU Library app and replace it with a mobile version of its website. “IOS 8 broke everything, and we have to pull it because we don’t want an app up there that isn’t working.” He added that the app’s original developers have left, and that the library no longer has the development resources to devote to the app.

“I’m not opposed to the idea of app development, but it has to be clear how the app gives you added value,” Baker said. “All the things we did in the app can be done in a mobile browser.”