Mobile Library Catalogues Limited Possibilities

Mobile version of the Gütersloh City Library catalogue
Mobile version of the Gütersloh City Library catalogue | Photo (detail): © Gütersloh City Library

Library users increasingly expect online library services also to be optimized for mobile access. This requires a considerable investment which, however, provides opportunities.

What may have still sounded exotic just a year or two ago has already become reality today: in the majority of cases, the Internet is now accessed via mobile devices. 2012 will see more smartphones than conventional mobile phones sold in Germany for the first time. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that library users are increasingly expecting also to have mobile access to their library’s services.

The question of whether libraries can actually afford not to meet such expectations nowadays produces a mixed response. Nobody believes that user numbers will plummet if mobile applications are not provided. At the same time, nobody seriously denies that such services can offer advantages. “Mobile access generates image and accessibility benefits”, is how Hans-Bodo Pohla, deputy director of Amberg City Library, sums up the situation.

Access to catalogue and user account

“It should really go without saying that catalogue data at least should be made available in a mobile version – especially at university libraries”, believes Edlef Stabenau, a librarian at Hamburg-Harburg Technical University. Certainly it would appear to make sense to allow users to browse the library’s collection and check availability on a mobile device. In addition, mobile surfers should have access to their user account even when they are out and about so that they can order and reserve media, extend loan periods and check whether any fees are outstanding.

It also seems important for mobile applications to be made available as far as possible to all users, regardless of the operating system installed on their mobile device. There is thus a trend towards developing open-source web apps rather than native apps for specific operating systems. “Vice versa, this means that most libraries are not to be found in app stores but are available to everyone online, generally in combination with a dedicated URL for mobile use”, explains Hans-Bodo Pohla.

Mobile means pared down

A mobile catalogue should not simply be a copy of the conventional online catalogue. Anyone using a smartphone to access a library catalogue will most likely not wish to conduct exhaustive research or download comprehensive electronic versions but will probably want merely to check the availability of a specific medium.

Mobile users expect not only short loading times but above all a view which is optimized for a small screen. And this requires information and functions to be pared down. “It is no use simply displaying a catalogue’s normal title information on a smaller scale”, says Edlef Stabenau. “Certain bibliographic information needs to be hidden to increase clarity and avoid the need for laborious scrolling.”

Hans-Bodo Pohla, however, believes that the real advantage would be “if a mobile phone or tablet could be used to guide the user around the library or if it could alert the user when they are close to a library where something is ready to be picked up.”

Germany needs to catch up

The first mobile catalogue versions were created in the USA, one pioneer in this field being the library at North Carolina State University, for instance. In Germany, the Bavarian State Library in particular stands out; its mobile OPACplus application is available to all member institutions of the Bavarian Library Network (BVB), putting the BVB several steps ahead of other German library networks.

“A library that is a member of a network without a mobile version has virtually no chance of offering a mobile version of its catalogue”, says Edlef Stabenau. Admittedly, manufacturers of library operating systems do now offer tools that can be used to create a mobile catalogue. “So far, however, no real breakthrough has been made here”, explains Hans-Bodo Pohla. Generally speaking, a library that attaches importance to specific functions, optimal loading times and views will not be very well served by an off-the-peg product of this type. Only few libraries can afford the necessary yet fairly complex optimization process.

Just how much catching up needs to be done, and how much demand there is for a suitable tool to be developed, is revealed by an example from the north of Germany, where a user himself programmed an iPhone app for various libraries in the Common Library Network (GBV). It is quite clear that the mobile boom will in no time at all drive forward the nationwide further development of library catalogues.