SCLA 2011: Lose the Desk

Presenters: Rogan Hamby, Director of IT and Innovation, SCSL and James Stubbs, Digital Services Librarian, Florence County PL

Their experiences with mobile reference services & digital checkouts

Their conclusions suprised them. 🙂

Talk about tech as a whole.  Experiences at FloCo is largely about Apple products, but all mobile tech will have similar effects & expectations on patrons’ part.

Nov 2007 – FloCo had little Dell Axims.  He liked the idea of this PDA, but it didn’t quite work for him.  They floated around from new employee to new employee but it didn’t quite work for anyone, tho everyone like the idea.

Mobile has had a rough ride over time.  The problem?  They’re neat & cool, but they just don’t work for day to day use bc they are limited.  Even PDAs were great for 1 thing: organizing contacts.  Couldn’t use the web.  It’s simply a limit of their hardware at the time.  Wasn’t extensible with new programs or apps (well, not easily).

The cell phone + PDA carriers started wondering, hey, why don’t we converge these devices.  Thus, smart phones.  BB was the first real smart phone.  This is the age of the Apple Newton.  Windows had the first tablet computer.

Similarly, the Kindle wasn’t the first ebook reader, but it was the first major success.

Laptops were great, but netbooks were kind of underpowered for doing anything.

Meanwhile, in the library: this had NO IMPACT whatsoever.  Digital media DID take off in libraries….databases.  But not the hardware.

Ebooks started in the 1970’s at Project Gutenberg.  The first ebook was the Declaration of Independence.  Problem: this wasn’t a concerted effort.  You could find books in Word on a website, but nothing was organized in any way.

NetLibrary came along and was one of the first to offer ebooks.  This was the premiere resource for public libraries at the time.

Music digitization: “nothing, nothing nothing, Napster, iPod, today”

Book recommendation: Appetite for Self-Destruction – about the music industry self destructing.  It is an analogue for what’s going on with ebooks right now.  Publishers see DRM as necessary, but as tech improves the problem will go away.  What happened when the music publishers said this?  Ahem!

Video services are starting to go through these challenges now that bandwidth is sufficient.

“Sell the theater, not the movie”  Apple is the biggest music seller, but they don’t make the money off of that.  They sell the devices.  So there’s a conflict between the hardware you use content on and the producers of the content.  Libraries are stuck in the middle.  Our patrons demand the content, but publishers don’t want to make it easy to use because they’re afraid of pirating.

Here’s the thing, though.  If you make it too hard, it WILL ENCOURAGE pirating.  An audiobook from the library?  1 hour to get it to play.  Pirate Bay?  10 minutes.

So in Florence, what the heck to do?

  • Had NetLibrary audiobook & ebooks, so they could say we have something
  • Some had DRM, some didn’t
  • Some worked on Apple devices, some didn’t
  • Patrons frustrated with technical limitations
  • Most popular items didn’t work at all thanks to DRM.
  • Staff didn’t want to deal with it***
  • Content was limited

Consumerization – big IT trend.  IT doesn’t have a choice about what to support.  They are demanding you support their device.  Patrons are coming in & demanding you support their device.  This is driving your needs

2008 in FloCo, Rogan bought an iPod Touch.  So within a few weeks, other staff all had bought one.  Once they had them, they realized patrons had them & iPhones, too.  So they began saying, “Hey, what impact does this tech have on our services?  What should we be doing if everyone’s walking around with these?”

They did an experiment: they bought a few devices (they picked the iPod touches), gave them to staff, trained staff to use them, planned an eval & then they’d see where to go.

For 30 days, they had 2 people on desk, 1 main, 1 backup.  The backup roamed with the iPod Touch & approached patrons who looked confused.

Advantage was the size of the iPod Touch & portability.  Could meet patrons need where they were without having to troop to a PC, they could skype & text the desk to get more help if needed.

Great plan, but it got interrupted.

Disadvantages: devices designed for individuals, not designed for use among multiple people, screen size, apps not applications, so you’re limited, OPACS are NOT mobile, (this was before SC LENDS Evergreen’ mobile app), have to be aware that people might steal them, some people feel like they’re a toy & questioned why they used them.  GOT to remember to recharge it.

