The rise of the internet shares some similarities with the television revolution. Just like the internet, television was a game changer for many industries, including the sporting venue business. I do not have to go all the way to England to follow my soccer team (Arsenal!). I can watch them play every weekend at home, on TV. But as I watch them play on TV, I also see that the stadiums are packed every time. Why do people still go to the stadiums when we all have televisions? Isn’t it much nicer to see all the actions up close in the comfort of our own homes? Well, let’s look at what the sporting venues did in the face of a game changer that could really damage their business – they put giant TVs in the stadiums!
So instead of losing out to the new technology, they use it to enhance their spectator experience. The spectators get what they would get at home, plus more. I know going to the library is not as exciting as going to a football game, but how can libraries offer people the “plus more” to draw them in?
We put computers in the library. We offer internet connection. But are we just one big computer room? As most academic libraries sit on prime real estate on campus, if we can’t demonstrate the value of our physical space, we might face the danger of losing it.
To counter that, we are generally evolving into “information commons”, or “learning commons”, which can help create a sense of community. But if we are not careful, we could easily become just another student union.
The good news for us is, there is another game changer – Mobile technology, which allows people to be networked anywhere, anytime. Smartphones, ipads are just the first step. Despite all their current limitations (small screens, or difficult to type, etc.), the technology will continue to improve. We could have eyeglasses as computers one day
I think there are two things that makes mobile technology a game changer for us. 1) Well, its mobility. In the pre-internet world, our users had to come to the library for information. In the post-internet but pre-mobile age, our users are chained to their computers. They could be away from the library, or if they were in the library, they tend to limit their activities to where their computers are. With mobile devices, they can move around freely and still have access to our digital resources. That by itself is really not enough. So what if they could move around freely. They could be moving around freely outside of the library
So, the second reason why I believe mobile technology is a game changer for us is its awareness of locations. With mobile devices, where you are physically could actually affect the experience of information seeking. For example, you can point your phone camera at a building and it recognizes it and gives you all the relevant information, as opposed to you having to type in its name (if you even know it), or describe the building to search for its information.
We now have GPS. We are currently developing augmented reality. We are developing object recognition. And one day, we may have computer chips in everything. In the medium to long term, there are a lot of possibilities on location-based information. What about the short term? What can we do now to lay the groundwork, before our users completely forget about the physical library space?
Libraries haven’t completely become virtual yet. We are in a transitional period where we still have sizable physical collections. Browsing is still popular, but there is a disconnect between the physical and the digital. When our users browse physically, they tend to miss the online resources. And when they browse online, they tend to ignore the physical collections. We need to connect our physical collections to our growing digital collections. So when our patrons come to the library, we offer them something that they can’t get outside of the physical library – the “plus more”.
QR codes is the current technology that connects the physical space to digital resources. An example: You find a book that is useful, scan the QR code on the book or on the shelf, and it takes you to the relevant digital resources. Some libraries have already started do that, and museums are really embracing it. You can look at the art work or artifact in real life, and because you’re in that space, you can access the relevant information online easily. This is an especially useful way to enhance the user experience of, let’s say, a special collections exhibit in a library.
Mobile technology offers us an opportunity to attract users back to the library space. By linking the physical space to the digital, we can offer them the “plus more” they could only get at a physical library. Some people are skeptical of QR codes. Is it a trend or a fad? I am not sure either. QR codes might just be a stop-gap measure before we move on to augmented reality and more sophisticated technology, but I firmly believe that mobile technology is the future. Technology is moving incredible fast, and we must try our best to keep pace. At the bare minimum, we must not be slower than our users.