In 30 days…

  • 1357 ref desk questions
  • 81 handled by iPod touch, 7%
  • users intrigued
  • smallness made it hard to use esp with older staff.  Some other resistance from staff, too
  • compelling but not “it”

Time passed. iPad came out.  “It’s a big iPod Touch”
Ooo!  That was just what they’d like to try.

Rogan could see that if this worked, the tablet PC would be born.

They preordered some for staff & tried it, hoping to connect with patrons using them.


  • Screen size
  • Apps made some webpages usable where they weren’t before
  • They had Evergreen by then, so they had the needed OPAC apps
  • Could put collections of docs & pdfs on them
  • Stopped printing out send lists & stuff
  • Used them as ereaders.  Patrons began to come to them.  NEW patrons, asking about what staff knew about ebook readers.
  • And dang it, the coolness factor.  Got to talk to patrons about the role of tech in the library.


  • similar.  not interchangeable for staff
  • security – none were ever stolen, but still
  • people’s perception that they were a toy
  • charging them

In 45 days…

  • 1680 questions
  • 17% were answered by the iPad
  • Some staff still resistant to using them b.c of interface, theft, breakage worries.
  • It took anything they threw at it – used bluetooth to connect with a scanner to look for out of place books
  • They still feel like this is a step in a line going into the future

So better hardware, what about content?

  • iPad has better content
  • Now we have Overdrive: better selection, they get to choose titles, covers ebooks, music, videos, video games, heavy support for mobile devices versus NetLibrary

[They do work more with people to see if the devices work.  They helped someone figure out if their CVS bought ereader worked with Overdrive.  Didn’t swat them back so quickly to the manufacturer.  Of course, he’s the Digital Services Libraians.  We don’t have one of those exactly. -A]

So everything’s great, right? Umm, what did we forget?

Pema Chodron: “The truth you believe and cling to makes you unavailabe to anything new.”

Well, we didn’t look directly at the real issue.  What about 5, 10, 20 years from now?

  • We thought about next generation ref services
  • Older patrons were impressed
  • Younger patrons weren’t interested in what they were trying to do.  Younger patrons wanted to know what they could do with it if they bought one & took it home.
  • We need to look at 50 years from now as a profession.  How to help those younger patrons better?
  • He’s a “Reference Is Dead” guy.
  • Libraries are not disappearing.
  • What we do in them is changing radically right now.
  • What is the role of Reference?  We’re used to a concerierge style model.  This is well-understood & a cornerstone of what we do.
  • But that’s going to die in the next 5-20 years.

Why?  Mobile technologies.  Siri is a personal assisstant.  It’ll end up in all Apple devices in his opinion.  You might as well call it a personal reference librarian.  Siri: how many kilometers are in 5.4 miles.  And it’s perfectly able to answer this.  So this type of question is going to die now.  What happens 20 years from now when the tech is so much better?

And Android is going here.  And surely to god Ballmer is smart enough to head down this road.

Basically what we’re saying is that the devices they thought would help them provide referene service will REPLACE the service itself.

The circ desk is going away as it stands, too, because of self checkout.

So post library apocalypse?

Libraries need more geeks.  We will be designing mobile services for patrons to use on their devices.  Patrons will decide what we’ll be doing.  We need more librarians working with technologists and intercept google searches & insert DISCUS results.

And what about licensure versus ownership?  Should’t we be approaching publishers directly versus Overdrive?

Librarians still have strengths: consumer interactions & filing needs, we’re still info professionals, we’ll still be best archivists, we still know more about bibliographic resources.  But we need to think about the future.

Q: Do you see mobile devices killing off everything, like youth services?
A: Youth services will always need more hands on assistance.  He prays that storytime will never be a big screen to watch. By the time they’re teens, they’ll be in a more self service environment

Q: Will we circ tech devices?
A: Nope, the market will take care of that.  Even technophobes have Kindles, iPads, etc.

Q: In an academic library: where they have heavy content questions, like explaining how to search?
A: Academics have a different opportunity.  The public library has to get Google to let us return DISCUS results.  In an academic setting, hopefully people are more willing to learn more about HOW to search.

Q: We’re morphing into computer trainers.  We’re spending most of our time doing that.
A: Yes, we’ll be a computer access place, a meeting room place, an open government place.  As tech is more intuitive

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